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

On being a Digital Nomad

FRANCE | Tuesday, 27 July 2010 | Views [7209]


Years ago travelling before the age of the internet, people would actually talk to each other in cafés and meeting places. Sadly, today all I seem to see are travellers hunched in internet cafés, desperate to stay connected to family and friends back home rather than strike out new friendships wherever they are. This however, is probably only a very temporary phenomenon: as technology devices become ever more mobile and WiFi access spreads, behaviour will I think become more social once again.

Actually, I've never really been interested in technology. My interest is in how technology changes our behaviour.


On my last trip I thought I'd ditch the laptop entirely and see how it felt to travel with an iPad. How would this mythical device cope with the demands a keen amateur photographer who regularly takes a couple of thousand 12Mb photos on his Nikon? How accessible would my stored travel plans be? Would I use Google Maps on my nice new shiny large screen?


A week before I left, Apple managed to deliver my pre-ordered iPad to my desk as long lines snaked around the Apple store outside.

Roaming data

Roaming and data charges have always been and remain a significant barrier to the practical adoption of mobile devices for travellers, so the first chalenge was to work out how to obtain data when travelling so that the costs wouldn't send me bankrupt.
I posted my question to Travellr.com and had an answer http://travellr.com/questions/united-kingdom/1874/whats-the-best-sim-card-for-travel-to-the-uk from Christy the next day. However, the iPad has a micro-SIM and on landing in the UK none of the major Telco's yet offered a pre-paid micro-SIM; I was welcome to sign up to a two year plan, but that didn't much help since I was only here for 10 days.


Next a friend of mine pointed me to a YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LebM5624Zfk which demonstrated how to turn a normal SIM into a micro-SIM. So thanks to Penny at http://www.goSIM.com who kindly gave me a clean new pre-paid global roaming SIM with some stored credit on it to test this butchery, but this too didn't work. In fact, I didn't have a mobile connection for this entire trip and had to rely on WiFi throughout this trip instead. This though will change as carriers get their act together, so we'll try again on my next trip.


Maps was one thing I'd somehow expected to be a delight, but the reality (for me at least) was that I used them much as I use maps on a laptop (to find things) then put them away again and relied instead on the traditionally scrunched up paper map in your pocket. The one you can scribble notes on with a biro and then throw away at the end of the trip. Even if I'd had a WiFi connection I can't imagine myself walking around London or Paris with my shiny iPad out trying to follow a route.


However, until this trip I'd not quite realised that the GPS in these devices is completely independent of the network connection. So, before leaving the UK very late one evening I'd used Google maps on WiFi to locate the airport, our apartment and the route between them. Then, once in the taxi in Paris I could whip out the iPad and follow our progress and location precisely. Maybe it's just us, but we actually like getting lost in a city! Wandering and finding unexpected delights that we weren't even looking for. We don't use maps to follow a route, but to occasionally find out way back to an exact location: it was the one use of maps that I kept coming back to. This in't a technology issue: it's one of behaviour.


Before I left I managed to get my hands on what seemed to be the last camera adaptor kit in Sydney, and was careful enough before I felt to test it with my Nikon to ensure that iPhoto on the iPad pulled in the RAW files not JPEG versions, which it did. So every day or so I offloaded my memory cards onto my iPad and hoped that I could get them off again, didn't lose it or didn't lose the images next time I synched the device. Summary: it functioned but probably isn't really suited to this task. Frustratingly you can't rearrange or do anything meaningful with them once they are on the device and, while it might be OK for most travellers, probably doesn't have enough storage for a general travel photographer: 64Gb really doesn't go that far once you've got your music and some video on there.


At home we have several thousand books and before I had an iPad, and while I was open to persuasion, I thought it unlikely that anyone would be able to persuade me to read whole books on a computer touch-screen. But eBooks have been a truly surprising hit. The Apple iTunes bookstore down here in Australia is a complete joke, thanks to the lack of understanding of the opportunity by the Australian Book Publishers Association. But while we can leave Apple to fight that copyright battle Amazon's Kindle App http://itunes.apple.com/au/app/kindle/id302584613?mt=8 wonderfully bypasses these issues. So not only can you load up on a dozen books before you go and not have to worry about weight or space, you can also easily buy more from any WiFi connection and not have to find English language bookshops. Additionally, if you are engrossed in a book, as I was with Three cups of Tea (http://www.amazon.com/Three-Cups-of-Tea-ebook/dp/B002RPCOHI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&m=A24IB90LPZJ0BS&s=digital-text&qid=1280793799&sr=1-1) about building children's schools in Pakistan, the bright screen means you can read it on long-haul fights even when the rest of the cabin lights are off - which is truly helpful when you've got quiet sleeping children on your knee.


