Travelfish iPhone app: an update

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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