The 45-year-old startup: how Lonely Planet's technology has evolved for a changing world

The 45-year-old startup: how Lonely Planet's technology has evolved for a changing world

Lonely Planet is a 45-year-old startup. In 1973, we took a simple idea and embraced a content platform: providing travellers with information was the goal and books were the best medium. This was cutting-edge stuff at the time – and experimentation and early adoption have defined the company ever since.

In this post, we reflect on the evolution of technology at Lonely Planet and the ways we’ve adapted our content for emerging platforms over the years. Some of those experiments were successes, others failures. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learnt from taking risks along the way.

The 70s

Technology: glue, staples, paper; a borrowed office typewriter on a kitchen table.

Across Asia on the Cheap guidebook created by Tony and Maureen Wheeler, which lead to the birth of Lonely Planet.

Technology: a Royal Typewriter purchased in Singapore to produce Lonely Planet’s first ever manuscript.

Sadly, this historical artefact was later stolen in Penang. Royal Typewriter #2 was also purchased in Singapore and can be seen in the Lonely Planet Museum in our Melbourne Office.

Maureen Wheeler putting together maps by hand for the second ever Lonely Planet guide South East Asia on a Shoestring, in The Palace Hotel, Singapore in 1975

Early 80s

Technology: Lonely Planet’s first computer – a Century T10.

The T10 came with an 8" floppy disk drive, ran Control Programme Monitor Operating System and custom-written accounting software. Although Lonely Planet eagerly embraced this innovation, some of our processes lagged a long way behind: authors were still submitting their work on paper, so manuscripts had to be typed up!

After a short time, the sole T10 couldn’t cope with ever-increasing amounts of sales information and inputting and editing writers’ text, so the company bought a second computer – a Kaypro – and would eventually amass 18 of these machines.

Maps had always been hand-drawn at Lonely Planet. They were produced at a larger size to allow cartographers to work on the fine detail, then reduced to book-size photographically. They were time-consuming labours of love — so much so, some early Lonely Planet maps featured in a British Library exhibition on mapping.

Pre-digitisation, Lonely Planet guides in the 80s still included some hand-drawn elements

We re-used these maps from edition to edition. It was a very archaic system: updating type or symbols involved removing/replacing old sticky labels, and any line-work edits involved scratching ink off the special drafting film upon which the maps were drawn.

So, in 1988, we purchased our first PC for mapping: an IBM-clone XT 286 running AutoCAD version 2.5 software, paired with a digitizing tablet (input) and a pen-plotter (output). This one workstation cost close to $AUD20k! Thankfully, the cost of hardware fell quickly and within a couple of years every artist had a PC and a digitizer on their desk.

Soon after, Lonely Planet set up its first (one-man) IT department and created its first Local Area Network (LAN), which relied on telephone data cables strung between PCs. We ran our network cables up into the roof, but were a bit discouraged by electric shocks and falls from stacked furniture. Early computing was pretty dangerous!

The 90s

Technology: consumer-facing products.

Lonely Planet was getting a little more tech savvy by now and soon started to see technology in terms of a consumer product as well as a business solution. Some ideas never came to fruition — for example, a failed meeting with Bill Gates regarding sharing Lonely Planet content via CD-ROM – but others did.

In 1994, some fellow travel enthusiasts at O’Reilly suggested Tony and Maureen take a laptop computer with them on their trip around the US and post a daily diary on the ground-breaking internet magazine they were about to launch. Hewlett Packard provided a compact OmniBook laptop for the trip, along with a car phone (which plugged into one of the multitude of cigarette lighters). Tony and Maureen even experimented with an early digital camera, but sending images over the web proved a project way ahead of its time.

In 1995, the company launched lonelyplanet.com, one of the earliest consumer-facing travel websites and today our flagship digital offering. Soon after, we launched the Thorn Tree travel forum, a community of travellers which has been sharing advice and expertise for over 20 years.

The first homepage of lonelyplanet.com

2000s

Technology: mobile devices.

The early noughties saw Lonely Planet’s experiment with our content on mobile devices. We launched Palm Pilot/City Sync guides to 22 different cities, but the experience was clunky and didn’t work as well as a physical guidebook.

Despite receiving around half a million downloads, the functionality and monetisation needed much more thought. Shortly after, we worked with Nokia, a partnership that would last many years, to launch SD card city guides.

In 2006, to maintain the momentum, we launched Lonely Planet City Guides on Sony PSP – Planet PSP – and, as mobile swiftly became part of everyday life, so too content tailored for that platform became a part of our core product.

In 2008, we launched a mobile website and apps. Our first iPhone app was a Mandarin Chinese translation guide, launched for the Beijing Olympics. The app space has changed dramatically in its first decade; in 2008, our highly successful phrasebooks on iPhone cost $9.99!

Early Lonely Planet apps on iOS

By 2009, we had 99 standalone iPhone apps in the app store.

2010s

Technology: tablet devices and more mobile.

Mobile development continued apace. We worked with Apple on a number of their product launches, including the iPhone and iPad, providing content to showcase the functionality of these paradigm-shifting devices. The 1000 Ultimate Experiences app was created exclusively for iPad.

In 2013, we launched a number of new products for mobile, including Audio Walking Tours and an experiment with UGC, the Wenzani app, which featured our content alongside that of other travel publishers such as Time Out, Frommer’s and DK.

We also started to experiment with augmented reality, using the Layar app to allow readers to scan Lonely Planet covers and access exclusive content. Meanwhile, Compass guides were launched on Android; this app overlaid Lonely Planet content onto the user’s location via the camera.

Lonely Planet’s Compass app layered destination content onto the camera view

In recent years, at a deeper level, we have completely rethought how we gather and curate content for a multi-platform world, focusing on high-quality coverage of destinations first, then utilising experts to create products specifically designed for different contexts.

The 2016 launch of Guides was the result of our dedicated mobile team understanding the use cases for travellers with mobile devices and how our content could best serve that audience. 1.8 million downloads later and over 150 cities in Guides, we turned our attention to enabling travellers to share their own experiences from the road and Trips was born.

The Future…

Technology: your voice.

This year, we’ve been focusing on other spaces where travellers might find it useful to access our content. An obvious next step was to explore the growing power of voice technology, and we’re proud to say that travellers can now ask Lonely Planet to help them plan their trip through both Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

Each of these experiments, trials and launches has seen the Lonely Planet community come together in a collaborative effort to give travellers the best information possible, whatever platform or device they happen to use.

The biggest lesson we learned is the value of listening to travellers - as all that really matters is whether they find our products useful or not.

Happy travels!