Friday, 28 November 2008

The Plugged-in Traveller

This week I attended the Future of Journalism conference here in Melbourne.

It was an interesting event, with a series of panels exploring the murky future of journalism - murky, given the huge changes technology is forcing on the profession.

One of the speakers was Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet Publications, who talked about the future from a travel publishing perspective.

He commented that though the past - with its focus on guidebooks - was more predictable, the future offered lots of interesting possibilities for LP to sell its mountain of travel info via electronic means.

Which made me reflect on how I use electronic devices when I travel. Obviously I have a digital camera with me, and increasingly, a mobile phone with a local prepaid SIM card.

I couldn't do without my Palm PDA for several reasons: it carries useful notes and my diary, along with music and a number of novels for me to read without overloading the packing.

And, of course, I have my ultraportable Sony VAIO laptop computer with me. On my LP assignment in Poland this year, I was able to access free wireless Internet access at just about every hotel I stayed at, along with various public places.

As a result, I used it frequently - to keep in touch with friends and clients, to back up work, and to research the journey ahead (the Polish national train company PKP, for example, has its entire timetable online).

The next step seems obvious - having the relevant guidebook on a portable device, either a phone or PDA. Some years ago, LP had a pioneering version of this called CitySync, and I used both their Rome and Sydney guides on my Palm of the time. It was damn useful, particularly because it was searchable; I remember standing in a Roman square and searching for a list of nearby restaurants within a certain price range.

The other option would be in downloading specific info on demand, rather than storing an entire guidebook on the device. So that restaurant list could be compiled by a remote LP server and pulled down to your phone, for example.

This is all very interesting. I found the CitySync guides very usable, with the extra benefit of making me look less like a tourist clutching a printed guidebook. I'd be happy to download a modern version of that when I next travelled. LP's current Pick and Mix option of book chapters contained within a PDF file is a step in the right direction, but I'd prefer my data to be interactive.

No doubt it will come, especially now that smartphones like the iPhone are finally gaining larger screens. Would you like your guidebook to be an e-guide? Or do you prefer the classic dead tree version?