Fitting a travel guide into a handheld

Technology companies and information providers are teaming up to make electronic "to go" versions of popular travel tools. Images: MapQuest puts directions on the phone Images: Virtual girlfriend comes to life

By now, it's almost second nature for travelers to scour the Web for information useful for a trip--like flight schedules, restaurant reviews, driving directions and maps--print out the results and stuff it all in a carry-on with the other paper that technology was supposed to banish.


Images: MapQuest
sends data to your
phone (click to view).

But lately, technology companies and information providers have been teaming up to make electronic "to go" versions of popular travel tools, betting on a developing market for content and services designed for handheld devices and mobile phones.

So far, that market is dominated by revenue from e-mail, text messaging, games and ring tones--together, about 85 percent of the $2.8 billion consumers spent on mobile data last year, according to the Yankee Group. But other niche applications are increasingly making the leap from the desktop to the jacket pocket--many aiming at the mobile workers who carry the phones and handheld gadgets that are most suited to handle advanced applications.

For instance, OAG, a publisher of airline flight schedules, introduced a digital version of that data in December, OAG Flight-Finder, which works on Palm and Pocket PC devices. For $99 for a one-year subscription, travelers can download the North American version of the product, which includes schedules for nearly 300 airlines flying within the region and to major cities worldwide. Versions for Latin America, Europe and Asia sell for the same price.

Flight-Finder cannot tell you whether your plane is going to be late, but if your meeting ends early, you can look up the next scheduled flight. The data for each version, which is updated when the device is plugged into a computer that is online, takes up about 3MB of memory, a threshold that makes it more suited to PDAs than phones.

"Until recently, a lot of phones didn't have 3MB of storage on them," said Tom Moellering, a product manager for OAG, adding that another challenge for content providers is developing a product that works on all the different devices customers carry, which use different operating systems.


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This is not OAG's first foray into the mobile market. Some of its flight schedules are also available as part of a travel application called WorldMate, developed by an Israeli company, MobiMate, which bundles a variety of tools useful to travelers. Among the options are weather forecasts, a clock that can display times around the world, a currency converter, a tax and tip calculator, clothing size converters and international dialing codes.

The WorldMate Professional edition, which has the most features, is available for Palm and Pocket PC devices for $69.95 a year; stripped-down versions are available for other devices, like the BlackBerry and various Nokia, Motorola and Sony Ericsson phones. Prices vary depending on the product but typically involve an annual subscription, as do many of these mobile applications.

WorldMate was one of the top sellers last year on Handango, a Web site that offers more than 50,000 software downloads for a range of handheld devices and smart phones. Customers can browse by product to see what is available for the device they carry. For Pocket PC devices, another source for software is PocketGear.com.

"We add around 60 new applications a day to our catalog, so there's just an amazing amount of innovation taking place," said Clint Patterson, Handango's vice president for marketing. The two biggest-selling categories of products, he said, are applications that add features to a device's built-in contact and calendar programs and applications that enhance productivity, like enabling mobile workers to view Microsoft Office documents on their handheld devices.

Artificial Life's virtual girlfriend
Related images: Virtual
girlfriend will come to
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Other products of interest to travelers include games like backgammon, solitaire, poker and Pac-Man; expense trackers; foreign-language dictionaries; subway guides; and map programs. In February, Handango was also selling a program called Hot Girls 2005, accompanied by an animation showing a blond woman dancing in a bikini top, skirt, and Nancy Sinatra-style go-go boots. "That may have missed the family-friendly filter--or it could be that it passed our screening," Patterson said.

Prices for these applications typically range from $9.95 to $29.95, sometimes with a free trial period. But some of the more complex programs cost quite a bit more, and those prices represent a shift from the free ride consumers have grown accustomed to online.

"Information on the Web is largely free, but content providers have the opportunity to get it right this time," said Adam Zawel, an analyst who follows the wireless industry for the Yankee Group. "Already, tens of millions of people have purchased some kind of wireless content, mostly ring tones." Although more-complex applications represent a much smaller share of purchases, he said, they generally cost a lot more.

That said, many of the publishers moving into the mobile data market do not give away their content on the Web. OAG charges $199 a year for access to its online database of flight schedules. The Zagat Survey charges $19.95 a year to read its restaurant reviews on the Web, compared with $24.95 a year for its Zagat to Go product, which enables customers to download restaurant reviews for up to 67 cities to their Palm or Pocket PC handheld devices.

Because of space limitations, customers typically download reviews for their city and wherever they are traveling, said Dan Entin, who manages Internet and wireless products for Zagat. About half of the people who use Zagat to Go are business travelers, he said. (The mobile product also includes reviews of golf courses, movies, bars and clubs.)

Vindigo, a New York City company that pioneered the concept of a mobile city guide for handhelds, introduced its Vindigo City Guide in 2000 and still sells that product for Palm and Pocket PC devices. It costs $24.95 a year and includes local listings for restaurants, museums, stores, bars, movie theaters and even nearby ATMs and bathrooms. But in recent years, Vindigo has shifted its focus more toward developing content for cell phones.

"I would say today 80 percent of our customers are using a cell phone as a PDA," said Jason Devitt, the company's chief executive. "Cell phones are becoming more and more powerful and incorporating the features of the PDA."

Vindigo has joined forces with cell phone manufacturers and service providers to offer its city guide and other applications to wireless customers; prices vary, but a subscription is typically a few dollars a month.


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Vindigo also worked with MapQuest to develop MapQuest Mobile, available to Sprint, Verizon and Cingular customers for about $4 a month. "What we've done is create a lightweight application on your cell phone, and that goes out on the Internet to talk to MapQuest.com," Devitt said. Another option is to search for a map or driving directions at MapQuest.com and choose the "download to PDA" feature (or just stick with printouts).

Which raises the question of whether the companies developing these mobile services can persuade many customers to pay for them. Most declined to disclose how many people have purchased their products.

"There's still a lot of pricing chaos, and then they have the development challenge, too," said Zawel, the Yankee Group analyst. "That's their headache, but that's also the opportunity for them."

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