On being flattered and offended

We’re very proud of our iPhone apps for travellers heading to Southeast Asia. They’re the product of a collaboration between ourselves and South African development team Bytesizecreations.

We like to describe our situation as being two guys in tin sheds 10,000km apart. Between our expertise in providing travel intelligence and their’s in iPhone programming and design, we produce iPhone applications that are not only particularly useful, but that also look great and are intuitive to use.

As anyone involved in building travel apps knows, organising large volumes of information in a easy to use fashion isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t cheap.

That’s not stopping people from making quality travel apps though. For example mTrip, Cool Places Guides and NFT have all managed to put together quality apps that each take a different and innovative approach to travel apps.

In our case we went for a unique design and, while it’s not perfect, we thought it was a very good first attempt.

So imagine my dismay when I received a press release last week, from a Singaporean company, pushing their first app — one that blatantly copied our design.

The two main navigation screens

The two main navigation screens

They say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and to a point I’d agree, but pass a point and it becomes offensive.

While this is annoying on many levels, what is most annoying perhaps is that we offered the CEO advice regarding iPhone apps in the past, yet the first we heard that they’d decided to borrow heavily from our design was when the press release hit my inbox.

Comparing two "general info" pages

Comparing two "general info" pages

Early this year, they approached our developer directly, their developer asking by email “I am interested in making an iPhone application just like Travelfish iphone app.

In another email to our developer they said “…I require the following basic features, almost same as travelfish app…” (their typo)

Comparing "location" pages

Comparing "location" pages

They also illustrated a base lack of knowledge in how to build a travel app:
“Also tell me which offline map library would you use and which map source will you use.(e.g OSM with route-me).”

Interestingly the one section of the app they didn’t copy at all was the sideways “swish” navigation that we use. I assume because it was beyond the technical ability of their “developers”.

In another remarkable coincidence, they locked the app into horizontal display only — just like we did.

Comparing the navigation styles - they couldn't master the more technically challenging swish style we use

Comparing the navigation styles - they couldn't master the more technically challenging swish style we use

Aside from the copying issues, there are problems with the app. It’s crashed at least a dozen times just in the time it has taken me to make the screenshots above — I’d have panned it in iTunes, but, to be fair, I’m a bit biased.

At the end of the day, they’re charging a premium price for an extremely buggy travel app that has, lets be polite here, borrowed heavily from a competitor’s design.

Had the app looked different I’d have just ignored it as another mediocre attempt at travel app-building. But it doesn’t look different.

Comparing the two accommodation styles

Comparing the two accommodation styles

To quote a recent story in Tech Crunch:
“Here’s a simple test: if you have to copy features from a competitor, you’re not the best. That’s not to say the best don’t copy. Of course they do. But rarely does a startup get to be the best by copying — they do it to stay the best, and because they can (sad, perhaps, but true — and it only works if mixed with even more original innovation; see, again: Facebook).

The features that make a startup the best can’t be copied because they’re not actually features, they only appear to be to competitors. Instead, these “features” are a deeply woven fundamental that is vital to the fabric of the startup that came up with it. To put it another way: these “features” are often something that was dreamed up from the inception of a product, not something that was tacked-on (as it would be by the copying party).”
http://techcrunch.com/2011/03/05/the-app-wall/

This Singaporean company has taken our design, made it worse and now intends to attempt to compete with Sutro Media. While I’m not a great fan of Sutro’s design and think their commission structure is somewhat unfair to content creators, at least they come up with their own designs and have built up what I assume to be a successful business from the ground up. Power to them and I wish them all the best.

To travel writers out there looking for an iPhone platform, while the commission structure isn’t great, Sutro Media are the people you should be talking to.

Businesses that selfishly rip off designs, and obviously struggle for an original thought should not be trusted with your hard work.

On the subject of content, don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that our current Singapore content is mediocre at best. That’s why we’ve got a writer working on a comprehensive update as I type. When, in about a month, that update is complete, we’ll release our Singapore app and we’ll see which the app-buying public prefers.

