Tales of Mobile Woe

First published June 1, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

On Tuesday night, I was wondering aimlessly through the streets of Old Montreal, staring in hapless confusion at my Pocket PC. Prior to the trip, I thought I had passed into the elite of the technologically advanced road warrior. With Pocket Maps loaded, my hotel location pinpointed and a plethora of enticing little dots to explore, I set out on the cobblestoned streets, secure in the knowledge that the entire streetscape of Montreal was magically captured in my trusty iPAQ.

Exploring old-world Quebec, new-world style

I’m a pretty savvy traveler. I have a great sense of direction, usually study a map ahead to get the “lay of the land,” and can keep north and south straight in my head. My wife’s family often wonders how I do it, as they have no sense of direction at all.

I remember one trip to Vancouver with my father-in-law. I was heading for the Second Narrows Bridge to cross over into North Van, and was on the street that would take us right onto the bridge. My father-in-law asked where I thought I was going, and when I told him the bridge, he said I was way too far west; it was at least two miles further east. As we stayed on the road and eventually ended up on the bridge, he harrumphed and said they must have moved it. Obviously one of those migratory bridges.

So, with this innate ability, enhanced with my newfound technical navigational advantage, I figured there should be no stopping me. This was the trial run for a family trip this summer to France and Italy.

 

Input and output: kaput!

 

I got one block from the hotel and was totally lost. I had no idea where north and south were. The tiny 2.5- by 3.5-inch screen held no clues for me, as I zoomed in and out and helplessly panned around, looking for a street with which I could get my bearings. Street names sometimes appeared, and sometimes didn’t.

And the huge church in front of me, which I recognized as Basilique Notre Dame, one of Montreal’s most famous landmarks, for some reason didn’t show up on my diminutive map. Instead there was a little blue dot labeled “Vieux Seminare,” practically obliterated by hundreds of restaurant and hotel icons. I scratched around helplessly with my stylus as I slowly walked down the street, trying to pan to a section of map that looked familiar.

If you’ve never tried using a stylus while walking, be forewarned, you need the steady hands of a brain surgeon and the dexterity of a Cirque du Soleil performer. It’s not for the faint of heart. I would just get to a section of the map that looked promising when I would have to look up to avoid running into a lamppost or person and suddenly my stylus would leap across the screen and transport me to the nether regions of Montreal, miles from my current location. Once it accidentally opened a map of Manhattan, and I was halfway to Times Square before I realized what happened.

As I reached a square, I saw a map of Old Montreal conveniently placed for tourists, a real map, 3 feet by 4 feet, with icons that didn’t disappear and street names I could read. It was at a scale where I could look at more than a block of the map at a time and still see the points of interest. I pocketed the iPAQ, got my bearings and happily explored the rest of the Old City (which is fabulous, or as they say here, tres merveilleux) as the iPAQ dozed silently in its holster. Its wandering days are over.

And here we have the biggest problem with mobile. Getting information into it, and getting information out. We are not Lilliputians. My fingers can pretty much wipe out an entire family of BlackBerry keys in one swipe. And my thumbs are even more dangerous. This was not the way a 6-foot, 220-pound guy was meant to communicate. Give me a durable, beefy keyboard that can take my not-so-subtle advances.

The only thing meant to be seen on a 2.5- by 3.5-inch screen is Dr. Phil, because just when he gets to the peak of his self-righteous “I can’t help you unless you help yourself” diatribe, you can pretend you’re squishing his head between your thumb and forefinger. This also works with Donald Trump on “The Apprentice” and Simon Cowell on “American Idol,” by the way.

I dream of a heads-up display embedded in my eyeglasses, and a workable voice interface. You say what you want, and it instantly springs up in front of your eyes. Now that would be sweet. Hey, if anybody out there is working on this stuff, let me know. I’d like to buy stocks.

The wireless ransom

My first lesson with mobile data roaming came soon after getting the iPAQ. We hopped in the motorhome and headed to California. Of course, we experimented on the way with how nifty it was to check e-mail, look up Web sites and, for my wife, to chat on Messenger for several hours between Lincoln City and Florence (Oregon, not Italy) with her sister back home. We reached San Francisco and, in trying to locate Molinari’s delicatessen (a place you just have to get a sandwich, by the way), we just searched for the Web site, found the address and walked right to it. This was what being wired was being all about!

Then we got home and found out what being hosed was all about. We got the mobile bill: $800 in data charges for two weeks! Looking up the restaurant probably cost us more than the meal itself. I figure each of my wife’s Messenger chats averaged about 30 dollars. Since then, I’ve learned to not keep bringing up this point in domestic discussions.

Until we get some broadband upgrades, standardized rates and roaming agreements that cost less than the GNPs of most small countries, we’re scared to death of going online on a mobile device. It’s like going into your lawyer’s office. You get in, get what you want to say said, and get out. You don’t comment on décor, mention children or bring up holidays. At 300 bucks-plus an hour, it would be cheaper to call a 900 number and chew the fat about female self awareness with Jenn and Barbie at Dial-a-Date.com.

Convergence soon, please!

The third leg of the mobile conundrum is the usefulness of the apps you use. At first glance, they look great, but anemic features, lack of computing power and restricted storage space make you realize their limitations all too quickly. The concept is great; the execution leaves a little to be desired.

Case in point: although you can find points of interest in Pocket Maps, you can’t link them together with suggested routes. I realize the data to calculate the routes is a little much to expect from a Pocket PC, but why does it have to be that way? Isn’t technology here to solve our problems? Anyone trying to create an itinerary on the fly will soon give up.

Also, the points of interest and landmarks you find just give the title and address–nothing else. Even if they did give you a Web site link, you’d be afraid to click on it because Web sites get totally hacked on the small PDA screen, take forever to load and cost you a small fortune to access.

The promise of things yet to come

I want a smarter mobile navigational and search experience. I want to be able to indicate my starting point on my GPS-enabled mobile computer, feed in my interests, get a real search online function to help me find locations (Pocket Map’s 2006 is an improvement over 2004, but leaves a lot to be desired), have the best routes indicated, give me one-click access to information, menus, entertainment, prices and reservations for restaurants, integrate reviews and best- of lists like CitySearch and TripAdvisor, and switch to a satellite view if I wish.

Better yet, I’d like to indicate times I’d like to take a sight-seeing tour, a time I want to stop for supper, and have my PDA work as a smart assistant for me to take my likes and dislikes and provide me with a list of suggestions for my approval. Upon approval, it would lay out the best route and point out landmarks I should look for on the way. As always, search will be the functional layer that ties it all together.

Or think what shopping with a super-smart PDA would be like. You are in a shop and see something you absolutely love. You scan the label with your PDA and see if there are any others in a four-block radius at a lower cost. There is, in a store two blocks east (the map is already drawn) and in different colors. You send a request to the store to set them aside. You start delivering mobile functionality like that and you’ll leave desktop -bound PCs in the dust.

I’m sure most of the capabilities I dream about lie here and there in development, tiny little fragments of a yet-to-be-integrated solution. When it comes, it will be a wonderful thing. But for now, when I’m on the road, the iPAQ will probably spend more time in the holster than out of it. I haven’t totally given up yet, though. The Bluetooth GPS receiver I ordered from eBay is on its way, if it didn’t get lost!

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