While I was in the UK I read an article in the Guardian about Michael Buerk, the cameraman who created the original BBC news story from Ethiopia that was the spark for Live Aid. They mentioned his Autobiography called The Road Taken which can be found on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Road-Taken-Michael-Buerk/dp/0099461374) ... but not a Kindle edition. I'm travelling so I'm not about to buy physical book and have it shipped to me. And it's unlikely I'm going to be motivated enough to drive into town, find a bookstore to buy it from. And if I'm buying an eBook, I certainly don't expect to pay the same price as a physical book, given there is no printing, no paper and no distribution. And then the moment has gone. They've lost me. I still don't have the book and it's unlikley the combination of circumstances that lead me to it will re-occur so they've lost a sale.


This should be about a market of more. With the right model in place we can all own a small library of many thousands of books, and all the implications for knowledge sharing that that implies. But I do wonder however, if publishers actually see the opportunity in front of them? 

Travel Guidebooks

Over a couple of decades travelling, I've quite a collection of guidebooks, and the older ones particularly like the battered 1984 edition of Lonely Planet's China guide I couldn't possible throw away because they are a classic travellers view of a China long since gone. But what is a digital guide on the iPad going to feel like? How will it work? As a trial I thought I'd test-drive the city chapters for Paris and Amsterdam. These aren't the apps as they exist on Apple's app store, but the digital chapters of their guidebooks available on Lonely Planet's store. Here the purchase was OK, but unfortunately the download system has been designed for desktops or laptops and the links didn't work on the iPad. In fact, without a spare laptop to hand it would have been impossible to actually get the guides onto the iPad, so if you are going to buy these, make sure you do it before you go. Then, once on the iPad these guides weren't particularly useful: great content but too hard to navigate through to the point of making them useless. Which is a shame: had the content been more accessible I would see these as a natural tool for the device. It's interesting, unlike the way you read a novel or biography on Kindle, you need to be able to scan, skip and jump around - just like you do with a real reference book.


Now I know that supposed God of usability Jakob Nielsen as criticised the iPad interface (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/ipad.html) but he hasn't seen my kids with it. Put my kids in front of a Windows PC? No chance. In front of an iPad with no guidance whatsoever: off they go. The interface just drops away. As it should. So on this trip with the iPad rather than a laptop as company, the kids did far more games, far more painting (http://itunes.apple.com/au/app/sketchbook-pro/id364253478?mt=8) and, stunned horror, even some learning! All of which was absolutely fabulous when you are stuck in awkward travel situations with nothing to do and can whip up some quick entertainment.

Battery Life

Gosh! I almost forgot - the single most amazing and useful component of the iPad is the battery life. When you have 12 hours on a charge you almost forget you have to charge the thing and only notice it when it runs down to less than 10%. Assuming you remember to give it full charge before you leave, its just fabulous for long haul flights, plenty of life for the above games and the above reading and the above navigating once you get to the other end. Plus some to spare.

Travel planning

Yes, my travel planning tool of choice http://www.evernote.com has an iPad app too, but interestingly, while I used it occasionally it doesn't have the same relevance as the desktop app (which is the workhorse) or the iPhone app (which is what you use to carry it all with you). This is perhaps because the iPad is a device that lends itself to consuming media (video, books, RSS feeds etc) and is less about actually doing. Having said that, as we develop World Nomads Answers, if I'd had a travel answers iPad app I would have used it daily while I was away, and for much the same reason: it's got an offline component to its thinking that allows you to either absorb your planning that's already been done or to use it to plan even without an active WiFi or Data connection. 


It isn't immediately apparent because it's not something you think of much these days, however if you only travel with an iPad and need to check-in online and then print out your boarding passes or if you buy tickets to a museum online and need to print these out ... how? We were in Amsterdam and wanted to avoid the queues to the Anne Frank museum, so I plugged in the printer in the apartment in which we were staying but it didn't recognise it. Even now, back in Sydney, I have no clear idea how to print from this device. Air Share HD can apparently facilitate it - http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/air-sharing/id289943355?mt=8


Last but by no means least: price is actually very important. This device is cheap enough that not only can we have two, we can 'afford' to lose them or if they were stolen they won't break your heart or your bank balance. This isn't something you can so easily say about laptops let alone high-end digital cameras. On previous trips we've always taken my old little 12" Macbook Pro, not least because it was so small you could fit it inside those tiny room safe's you get in hotels and some apartments and the iPad has a smaller profile so when you aren't carrying it it's easy to secure.
And at $700 or so, most travel insurance will cover most of the cost of these items.


It replaces several kilograms of paperbacks and guidebooks. It acts as a photo storage device. And an entertainment system the kids enjoy. I'm going to be fascinated to see where these devices evolve to, particularly once roaming data becomes economic.

In short: perfect for travel. 

Tags: ebooks, ipad, mapping, mobile, planning, r&d, travel, wifi

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