Back in 1979, Douglas Adams wrote up the requirement specification for the Travel Guide of the Future in a few short sentences:
The thing she took out of her bag was battered and travelworn as it had been hurled into prehistoric rivers, baked under the sun that shines so redly on the deserts of Kakrafoon, half-buried in the marbled sands that fringe the heady vapoured oceans of Santraginus V, frozen on the glaciers of the moon of Jaglan Beta, sat on, kicked around spaceships, scuffed and generally abused, and since its makers had thought that these were exactly the sorts of things that might happen to it, they had thoughtfully encased it in a sturdy plastic cover and written on it, in large friendly letters, the words “Don’t Panic”. … The standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom … it was like a small, thin, flexible lap computer. He tapped some buttons till the screen flared with text.
— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Yet here we are, 33 years later, and the Travel Guide of the Present remains a leaden tome of dried wood pulp, tightly inked with words and diagrams, its leaves interwoven with cryptic codes. Many have tried to fix this sad state of affairs, yet all have failed: there is still no killer app for travel. Why?
I think it comes down to five factors: content, interface, form factor, quality and scope.
Content: The Guide of the Future Is More Than a Reheated Book
Many attempts at the Guide of the Future assume that digital travel guides will be fundamentally like books, only digital. The most obvious form of this is e-books, which are now put out by all major travel publishers. Yet each and every one of them is an afterthought based purely on a printed book. Sure, there are some tweaks — hyperlinks instead of page references! more color pictures! maybe a bit of video! — but the mindset is still fundamentally limited to books. And this applies even to some of the newer players: consider Wikitravel, where some articles go to amazing lengths to create city maps, only to lock their content into static images, where you have to laboriously match numbered little icons against a key and have no way of finding it elsewhere in the text.
What if you designed the guide from the ground up to fit the device, instead of shoehorning your book into something that is not one? It will not be easy, but one of the companies that dares to will win.
Interface: The Guide of the Future Is Not Pins On a Map
Maps on the web used to be copies of printed maps as well, until Google Maps popularized the “slippy map” in 2005, and travel applications have been piggybacking on it ever since. Yet what amazes me is that there are still new startups launching in 2012 (like this and this) whose idea of an interface is still limited to a scattering of pins on a map. Yes, a pin on a map is very handy for finding that place on a map; but no, a map with a zillion pins on it is completely useless for planning travel in general. What are you going to do, sit there and click on them all, one by one? Maybe play with some filters and hope that with luck you can narrow them down to a subset that has a tolerable number of results and that those results are interesting? And then what? A guide is more than a list of points of interest.
Form Factor: The Guide of the Future Will Still Be Book-Sized
Most digital travel guides these days, seemingly sensibly enough, target the most common portable technology platform out there: smartphones of the Apple and/or Android persuasion. None have succeeded for a simple reason: people do not actually use their travel guides on the road. That’s right: as a rule, people do not wander down streets randomly, hoping that a magical travel app (or printed guidebook) will reveal that they have serendipitously stumbled into a fascinating sight. No, they browse through the guide before they leave, or on the plane, or in the hotel room the day before, building up a rough itinerary of where to go, what to see and what to beware of. A travel guide is thus, first and foremost, a planning tool.
Guess what? Phones, with their small screens and awkward controls, are really bad at this. Travelers don’t want to pinch and zoom and scroll a postage-stamp-sized window around a read-only map, they want to see the whole darn thing and scribble on it. They don’t want to read lengthy tracts about a place one sentence at a time, they want to glance through it all and read the bits that catch their eye. There’s a known good-sized format for this, and it’s the book, or its modern descendant the tablet computer. Personally, I find iPads a bit too large and clunky to carry around all day, but something Kindle Fire -sized might fit the bill.
And while I’m at it: one trope that comes up regularly in science fiction movies is an augmented reality display, where information is superimposed on what you actually see. The display bit was pretty much solved ten years ago, the reason nobody is actually using them is that we haven’t managed to figure out a decent portable interface for actually controlling the display. Assuming somebody does, this would be brilliant for travel, but alas, it’s looking pretty unlikely until we get around to implanting electrodes in our skulls.
Quality: The Guide of the Future Will Be (Mostly) Professionally Written
The home camcorder did not kill Hollywood movies, the home studio did not kill professional music, and the Internet has yet to kill professional writers. Yet we seem to blithely assume that travel writing as a profession is doomed, because so many would-be Guides of the Future use only unpaid crowd-sourced content or, worse yet, expect your friends to do the job. And how can paid possibly win against free?
For the same reason we willingly fork out $10 for the latest Hollywood extravaganza instead of enduring Aunt Martha’s free home videos: because it’s simply better. A guide whose core content is written by professional writers who have been there, who are not paid shills, who know what they are talking about and can write about it engagingly will have an immense leg up on the competition.
Scope: The Guide of the Future Will Cover the World
Browse your favorite app store for “travel” and look at the results. Aside from the occasional flight or hotel booking app, it’s all about guides to individual places: Paris here, Bangkok there, Las Vegas in this, Taipei in that. Going to a bunch of places or, worse yet, places not deemed worthy of their own app? Good luck with that, since there isn’t even a way to find out what any individual app covers, much less which ones cover where you’re going.
There are two reasons for this sorry state of affairs: 1) because that’s how books are packaged (see the first point), and 2) because app publishers think they can make more money this way. The fact that this is complete brain damage as far as the traveler is concerned has not yet registered. Once the Guide of the Future covers the entire world in one place, the market will beat a path to its door.
As for how they get in that door, my money is on being able to build a guide compelling enough and unique enough that travelers will willingly pay good money to access it. The lure of “transactions” (that is, shilling hotels, flights, tours and miscellaneous crap to readers) is tempting, but that means that your customer is suddenly not the traveler you’re supposed to be serving, but the companies trying to make money off travelers. This is why all the major travel publishers make a big deal about being independent and ad-less, and travelers appreciate this enough to willing pay for their products, even though there are glossy tourism brochures full of paid advertising and promotional features free for the taking at any self-respecting tourism office.
Travel publishers once flourished selling guidebooks that had thorough content, logical organization and fact-checked quality, all in a portable package. The market is still there, and the digital successor to the mantle will be the one that hits the right notes for all of these.