This isn’t about content. It’s about integrity and innovation. I’m happy to compete with anyone on a content basis with our iPhone apps — I just prefer it if I’m not competing with a shadow of myself.

Pull the app and build something original.

Using an iPhone4 and Everytrail for website and iPhone app mapping in Bali

As I mentioned in the previous iPhone travel Apps post, one of the iPhone apps I find very useful for Travelfish.org is Everytrail. It allows me to use the phone to track where I am and also to mark waypoints (points of interest) as I go. While it isn’t accurate down to the centimetre and can have a bit of a hissy fit if the phone coverage slips (or as in my case when I forgot to turn 3G back on) it’s generally more than good enough for our purposes. I can then upload this data to OpenStreetMaps (OSM) and use it to improve the accuracy of their maps, which we in turn use in our iPhone travel apps.

We just had a couple of days off on holiday in Ubud up in the hills of Bali and as OSM’s maps were not quite up to scratch, I took a walk around the Monkey Forest Loop adding in the laneways and backroads I wanted. I’ll go back this week to do some other areas that need some work and we’re there again next weekend to do some of the rice paddy walks.

Here’s a before and after screenshot of the area in question.

Before and after screenshot of Ubud mapping

Before and after screenshot of Ubud mapping

As you can see it isn’t a huge difference, but there’s enough laneways and so on added that it will improve the usefulness of the app when people are using this map in our upcoming iPhone App for Bali — and eventually when we swap out the Google Maps for OSM on the main Travelfish.org site.

I walked the map out and the whole thing was 6.5km long and took me 1 hour 44 minutes and 57 seconds to walk out (yes Everytrail remembers everything). I also marked the longitude and latitude for 60 odd properties in the area, though we don’t place that data into the OSM system, keeping it the Travelfish.org database instead. The changes above took just a couple of hours to be reflected into the live OSM map for Ubud – not bad huh!

For reference, compare the OSM maps to Google Maps’ effort.

Google Maps screenshot of portion of Ubud

Google Maps screenshot of portion of Ubud

The Google Map for the Monkey Forest area has all the main streets more or less right but is missing the laneways I’ve just added to OSM and also some of its waypoint are totally wrong: Ibu Oka’s and Mozaic for example are both marked in the completely wrong location (off by kilometres). To be fair these are sourced from other sites (TripAdvisor is this case) so aren’t really Google’s fault, but they do serve to prove the point, there’s no substitute for going there yourself!

Smartphone apps to ease travel guide writing pain

Last week we headed across to Kuta Beach on southern Lombok for a holiday. While it wasn’t exactly a work trip, as we plan to cover Lombok anyway I thought I’d try a bit of an experiment and do some research solely on my iPhone4. The result? I’ll never buy a sheet of grid paper for mapping again!

One note before I get started: I realise not everyone is quite the Apple fan-boy I’ve developed into, but in many cases there are Android equivalents to what I’m going to cover here.

Mapping: Everytrail Pro
I love drawing maps — really — but as anyone who has tried to draw a map from scratch knows, it can be a trying process. Roads don’t line up, alleys disappear, and don’t get me started on towns with hills and valleys. Once you’ve got it down on paper, you then need to mark the points of interest — now was that guesthouse on the left or the right? The taxi rank on the northwest or southwest corner? Oh God, it’s 40 degrees outside — do I really have to walk down and check? You know the drill.
The apps you need
One app makes this all go away. Everytrail Pro records a GPS track as you go — it’s incredibly accurate — and you can punch in points of interest (waypoints) as you go. This then records the longitude and latitude for each place. Once you’ve finished walking out the map (or doing it by motorbike or car for bigger towns) you can then upload the data to your free Everytrail account, from where you can then download it in a variety of formats — I take it by GPX for transfer into OpenStreetMaps, which is the platform we’re slowly migrating to with Travelfish.

