A Hitch in Time

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In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a series of best-selling books which grew out of a 1978 British radio series, researchers and travelers armed with mobile electronic devices roam the galaxy, beaming in reviews which are instantly available to anybody to read.

Douglas Adams, the books' author, says the guide was simply a narrative device back then. But now advances in mobile Internet phones are making an interactive hitchhiker's guide to earth a real possibility. In addition to the Hitchhiker series of novels, which sold 15 million books, Adams has transformed his original idea into a TV series, a record album, a computer game, a Disney movie due out in 2002 and an Internet company called h2g2 (short for hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy). "I inadvertently stumbled onto a rather good idea — a guide created collaboratively and in real time which allows people to share information," says Adams, a U.K. native who divides his time between his home in Santa Barbara, California and h2g2's London headquarters. "Going wireless is a huge step toward where we want to go with this."

Indeed, h2g2's wireless version of the guide aims to make the most of what Internet analysts call the mobile Internet's killer application: combining "personalization" — services geared to a specific user — with "localization" — those linked to a certain place. The mobile guide (www.h2g2.com/onthemove) is already available via wireless application protocol (wap) phones in Europe and on other standards sold in the U.S. and Japan. h2g2's mobile division expects to introduce some services based on localization later this year, and high-speed versions featuring audio, video and text by next year.

Since cell phones work by connecting with bay stations located at various intervals in cities and along roads, operators have always been able to identify — within a certain number of kilometers — where a customer is when he is using a cell phone. But advances in technology mean that operators will soon be able to use the lag time in the arrival of signals to calculate a cell phone user's location down to as little as 10 m. Operators in the U.S. started working on these services because the government expects them to be able, by October 2001, to pinpoint the location of an emergency call placed by a mobile phone to within 125 m. While the idea is to save lives, mobile operators around the world are now looking at using the same technology to guide their customers to tourist sites, restaurants and shows.

What can h2g2 do for you? If you allow the company to use their location data to offer personalized services, it could work like this: you wake up one weekend morning, turn on your mobile phone and ask h2g2 for advice on what to do today; h2g2 looks at where you are and based on what it knows about your personal likes and dislikes, suggests a list of possible activities in your area. From that list you choose an art gallery and ask h2g2 how to get there; h2g2 guides you to the gallery and when asked informs you about the paintings as you view them. You then stroll to a cafe, where you input your review of the art show and your comments on the cafe's coffee. While sipping coffee you exchange text chat with other members, who point you to a nearby beer festival. You don't worry too much about your phone bill because using h2g2 earns you cost-saving loyalty points.

While such services are still some months away, a growing number of mobile users are already tapping into h2g2's Internet site for tourism advice, for instance. Soon h2g2 plans to introduce a premium service allowing users to pay a fixed price to receive a "smarticle," a text-based phone message summarizing sightseeing tips for a particular area, saving mobile users search time and reducing phone charges. h2g2 will make money primarily by taking a cut of operators' airtime revenues and by charging for premium services, says the firm's chief operating officer, Ted Bissell. He says h2g2's website already boasts 55,000 regular members, with three to five times that number of people surfing the site. About 5% are now accessing h2g2 through mobile phones.

Since Babel Fish — a device in the novels that can be inserted into the ear to give the listener instant translation of all languages — have not yet been introduced on earth, visitors to h2g2's site have to be English-speaking. Adams is the first to admit that the earth guide is still patchy in places. For example, the online guide to France contains a review of a pizza-and-pasta joint in the little-known town of Saintes in the Charente Maritime region — but there is nothing at all on Lyons or the renowned restaurants there.

The guide does, however, contain unconventional wisdom, such as tips on French driving: "Drivers rarely (read: never) indicate as they swap lanes and aggressively cut back in when they have overtaken," says one entry. "Thanks via flashing headlights or waving are rare. Save them for visually alerting other drivers how annoyed you are with them. Add vigor."

And where else could you learn how to navigate your way between two locations in Antarctica? "From personal experience gained while drunk and freezing I would like to mention that if one is returning to McMurdo Station following a party at Scott Base, the road is the fastest, warmest and most direct way back to town," says an entry from Tim Smith. "Never stray from the trails — there are snow-covered crevasses concealed on each side and people have died falling into them."

Adams thinks that the beauty of the Web is that "people can add to [the guide], argue with it, correct it — it's more like a real conversation so you can trust what is on it." But he stresses that he is no prophet like Arthur C. Clarke. "I didn't foresee the Internet," he says. "But then neither did the computer industry. Not that that tells us very much, of course — the computer industry didn't even foresee that the century was going to end." Adams is, however, something of a multimedia guru: he is working on an e-book with the working title Brain Box and a film version of another of his books, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Who knows? Maybe Adams' games and his other works will soon be hitching a ride on mobile devices, too.