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The Crossroads of Technology, Travel and Books

Buzz Poole
01/12/2012 - 00:00

Over at The Economist’s Gulliver blog there is an interesting post about how tablets, smartphones and an array of travel-related apps function in Africa. The correspondent spent a month traveling overland between Nairobi, Kenya, and Cape Town, South Africa, a 5,000-mile stretch that is among the most connected on the continent. The long and short of his experience is that a foreign phone or tablet can pick up a 3G signal, but at exorbitant cost. WiFi is free in plenty of hotels and cafes, and available at much more affordable rates in other establishments, but outside of cities and towns it is difficult to find a network.

So what does this mean for travelers wanting to utilize their devices? For the author of the Gulliver post, it meant not always being able to access maps updated based on GPS. The writer also lamented how other internet-based travel tools, like hotel booking, have not transitioned well to the world of mobile apps, especially in remote destinations.

For me, however, the compelling aspect of this piece is less to do with how wired to the grid Africa is and more to do with how the traditional tools of travel, namely printed maps and guide books, catch up with the realities of 21st century technology. In fact, what this touches on is another of my primary interests: the future of books.

As the blog post states: “On a long trip, travelers no longer have to lug around half a dozen guide books (plus novels, magazines etc). But the publishers have yet to exploit the full potential of the e-versions. Some are searchable and one can jump directly from the table of contents to a chapter or sub-section. But the maps are terrible. Most are black-and-white copies of what’s in the hard-copy books.” From what I’ve seen this is very true. You can carry a small library in one of these devices, a profound development in terms of the transfer of knowledge. But digital vessels still have some serious shortcomings. For one, the transition from print to pixels has not been smooth. A major reason for this is because these changes have come to pass so quickly; everyone is trying to stay relevant. But rush jobs are not always the best jobs.

The Gulliver writer points out that Google maps and some of the better online mapping sites and apps are dependent on internet accessibility. What happens when you can’t connect to the internet? You’re basically left holding a paperweight.

While the future of books might not include much paper and ink we are still a long way off from perfect e-versions of traditional codex books. I agree completely with the Gulliver writer’s take: “E-guide books are very welcome but feel like the equivalent of 1960s television. Whichever company spends serious money on reinventing the travel guide for tablets—rather than just copying stuff over from paper—might discover a vast consumer market.”

What are your experiences trying to use apps in unfamiliar places, remote or otherwise?

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