Even if you’re not after the road layout, Everytrail can still be used to punch in data points as you go, so you can then supply them to your publisher with longitude and latitude points — something that I’m happy to wager is going to increasingly become a requirement.
EveryTrail Pro in iTunes (US$3.99)

Waypoints
If all the mapping is overkill, but you still need longitude and latitude, Waypoints is an excellent app for telling you exactly where you are. It works better if you stand outside, so get a reading before you walk into the club. I’ve generally been able to get a reading within five-metre accuracy. It does give elevation readings as well, but I’ve found them to be a bit more mysterious.
Waypoints in iTunes (US$2.99)

WiFi Finder
WiFi Finder is a crowd-sourced application that lets you find WiFi (free and paid) sources that are nearby. I’ve found it to be pretty useful, though 3G coverage here in Bali isn’t too bad so I find myself needing WiFi less than if I was in one of those developing cities like Sydney, Australia where free WiFi is about as easy to find as a reasonably priced latte. The great thing about it is you can download the database so that it works offline, meaning you don’t have to HAVE WiFi to FIND WiFi! Duh! This is useful not just for your personal use, but if your brief includes listing places that offer WiFi.
WiFi Finder in iTunes (Free)

Gowalla and FourSquare
As Facebook Places isn’t active yet in Indonesia I couldn’t give that a run, but I tried both of these apps and definitely prefer Gowalla — Foursquare feels way too much like a pissing contest for my liking. Tripadvisor also has a similar app. Whichever one you choose, these can be very useful in discovery. Turn it on, allow it to use your location and see what pops up nearby. On Gowalla you can click on a particular place that’s nearby and it will tell you how many people have checked in there. This could be a sign of a popular place worth checking out.

A note on both of these apps: the information, especially the location, can be off. For instance, Foursquare lists Frangipani in Bali (a bar a 30-minute drive away) to be at the end of my street — so don’t use either of these as a definitive source. There’s no substitute for going there yourself.

Secondly, while these were both useful, personally, I’d prefer talking to people and you’re certainly tying yourself to an “electronic niche” in relying on these too much.
Gowalla in iTunes (Free)
Foursquare in iTunes (Free)

Twitter
If you’re not on Twitter already, get on it. Set up a hashtag following destinations you’re going to be writing up and save them as a search. Be specific, but not too specific. So, #bali is a better fit than #indonesia. Then keep an eye on the stream and see what people are tweeting about: it could be a new bar opening, a hotel with crappy service or a beach you’ve never heard of. Twitter can be a great discovery tool — but it can also be a major time sink, so be disciplined!
Twitter in iTunes (Free)

More discovery
There are a slew of other location-based travel apps of interest, but one that really stands out from a discovery point of view for finding hotels is HotelsCombined’s iFindHotels. You just turn it on, let it detect your location and then it shows you all the hotels it has in its system nearby. Then you can click on the ones you’re interested in to see if they fit the profile for the properties you’re looking to review. A few other apps have similar functionality.
iFindHotels in iTunes (Free)

Instapaper Pro
This lets you clip interesting online stories (could be magazine or news stories, travel write-ups, blog entries and so on) and save them to your iPhone for reading later. You can also sync it with your desktop. It is a very good app and I’d recommend it to anyone who reads a lot online.
Instapaper Pro in iTunes (US$4.99)

PDF Reader
If you’ve grabbed some resources in PDF format (or any other kind of research material — train and ferry timetables spring to mind) then this is a great app for reading them easily.
PDF Reader in iTunes (US$0.99)

Photos
The camera is a built in part of the iPhone, but if you’re taking snaps of accommodation (if you’re not already being asked to do so, expect to be asked soon), consider turning on “Location Services” as that will stamp all your pics with longitude and latitude. The camera is also useful for all the other typical stuff: business cards, timetables, shots to jog your memory and so on. Obviously organise your photos into albums – they’ll be easier to keep track of and sync with your computer when back home.

Notes & Voice memos
Two more built-in (and so free) apps. My process was to review a property, snap photos, and then once outside jot all the details into “Notes”. I’d just start a new page for each listing. If you find the keyboard tricky to work with, then record a voice memo instead — either way you’ll have all your first impressions recorded immediately, when they’re freshest, which should result in better end-version write-ups.

