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The original world nomad "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance." - Confucius.

The iPhone as a travel device

INDIA | Tuesday, 7 July 2009 | Views [3517]

In December 2008 I headed off to India with my new iPhone, setting myself the simple task to see if I could twitter about my travels as I went. Just as an experiment. As soon as we landed in Mumbai I couldn't even get the thing to connect to any of the phone networks, despite the fact that it could see them all, so I consequently travelled around with a pretty useless piece of plastic for 3 weeks. When I got home, nobody could provide me any explanation. Thanks Apple.

India 1  : iPhone 0

Six months later I arrive in Bali, this time with a shiny new iPhone 3Gs, which has proved surprisingly fast and much improved even in the week I've had it. As soon as I stepped outside the terminal ... no connection. Exactly the same as in India: it can see the choice of all the local networks but can't connect to any of them.

Indonesia 1  : iPhone 0

However, this time I'm a little more prepared as I've brought along one of my old standard phones too. This one with the same SIM has absolutely no trouble connecting, and curiously, a couple with an iPhone from Canada has no trouble connecting either. So is this something peculiar to iPhones issued in Australia only?

Next I try buying a local SIM card and try this in the iPhone. The first problem, unlike most phones which have easy access, is that the iPhone has that little designer pin that they expect you to pack on your travels and not lose. Mine was in my office in Sydney so a paper clip will have to do instead. It works, but the local SIM doesn't. So I try the local SIM in my other standby phone. No love their either. Mmmm. 

This leaves WiFi. Many of the hotels and guess houses are rapidly getting WiFi networks of varying quality. One got it up and running the day we left and another place that we've been going back to for some years has one this year for the first time. But they are far from fast and far from reliable, frequently going offline for no apparent reason, so although Bali is a significant tourist centre and many of the places we stay or eat in have a WiFi network, although they're painfully slow, barely able to even download email. I have the SKYPE iPhone App so perhaps I can use that? Unfortunately both hotels and cafes specifically ban the use of SKYPE as it sucks up all the available bandwidth from anyone else. So as a phone it seems pretty useless. I do however try a seruptious Skype call to Chris, just to see how effective it is from the iPhone via a local WiFi network ... but I couldn't even get to the Skype web site to add some credit, let alone actually make a call. So you can download your email while eating lunch or diner, but since you don't know the outgoing mailserver you can't send any email. This means your best option is to login to something like gmail using the browser App and send it from there, which is possible if not straightforward.

Connectivity here is possible, but gee you've really have to want to be online to make it worth the effort. And usually it's just not that important. I check my email every day or two to make sure there are no crises at work that require attention, but though lots of email, there is nothing that requires such urgent while I'm away and the people in the business just get on with it (as they should if we've set it up right!)

So what else?

Well, I find the battery drains relatively fast so I don't use the camera much. I find the new audio recording feature particularly useful (if I remember it!) but not for 'voice memo's' as Apple has labeled it but for recording ambient sounds such as frogs in the rice fields in the evenings. The GPS I use all the time at home with many of the apps, particularly Google Maps: but here, with no connection, not at all.

But it's still early days so I can forgive a lot and foresee lots of potential for World Nomads and for travel, so before I headed off to Bali I thought I'd go and pick my top ten travel apps ... and found I couldn't even find ten (yes, just 10 out of all those thousands of Apps) that I'd actually want to even try out as a traveller ...

1. Language Guides

These are pretty obvious really. We have a whole series as does Lonely Planet of course. However, even though I took the Hindi one to India I then discovered that by and large they don't speak Hindi in the South of India (nor in Bali either since despite being a Hindu island, they speak Bahasa).

But although I'm a firm believer that a few phrases can take you a long way towards being polite and culturally sensitive, these apps are priceless when it comes to entertaining the local children many of whom want to practice their Australian!

2. Pano ($3.99)

This fantastic little app does a remarkable job of stiching together a range of photos from the iPhone camera. Once you get the hang of it you find yourself using it a fair bit (and I travel with a Nikon D300 and a bag full of lenses!)

3. Google Mobile

Google is always the jumping off point for almost all travel research (roll over Lonely Planet) and this free App makes that pretty easy.

4. SKYPE for your iPhone (Free)

Seemed an ideal way to avoid all those roaming charges ... except ALL the cafes with WiFi access I went into ban the use of Skype as it hogs all the available bandwidth.

5. ATM Hunter by Mastercard (Free)

Now this seemed useful, particularly when you can't speak too much of the lingo and you can use the GPS on your phone to locate the nearest one. However, in reality, at the moment at least, ATM's aren't that hard to find and the GPS doesn't seem to work wherever I am when I'm travelling, so not as useful as it would appear perhaps.

6. Tumblr

I like the Tumblr micro-blog in some instances and wanted to see if it would work as a traveller, which it does. Uploading photo's and short notes is a breeeze from an iPhone even on slow connections.


So, despite the fact that the iPhone as a serious tool for the independent traveller is probably years away, I'm on the hunt for great travel apps. If anyone has any suggestions, please contact me.




Tags: app store, apple, iphone, mobile, travel applications


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