In search of the useful travel app

21:40, May 19 2013

If there were any situation where we could benefit from smarter and more intuitive technology, it would be travelling, right?

I'm going to let you in on something though, I don't believe in technology the way others do.

I mean... I use it. I'm not backward. The home screens of my iPhone are littered with news apps, event apps, podcast apps, travel apps, movie review apps, social networking apps and games. Of my 29 apps, I actively use eight of them. Half of them I've never used more than once.

I wonder if I'm wired a bit differently. My generation represents the last of the non-digital natives. I can still remember computers creeping slowly into the classroom in the last years of my high schooling.

For a long while I tried to integrate an electronic planner into my day that I can link up between my computer and my phone. I never used it. It is not that I didn't see the point, but using such a thing was not instinctive to me. When I returned to a flesh-and-bone paper diary, I found myself using it and referring to it without having to think about it. It comes with me everywhere.

I keep reading things about how technology has become intuitive in how it knows its user (as nice as this may be, if so, the amount of data required for a program to "know" me makes me fear our new Silicon Valley overlords). But every time I try to get in behind a new tech idea that could make my life easier, it seems so clunky and disappointing.


When I'm travelling, even internationally, my smartphone has become a newer, more compact travel laptop. When I go to New Zealand I switch off the cell reception and use it to pick up free wireless here and there and stay up with things.

There are certain tools for travel that individually make me appreciate the modern age that we're living in.

Google Maps is revolutionary. A friend came for dinner last night that had recently returned from South Korea. We were talking about how her mother never wanted her to venture out alone, for fear she'd get lost.

But as was reflected on, if you have access to Google Maps you physically can't get lost wherever you are. So yes, it is a travel must.

My Skype app allows me to talk with my mother face to face, from my phone. LP has an iPhone, so we can talk using FaceTime when I'm on the other side of the world. iMessage allows for free iPhone-to-iPhone texting, a low stakes way for me to work out my emoji issues, while Viber and WhatsApp allow for free texting and calls between any smartphone.

Navigation and communication with those back at home. Technology has got those tasks nailed for any traveler, but surely the ceiling is a bit higher?

When we travel we're out of our comfort zone. There're flights to catch, meals to try and enjoy when we don't know where the good restaurants are, sights to try and appreciate as an outsider and personal tastes to try and match.

Much the same way as I keep on looking for and getting frustrated by the much-vaunted apps for my day-to-day life, I'm perplexed by the good lack of travel options.

Surely, something that matched the mapping function of Google Maps, integrated the review function and user feedback of Yelp and the informative function of Wikipedia, overlaid with city guides or walking tours you could plug into for some home-cooked knowledge (that doesn't require you submitting to the rigid confines of a tour), would be lapped up.

It could have a small diary management function (allowing you to have an accurate idea of the times to get between places, so it would be harder to miss a flight) and be moderately intuitive to the tastes and wants that express to it.

All these tools are available in some capacity separately, but that's kind of my issue. I don't want to plug into seven different tools when I'm perched in a café soaking up wireless.

I'm less fussed with a program knowing me. Travelling, I think it would be beneficial to design an app that is focused on place, not person, and could guide a traveler seamlessly through a strange city.

I keep reading about how technology will one day understand what we want before we want it. But the more I'm told we're getting closer to that, the further away I feel we are.

I'm off to Portland tomorrow for a work trip. As I chewed this topic over during the weekend I read about TripIt, a new miracle travel app. I signed up. I even let it access a lot of my personal data. It was soon coughing up recommendations for trips I'd taken months ago.

Gee. Thanks!

In the arena of travel I think it is time for technology to switch its focus from the internal realm, to helping us navigate the wider world.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm dreaming?  

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