Email & Skype
Email is built in and obviously helpful for receiving those emails from pesky editors. Skype is handy for calling them to tell them to leave you alone (use the above-mentioned WiFi Finder to find a free connection to call on).
Skype in iTunes (Free)

One app that is missing?
Evernote is the one overarching app that would be perfect to collect all this information into, but, as far as I can see, there is no way to export the information back out again, which makes it close to useless for our purposes.

Update:
Thanks to @hackneye and @bm_ for pointing out that Evernote actually does allow you to export the data (in a HTML format with the images in subdirectories etc, or in an XML format) so it could be a nice envelope to stuff with all the data you collect afterall!
Evernote in iTunes (Free)

In summary
With one iPhone you can record your notes (typed or voice-recorded), find WiFi, record longitude and latitude, look after pretty much all of your mapping needs, take photos to jog your memory for when you’re writing up 40 near-identical thatch bungalow operations, use location-based apps to stalk other travellers and see what they’re into, receive emails from annoying editors and yell back at them via Skype. Then there’s the browser (mobile Safari) which is handy for online research and checking the football scores.

Sure the iPhone isn’t a cheap phone, but, combined with even just some of the above apps, you’ll be amazed just how much time it can save you while you’re on the road. Publishers are forever demanding more work for the same coin and they’re increasingly going to be asking for data like longitude, latitude and accommodation photos. For once it needn’t be a headache.

Just don’t forget to back up!

Got any suggestions for other apps to ease a travel guide writer’s pain? Please share!

Oh and one more thing, if you’re in an app-buying mood, don’t forget to check out our travel guide apps for Southeast Asia!

How not to make a mobile friendly webpage for your hotel

Making a customised version of your website, tailored specifically for mobile phones is a challenge. This morning I had the misfortune to come across one of the worst I’ve seen — and from people who certainly have the resources to be doing a far better job. Accor Hotels.

How to do it wrong

I wanted a simple bit of information — the telephone number for the Lombok Novotel — so I picked up my iPhone (as I planned to call them from it) and Googled “novotel lombok“.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Bingo! Pretty much just what I was looking for. So I clicked on the number 1 result for “Lombok Novotel“. The result however, wasn’t quite what I expected. After being redirected through a couple of domains, I ended up at an advert for an iPhone app.

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2

The app sounds kind of interesting, but all I wanted was the phone number, so I opted for “No”… thinking I’d get the hotel page for the Novotel on Lombok. But no, instead I got a hotel promotion page for two hotels, one in Berlin and one in Prague.

Exhibit 3

Exhibit 3

Exhibit 3

As neither Berlin nor Prague are all that close to Lombok in Indonesia this was … unexpected. It seems that the app had totally forgotten what I arrived looking for and I was going to have to start from scratch. So I scrolled down a little and got the search prompt. Given it was a search, I just typed in Lombok.

Exhibit 4

Exhibit 4

Exhibit 4

Fool that I am, I didn’t notice the asterisk next to the “Check-in” field (afterall I didn’t want to check-in, I just wanted a phone number). Likewise I didn’t bother with the other fields. You know where this is going right?

Exhibit 5

Exhibit 5

Exhibit 5

Yup. I had to enter a date of arrival (even though I didn’t have one). So I did.

Exhibit 6

Exhibit 6

Exhibit 6

Fingers crossed!

Exhibit 7

Exhibit 7

Exhibit 7

Finally! This is the hotel whose number I’m looking for. Of course the telephone number isn’t displayed, so I risked a click on the hotel’s name.

Exhibit 8

Exhibit 8

Exhibit 8

Eureka!

So just seven screens from the initial Google page I was able to find the telephone number of the Novotel Hotel on Lombok, which, should you care to know, is (+62) 370 653 333.

To add to the misery, there doesn’t appear to be a way to override the Accor website’s mobile detection, so even though I really wanted to, there was no way for me to access the “traditional” website on my phone.

