Why the world isn't ready for the travel app revolution

Translation apps don't translate into actual usefulness, and the artificial intelligence travel guides don't compute. Here's why.

A revolution in travel apps in the past five years has the potential to transform the experience of traveling abroad. It can erase language barriers and give people artificial intelligence tour guides that revolutionize the experiencing of visiting another country.

I'm not exaggerating -- these are no small changes.

We've gone from the days when instant language translation was an idea that existed only in the realms of lab research or science fiction, to an era when free and low-cost apps that do such translation are available to everyone with a smartphone.

The tools available for organizing and discovering travel resources and opportunities -- which now leverage artificial intelligence and social input -- are nothing less than astounding.

But while hundreds of nimble, innovative startups are transforming travel, their ideas and products remain hostage to a dysfunctional mobile market where wireless data access systems are antiquated and massively overpriced.

In the real world, you can't really use any of the revolutionary travel technologies unless you're willing to pay a fortune for data connectivity.

How great is the revolution?

A video hit YouTube this week showing a Microsoft researcher demonstrating language translation technologies.

In the demo, Microsoft Chief Research Officer Rick Rashid says something, and in less than two seconds, a natural-sounding Chinese translation is spoken by a computer -- in Rashid's own voice. (Forward to 7:30 in this video to see the demonstration.)

Of course, Microsoft's technology is still in the research stage. But apps that provide functional audible and instantaneous translations are widely available.

Some support multiple languages. Others specialize in translations between two languages. They typically involve speaking, getting the text, then pushing a button for the foreign language to be spoken. One example is an app called Vocre. Another good one is Google Translate. They work great -- if you're connected to the Internet.

One exception that I'm aware of is an iOS and Android app called Jibbigo, which offers free language translation with a connection. But for $4.99 per "language pair," they'll let you download their "offline translator." (Unfortunately for me, Jibbigo doesn't support Turkish.)

The other good news is that the revolution in travel apps includes sign-reading apps that don't require an Internet connection.

For example, apps like Pleco (for translation of Chinese into English) and Word Lens (for English to and from French, Italian or Spanish) will translate written words, so you can "read" menus and signs without an Internet connection.

Another potentially awesome resource for travelers originates in the same research organization as Apple's artificial intelligence voice assistant, Siri.

Currently in a public beta release, the iPad-only app is called Desti, and it uses Siri-like natural language processing and semantic search to "understand" and then answer questions you have when you're traveling.

With Desti, a new iPad app now in public beta, users type in questions in natural language and get back advice about where to stay, what to eat and what to do while traveling.

The Desti service "harvests" information from social networks about the details that people have uploaded about hotels, restaurants and other places you may visit. Plus, it draws information from Factual, Wikipedia, Foursquare and a database used by Hotels Combined.

You type in natural-language questions, such as "where can I find a nice hotel with a comfortable bed?"

The results are presented on a card with pictures.

The app could be amazing for international travelers -- it's just the kind of thing you need to fully enjoy a foreign country. Right now, it's limited to Northern California. The drawback is that if it goes international, you won't be able to use it while traveling abroad unless you pay a fortune for broadband data roaming.

(By the way, Siri is useless without a connection, too.)

How bad is the connection problem?

I'm writing this column at a Starbucks in Istanbul, Turkey. I've been in the country for a month, and before that I was in Greece for three months. During that time, I haven't used any of the translation or advanced planning apps I have installed on my iPhone -- not even once.

The reason is that mobile broadband is massively expensive.

When you want to use a translation app, for example, you're usually approaching someone on the street, or walking into a hotel or store. At that moment, you don't have a connection.

You can find Wi-Fi here and there (mostly here -- at Starbucks), but it's harder than it looks. Most networks are password-protected. Even the open Wi-Fi networks and those where they give you the password can be super flaky or nonfunctional.

You really need mobile broadband abroad to take advantage of the travel app revolution.

There are many different ways to get mobile broadband. One is to sign up for your home carrier's International plan.

I use AT&T, and they charge -- wait for it -- about $30 for every 120MB of data on top of your regular wireless bill. A megabyte is trivially easy to download -- especially since there's no telling how much data is being transmitted when you're using apps.

But if, as an example, you managed to limit your mobile broadband usage to a tiny 1GB per week, you're looking at an additional $900 on your monthly phone bill.

There are other options -- including local or regional mobile broadband services. But these are always hideously complicated, flaky and also very expensive. They also tend to be country-specific. So if you go on a trip that involves five countries, you've got five massive research projects to figure out what your options are.

The reality is that mobile broadband abroad simply isn't worth the cost and trouble, so you're not going to have it. And if you don't have mobile broadband, the travel app revolution doesn't matter -- you can't participate.

It's not just the super-advanced new apps that are out of reach. Sites ranging from AirBnB to restaurant finders and review sites all require Internet connections. Even something everyone in the U.S. takes for granted, map apps like Google Maps, aren't useful when you really need them the most -- when you're lost in a foreign city.

First World problem?

I know, I know. People lucky enough to go traveling abroad shouldn't be whining about the high cost of mobile broadband. It's a First World problem (even if you're having that problem in the Third World).

The mobile revolution in general and the travel app revolution in particular are still fantastic.

But the point I'm trying to make is that incredible advances that erase language barriers and use supercomputer-like artificial intelligence to optimize travel planning and discovery are only as good as the network connection you have available to you.

Yes, mobile broadband roaming exists. But you know what? Cellphones existed in the 1980s, too -- but only very wealthy people had them. The actual mobile revolution didn't happen until the price of cellphones came down.

Likewise, the mobile travel revolution isn't going to really happen until the price of mobile broadband roaming is affordable.

I love the new travel app technology. But I'd also love to see some of these genius engineers tackle the Mother of All travel problems -- how to get connected abroad reliably and affordably.

Until that problem is solved, the travel app revolution isn't going anywhere.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free email newsletter, Mike's List. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Read more about mobile apps in Computerworld's Mobile Apps Topic Center.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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