MocoInterview: Bob Hitching On Lonely Planet’s Mobile Plans

Lonely Planet is gearing up its mobile division, keen to get a good presence in the mobile marketplace. This is hardly surprising, considering it’s type of business. I spoke with Bob Hitching, program director for digital and wireless innovation at Lonely Planet, about the companies plans.

Lonely Planet are planning a smorgasbord of mobile content for its readers, ranging across SMS, WAP, downloadable Java apps and rich content. A couple of years ago mobile versions of the guidebooks were released, but the new efforts will take a slightly different tack. “It was (a success) but we now know a lot more about how travellers are going to consume these services,” said Hitching. “It’s more obvious now how to provide services that work across both mobile and web.”

Experimenting: Lonely Planet is currently trying a range of different things to see what will work in the mobile marketplace. “All of the building blocks for the ultimate travelling companion are there,” claimed Hitching, pointing out that all the handsets in the US are GPS-enabled, Europeans are very comfortable with mobile billing and so on. All the pieces are there, but not together in the one place yet…

The ultimate aim is for you to turn up in Kathmandu, your phone will know where you are, you can read a review of somewhere to eat and what it costs, find out what someone said about the place last night, get a map to direct you there, and submit your own review after you’ve eaten.

Hitching said that mobile services will never replace guidebooks, which he described as an amazing piece of technology that never run out of battery, never have compatibility issues, and so on. Mobile services will be complementary to guidebooks, allowing people to stay in touch with other travellers and with people back home, through mobile blogging.

(More on roaming and and the wonders of Web 2.0)

Web 2.0 is the answer: For Lonely Planet Web 2.0 solved a lot of problems, or at least pointed the way to the solutions. People are now a lot more comfortable providing reviews and content, and the problem of restaurants (for example) submitting fake reviews is combated by people having a reputation in the forums. “When someone submits a review we know all about their previous behaviour in our digital community,” said Hitching. The company plans to link its mobile efforts to its online sites like the forums Thorn Tree and the accommodation and booking site Haystack.

Part of Lonely Planet’s strategy is community-based, and part is building off the existing content the company has. The revenue stream will depend on the type of content — SMS services lend themselves to premium SMS billing while other content could involve sponsorships or other forms of mobile advertising.

Location-based services are ideally suited to travellers finding their way around a new city. At the end of this month Lonely Planet is launching a new series of books — Encounter — which will be more concise and direct, designed for people who are spending only a short amount of time in a city. It’s launching SMS services to coincide with that.

Death by data roaming: Pretty much by definition, the people who use Lonely Planet’s mobile services will be doing so in countries other than the ones they live in. “Probably the most significant piece that we believe is coming soon but isn’t quite there yet is data roaming costs,” said Hitching. “That’s probably the biggest barrier to these applications that exists right now.”

It’s a pretty hefty one — no-one’s going to use a data-rich mobile service while roaming, not after the first bill, anyway. Hitching believes the roaming costs will come down, and points to 3 eliminating roaming charges across its networks. The EU is trying to get telcos to lower roaming charges, but this is likely to result in higher roaming charges for non-Europeans.

Good news, they’re hiring: Lonely Planet is setting up an innovation lab in Sydney to build the new mobile technology, and are looking for partners to do this. It’s also looking to attract Sydney’s top engineering talent… The trials of the new technology will take place mostly in Sydney, London and San Francisco.