This is extremely poor usability to round out what was a thoroughly crappy user experience. Accor could and most definitely should be doing far better.

How to do it right

In comparison, if I clicked on the Google page on my laptop I was taken to this page.

Exhibit 9

Exhibit 9

Exhibit 9

And there you go, (a bit blurry I know) the phone number for the Novotel on Lombok. One Click! Fancy that! Google really does work wonders sometimes!

The Travelfish iPad App

Having just submitted the App to Apple, and fingers crossed that it meets the grade, we’re delighted to announce that Travelfish is a launch publisher for the Apple iPad. Please read on for more details — and yes some screenshots — of what the App can do for you.

Map the mayhem
AngkorThere’s nothing worse than arriving in a foreign country to have the airport cabbie rip you off by taking the longest way possible to your hotel. With the Travelfish iPad App you enter your destination and the App maps out the ideal route for you. Then, using GPS tracking it tracks your taxi’s direction emitting a clanging noise as soon as your driver starts to get shifty.

I’ll take the Interbank rate please
Right up there with shifty cabbies, dodgy exchange agents are another bane of the traveller’s life. No more. We’ve fully integrated a live updating stream to interbank rates. All you need do is enter the amount into the onboard calculator and the App will tell you exactly how much your dollars are worth. No more need to shop around.

The bed bounty
While you’re in the cab counting your cash, enter how much you want to spend on a bed into our “Bed Bounty”. This then searches through our database of 16,000 rooms and delivers you with a video walkthrough of the exact room you should opt for. If you’re after a dorm room, we suggest you purchase the “liveline” addon that gives you a realtime video feed from the dorm so you can choose one with people that look interesting (or hot).

Master MSG
Ko SametAs frequent travellers to Asia know, the locals lay on the MSG as Australians do cheese. And while you can ask to skip the MSG, that doesn’t always deliver the goods. So in a breakthrough of touchscreen usage, with the Travelfish App just place a dollop of your Tom Kha Gai on the glassy surface of the iPad and it will detect even the smallest amount of MSG. On a positive result the screen turns red, green for ok to eat. An additional add on is also available to test if the water is ok to drink — all you need do is poor some water on the iPad (not too much!) and it will let you know if it is safe.

Eat by pictures
There’s nothing worse than ordering a plate of Fried rice with chicken only to have fried rice with egg brought out. So don’t risk your meal over your crummy tone usage. Instead make use of our 5,000 image photo library illustrating every Asian dish. All you need do is shuffle through and point to the dish you want. Thrillseekers can shake the App to have a random dish selected. Then it’s up to the noodle vendor to whip you up a plate of Seua Rong Hai quicksmart — if they can’t someone else will.

Speak like a local
Ko Phi PhiThe Travelfish iPad App has a bevy of live language features, but the best is the “Backpackertron” that has been designed for group parties where everyone speaks different languages. All you need do is enter in something and it will supply the text translated into any question you want. For example:

Starting with “Do you know a good guesthouse in Bangkok?” the backpackertron delivers:
¿Conoces un buen hotel en Bangkok?
Où est la salle de bains?
Myslím, že jste naprosto sexy
Aku punya ruam buruk, itu penting?
Twój brat jest o wiele bardziej atrakcyjne ni? jeste?cie.
Vil du at jeg skal kysse deg nå?

Language barriers are forever gone!

Savour the sights
One of the great hassles of travelling in Asia is the heat and the best way to avoid it is to stay inside in air-con. But what about the sights? No problem. The Travelfish ipad App includes video walkthroughs of all the main sights in Southeast Asia. Yes that’s right — there’s no need to step outside.

Meet other travellers
Through full integration with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Friendfeed and 42 other social networks you’ll have every opportunity to virtually meetup and communicate with other travellers. With a clever, well planned use of this feature, you won’t need to deal with any real live travellers at all!

And much more!
There’s more features packed into this app, but we don’t want to let all the cats out of the bag. So please keep an eye out for further announcements.

Cheers!

