Touch Traveler: London, Paris and only an iPod Touch

eiffel.jpgRecently, I spent two weeks vacationing in London and Paris with only an iPod Touch for communications and connectivity.

As I wanted to honor the fact that the trip was to celebrate my 10th wedding anniversary, my wife/I didn’t bring either a mobile phone or a PC/Mac.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that this was a wise thing to do, but it’s what I did, and this post captures the good, bad and ugly of the experience.

First off, the revelation (for me) was how much the Google Mobile Maps App on iPod Touch completely changes the equation when traveling. Touch-based control with a virtual keyboard is the perfect UI for zooming in and out of geo-locales, and Mobile Maps offers a workflow whose predictability and logical structure both de-mystifies and anchors foreign travel.

Moreover, Maps allows you to visually navigate in Real-Time (very different from the experience on my Blackberry), all the while push-pinning favorite destinations, and determining routes in just a few clicks. It is the consummate reality augmentation application for travel, a sort of “magic compass.”

marais-context.PNGCase in point, is a context traversal function whereby you search for and find a destination. Right clicking on the pin reveals listing info, and left clicking takes you into Street View, revealing a 360-degree panoramic view of the target destination.

Street View provided a form of error-correction since you could visually confirm that a given destination was indeed the right destination, an extra bit of piece of mind when visiting a new area.

Candidly, I wish that Maps was even more autonomous about capturing my real-time travels and indexing them, as then I would never need to re-trace my steps, not to mention the entertainment value of being able to replay the day’s travels at a later time.

Similarly, if you could somehow overlay your interaction data with that of locals, professionals (e.g., Fodors) and other travelers, you could create a very potent social fabric that is data rich, and can be filtered on parameters such as user-generated, professionally mastered, crowd-sourced and/or curated.

To frame this one, let me give you a specific example from my trip. I was walking through St-Germain in Paris when I had a flashback to the last time I was there (eight years before).

Back then, I had eaten at this incredible sandwich place nearby St-Germain. The restaurant made their own breads, had good sandwich combinations, and was an earnest, warm place. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember its name or specific location.

I remembered, however, that the sandwich place became a retail chain in New York. (It’s good, but nowhere near as good as the original shop.)

While I couldn’t remember the name, I did remember them having a branch near Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, so I opened the Yelp app on my iPod Touch, and typed in “sandwiches” near the geo of Rockefeller Center, and up came Cosi. (Note: Yelp had limited data for London and none for Paris).

Cosi.PNGNext, I fired up the Maps App, typed in “Cosi,” and a pin dropped on the map.

I clicked on the pin, and it confirmed that I had been staying less than two blocks from this place for the past week! I then left-clicked, and saw a picture that took me back eight years.

Lunch? It was everything that I remembered.

Meanwhile, another App that we used throughout the trip was Facebook. My wife and I were sharing one iPod Touch, and Facebook really delivered in terms of being very easy/seamless to log into and out of our respective accounts, not to mention providing (relatively) full access to Facebook’s services.

facebook.PNGIn fact, it was through Facebook that I loosely tracked the vacation that my brother and his family were currently taking in Israel, Jordan, and Greece.

I had some short exchanges with my niece, and there was a reference to a London overlap, but it didn’t seem like the times meshed.

Days later, my wife and I are walking from the Kensington Park area where we were staying to Harrods in Knightsbridge.

45 minutes later, we are ogling over the sweets and pastry section of Harrods (if you have never been there, it is a spectacle; they have everything). Suddenly, a voice chimes out, “I didn’t think they let your type in here.” I turn around, and it’s my brother and his youngest son.

It turns out that he had tried to call me the night before to let me know that he had changed his itinerary, and that they were going to be in London while we were there. But, I brought no phone so I never got that message.

Similarly, he had emailed me, but it turned out that he sent it to an address that is not received on my iPod Touch, so I never got that message.

Finally, he had gotten the wrong hotel information from my parents (we booked our room just days before we left), and so he couldn’t leave us a message at our hotel either.

Yet, just hours after landing in London, here we were face to face at Harrods in London.

Kismet, to be sure, but I am left wondering whether technology helped (the Facebook exchange with my niece), hindered (wrong emails, unanswered phone calls), or was simply a neutral observer in this outcome.

Keeping it real, one paradox presented by relying on the iPod Touch as the sole connectivity device was that connectivity was, by definition, intermittent since the iPod Touch depends upon ready access to Wi-Fi for connectivity, a sketchy bet for mobile travelers.

london-underground.jpgIn London, this meant that 99% of the time, I had decent Wi-Fi connectivity at my hotel but no connectivity when mobile. This was key as we walked a ton, and took the Underground a lot (it is a great service).

Not having reliable connectivity in mobile contexts crippled some of the utility of Google Mobile Maps since it essentially removed the Real-Time goodness of the app. Moreover, it crimped the ability to search for nearby restaurants when on the move.

By contrast, in Paris we were able to grab onto “gray” connectivity within 5-10 minutes of trying to do so. This, at the very least, gave us a sense of intermittent connectivity being reliable.

Gray connectivity was captured two ways. One was via a discovery of Wi-Fi connections within the Settings tab, and jumping from one connection to the next until we found live access. Primitive, but fungible.

The second was that we discovered a service provider that offered different tiers of Wi-Fi access on-demand, including a “20 Minutes Free” option, which was like getting a lucky board game roll.

Armed with some sense of being able to queue up requests, messages, grab map views and the like, geo navigation became tactile, a virtual, but distinct, overlay to our physical navigation.

real-time location.PNGThe ability to visually follow block-by-block, and see the storefront of a business blocks or miles away was very powerful.

At times, it felt like Mobile Maps was a divining rod pulling us to our destination.

What was almost magical was how Maps seemed designed to watch proactively in the background for a live connection so it could autonomously update location data when connectivity was intermittent.

I was more than once surprised to discover that Maps had used a sliver of momentary connectivity, and updated location with no prodding from me.

That said, it seems that Apple could make MobileMe even more essential for iPod Touch owners by bundling into it a Boingo-like Wi-Fi Universal Pass so at least queue-level store and forward services can autonomously be negotiated for the mobility-oriented user.

Notes-Kindle.jpgA couple of final notes: One is that my wife realized tremendous utility in using the Notes App to capture daily food & water intake and other related health data. This was a simple, powerful, and recurring workflow for her.

Two is that during the trip I finished my first Kindle book on the iPod Touch, ‘Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando.’

I absolutely loved the fact that when I found myself with a five-minute slug of time (waiting in lobby, bathroom, at coffee), I could read a chunk of pages and click out as easily as I had clicked in (since the Kindle App automatically bookmarks where you left off).

It, like the iPod Touch itself, was a perfect travel companion.

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