The Travelfish iPhone app: Angkor

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As we moved our first app into beta testing last week, we thought now would be a good time to let you know about some of the features of the app and show you a few more screenshots — just so you are completely tantalised!

First, a special thanks to those who volunteered to help with the testing. We had more than 100 people volunteer — thank you to you all. Unfortunately it wasn’t practical to get everyone involved in the testing, so we whittled the list down to a dozen or so to put the app through its paces.

I can’t really discuss anything in more detail without letting the cat out of the bag: Our first app covers Cambodia’s Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

The app is called “Angkor”.

Keeping it simple
One of the tempations with the iPhone/iPod Touch is that few limitations stop you cramming whatever you can into the device, so our immediate approach was to put everything bar the kitchen sink in. The problem with this is that you quickly develop a massive dump of information that is both intimidating and unwieldy for the poor guy on the street that just wants to find a cheap noodle joint.

There’s nothing worse than opening an app packed to the lintels with information, only to get a list that goes and goes and goes and goes some more. So we tossed the list out the window and went with eight simple top level categories:

Background | Sleep | Eat & meet | See & do
Transport | Walking tours | Photos | Maps

Each section contains sub-categories and sections, but at a glance, you should know exactly which section of the app you want to head to. Here is a screenshot:

Screenshot of the navigation

Makes sense?

Delve a little deeper
Each section then has sub-sections. In the Background section, for example, you’ll find information under the headings of History, About Cambodia, and Planning. Each of these may contain smaller sections themselves. History for instance is broken up into more than a dozen chapters, each talking of a specific period and where appropriate matched with a picture. About Cambodia has chapters on Food, Language and Safety (among others), with these often broken into sub-sections — food has Eating Khmer Food, Snacks, Insects and so on. So it’s four levels of fun.

Before you recoil from what sounds like a hellish conflagration of lists, listen to this: No lists are involved. Well, there is a list if you want to use it, but the important thing is you don’t need to. Instead we make use of the great iPhone swiping feature to allow the reader to flick through the sections looking for one that catches their eye — sort of like how you’d leaf through a book. Here is a partial screenshot showing a couple of history snaps.

Screenshot of the history snapshots

What this means is that you can dig deeper and deeper into various subjects, learn a bit (we hope!) and be helped along with the photos.

If you’re scratching your head and thinking “Hey I didn’t read any of this on the Travelfish website!” you’d be right. The app contains around 40,000 words of extra content that we have written purposefully for the app.

Save time and money
As you probably know, many guesthouses and hotels can be booked online. Within the accommodation section, all the contact details are clearly displayed, but if a place works through property resellers (like Agoda or HostelWorld) then we also give the reader the option to click through to that site to make a reservation.

The problem is, resellers often have different rates, meaning that if you’re looking for the cheapest option you have to go check each provider and compare rates. We save you the trouble and show you the cheapest rate in our records that is available at each reseller. See the screenshot below for an example.

Screenshot of the accommodation

Decide where to go before you get there
Most of the sights, especially the Angkor ruins, have been matched with a photo. There’s nothing worse than reading about a site that sounds at least half interesting, only to get there and find four laterite blocks and a sleeping pooch. By matching the sights with pics, and with our straightshooting write-ups, you’ll be able to decide quickly what you do and don’t want to spend your time doing.

Screenshot of the sights section

This is further buttressed by a handful of walking tours that give you a range of different options and routes — helpfully marked on the maps — to help you get the most out of the app.

Stay on the straight and narrow
It’s just not an app without a map right? We’ve packed up some neat bundled maps with the app. You’ll get down to the ground detail for Siem Reap and Angkor Wat along with a bird’s eye view of the rest of Cambodia — including the capital and border crossings. This means you’ll have all you need to plan without needing to get online once, so no need to fret about totally insane roaming bills.

Screenshot of the maps

The maps are annotated with markers that lead you straight to listings (so click on Angkor What? bar and you’ll be taken to their review in the Eat section). It also works in reverse, so if you’re reading about Two Dragons Guesthouse, you can click on the map icon and have the map pop up to show you just where you need to go to pick Gordon’s brain.

And there’s more
The app also contains a photo gallery with hundreds of photos along with the standard stuff like bookmarking, help, glossary and FAQs. Results also can also be reordered and sorted to make it even easier to find what you’re after.

On the subject of search
There isn’t one.

We don’t mean to brag, but we reckon the information is so well organised and so easy to find that there is no need for a search facility in this app.

We thought it was better to eschew one totally rather than go for what would have been nothing more than a glorified filter — a solution that has been much derided in other travel apps. If you can’t find something in this app, we’re willing to bet that is because it isn’t there.

That said, if you’re reading this and just happen to be able to write a natural language search algorithm for the iPhone, please do get in touch ;-)

So when is it going to be available
We’re planning the final beta-build tomorrow (Tuesday) and as long as no last-minute problems flare the app should go to Apple shortly afterwards. Once they have it, we need to bide our time while it runs through the approval process.

Once it is available, we’ll be celebrating and will be giving away coupons for the app at the iTunes store. If you’re a blogger interested in receiving the app for review purposes, contact me at stuartmcdonald@travelfish.org.

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Travelfish iPhone app: an update

This post was emailed out earlier to people on out iPhone mailing list. If you’d like to get on the list, please signup on this page.

Yesterday I caught up with a couple of Travelfishers who happened to be in Bali and took them off for an afternoon of beach sitting and BBQ seafood eating — yes, you should always get in touch if you happen to be in Bali!

As an added bonus I had the first functional build of our first Travelfish app on my iPod Touch and so, after I’d clouded their judgement with enough Bintang, I said hey take a look at this — and they were suitably impressed.

So, given the cat is starting to sneak out of the bag, I thought I’d sit down and go through in a bit more detail what we’re trying to do with the new Travelfish app.

SOME HISTORY
A few months ago I knew nothing about apps. I knew iTunes was great for downloading free Sesame Street podcasts for the kids and, ahhhh, Village People albums for Samantha, but that was about it.

Then in July my parents visited and Dad had an iPhone 3Gs with him. Within ten minutes I was a convert. Over the next ten days we took the phone through its paces. We used Google maps to trace a drive up to Bedugal. We checked email and browsed Travelfish on White Sand beach north of Candidasa. We browsed hotels in Sanur while sitting on the beach. As a travel research device and planning tool, it was absolutely awesome.

Not long after this we partnered with a developer and started building our first app.

When I finally got around to getting my own gadget, I went for the considerably cheaper iPod Touch that came in at a third of the price of an iPhone 3G (the 3Gs is as yet unavailable in Indonesia). First I went and downloaded Flight Control — a totally addictive game that you should get too, but once I’d given up on bettering my amateurish score of 64, I started looking at it as a work and research device.

Now, as long as I’m within range of a WiFi signal, I can use the Touch for email and web browsing, Twitter, Facebook, chat and basic note-taking. On my next trip all I will be taking is the Touch — no laptop.

Then I went in search of travel apps, purchasing and downloading all the other Asia-focused travel apps I could find. The majority were poor, in quality, execution or both. There were some gems, HostelHero for example, but the bulk were quite disappointing.

But out of this disappoinment came the opportunity of doing some things better:

CONTENT REMAINS KING
In some apps the content is primarily derived from free sources on the net, for example Wikipedia or WikiTravel. I’ll be the first to say some Wiki content is great, but when the only listings offered in the food section of one city is a single Indian restaurant that we’d banned for spamming Travelfish I’m not sure how many times, the need for curation is highlighted. Uncurated Wiki content is problematic. As is reams of totally unformatted text dumped straight out of a Wiki.

So comes the first goal of the Travelfish app: The content must be as good, if not better, than what is available on the Travelfish site and it must be tailored for use on the iPhone.

THE IRONY OF NOT WANTING AN INTERNET CONNECTION
A lot of the cheaper (under $3) or free travel apps are really just a gateway to an actual website. There’s nothing wrong with this if:

a) you’re in an area where internet connectivity is ubiquitous;

b) you’re on a local sim card so roaming charges are not an issue.

If you’re tramping through rural Cambodia on a five-day break, chances are you’ll have zero connectivity and you won’t have a local sim card.

My father’s roaming bill after the aforementioned 11 days in Bali was A$4,400.

So came the second goal of the Travelfish app: It must not require internet connectivity to be useful.

INFORMATION OVERLOAD
Other apps, notably Lonely Planet’s, are absolutely packed to the rafters with information, but when it comes to simple tasks such as finding a guesthouse or a place to eat, the process is very complex and not at all intuitive.

In a very clever move, Lonely Planet has set up an excellent resource courtesy of GetSatisfaction that allows people to lodge praise and complaints for their apps. This proved to be an ideal resource for seeing what issues customers were having and how Lonely Planet was dealing with them.

So comes the third goal of the Travelfish app: The app must be intuitive to use and the information must be easy to find.

MAPHEM
One of the challenges faced by the other real travel apps is maps. It is a frustrating business to be browsing offline and in a situation where you really need a map only to get a “You gotta be online” message when you click on a map link.

So comes the fourth goal of the Travelfish app: The maps must be totally cached and be able to be used offline at all times.

THE FAMILIAR VS THE FUNKY
Lastly, once you’ve looked at and used a few apps, the design, look and feel all gets pretty similar — a dollop of lists, a smidgen of pics, a dash of icons and a pinch of dropdowns. We decided we wanted something that looked. really. good. So we’ve largely dispensed with lists and drop downs. While it isn’t quite as fancy as the big screens Tom Cruise played with in Minority Report, the app interface really turns traditional travel appdom on its head, yet it is so simple, you’ll have it down in seconds.

So comes the fifth goal of the Travelfish app: It must be funky but not at the expense of functionality.

I’m happy to say that, with the first working build in my hand, all five of the above have been satisfied.

Q AND A
The response to our newsletter list has certainly surpassed our expectations, and we’ve been getting a lot of questions — so here’s answers to the 10 most frequently asked questions regarding the Travelfish app:

Q) Where will the app cover?
A) The first Travelfish app is destination rather than country focused. The launch destination is somewhere in Cambodia.

Q) Will the app be free?
A) No, but assumming all goes to plan there will be free apps on the way.

Q) How much will it cost?
A) We expect it to be priced at a similar or slightly higher level than the Travelfish Guides. Please bear in mind that Apple takes 30% of the final selling price.

Q) Will the app contain extra information compared to the Travelfish site?
A) Yes. It comes with a far more detailed background section — history, culture, guidence on health and safety, money matters and so on. Sort of similar to the introductory section you’d see in a legacy guidebook. That said, while we’re putting a lot of new material into the app, nothing is more than four “clicks” from the splash page.

Q) When will the app be out?
A) We’re currently working towards having it to Apple by early December.

Q) Will the app have ads in it?
A) No.

Q) Will I be able to update the information in the app?
A) At this stage no, but this feature is on our longer development timeline.

Q) Will the app have Google maps in it?
A) No. We’ve used Google Maps for the interactive maps on Travelfish, but due to licensing issues, we can’t bundle these maps how we wanted to. The app does have fully interactive maps, but they are not supplied by Google.

Q) Will I be able to book places online through the app?
A) You’ll be able to contact places directly via web, email, phone and fax and where we have a link to an online reservation supplier you’ll be able to make reservations through those other sites (in which case you will obviously require internet connectivity).

Q) Will I need an iPhone for it to work or will an iPod Touch be enough?
A) The app will work on either an iPod Touch or an iPhone.

SCREENSHOTS
We really don’t want to give too much away in this regard, but here are a couple of screenshots of sections of the app. Note these are not final and the finished product may look a bit different to this.

Some of the details on the accommodation profile above have been blanked out.

Yes, Sam does like her crab — especially with a liberal dose of Kampot pepper.

Thanks for signing up for the list and we hope to have something ready for you to use in the very near future.

Cheers

Stuart and Sam