Going Social

The Venture Capitalist was displeased.

“That’s all you’ve got?” he barked, taking a deep swig from his bottle of soylent. “People don’t even travel anymore; they do everything in VR! You should be making goggles and helmets. But no! You wrote a travel app?”

In our imagination, a pin dropped and shattered our eardrums in a burst of silence. A hundred eyes focused in unison as our stock split and our fair market value turned tail and went negative.

The Venture Capitalist went in for the kill.

“Maybe your users need a GPX track to find the bathroom after Netflix and chilling?”

The elevator pitch had begun so smoothly. We had designed for ourselves and expected like-minded people to come out of the woodwork. Maybe it wasn’t exactly Uber for adventurers. But could it become Word for wanderers?

But now things had gone awry. We passed the hundred and eleventh floor, and the elevator was beginning to shake. We were fairly sure the building only had nine stories.

Looking down, the floor was clear glass. A sargassum of forked blockchains writhed beneath us, abandoned by even the hoariest of miners. The lights flickered. The elevator’s display no longer had a floor number, just a name. We had arrived at the cemetery of failed software projects. Several floors beneath us, a Pets.com sign blinked ominously.

It was then that we noticed the distinct lack of pants in our lives. While embarrassing, it explained a lot.

We awoke in cold sweat, still hearing the Venture Capitalist’s final mocking laugh. “Hey, maybe you can make it social, too! Like Facebook for hobos!”

As we poured ourselves an unusually large bowl of cereal, we reflected that even bad nightmares can bring good ideas. It was true: we had conceptualized trip planning as a solitary activity: our target customer was a modern-day Magellan, burning the midnight oil over maps and charts, searching out obscure petroglyph sites on Instagram while polishing his astrolabe and sextant.

So why not do something more social? No man is an island. And our extensive user research has hinted at the possibility that some of our users might even have friends.

With that realization, the scenarios practically wrote themselves.

Maybe you’re travelling with someone, and they’re not terribly fond of surprises. You share the trip with them. They might even give you some feedback. Or even navigate while you drive.

Maybe you’re travelling someplace risky, and you want someone outside your travel party to know where you are. You share the trip with them, and they’ll know to call the County sheriff when you don’t check in.

Maybe your friends want to go on that hike to see the waterfall you posted on Flickr the other day. You reluctantly share the trip with them, feeling a twinge of responsibility for when they inevitably get lost. At least they have you to call the sheriff for them.

The app already supports uploading trips to cloud storage. So why not just share those trips with other people as well? You can even set read/write permissions, and choose to share all your trips or just one.

And so we did that. We went social. Sort of.

Somewhere, someplace, the elevator lurched into motion. This time, we had remembered to dress professionally, hiking boots and all, backpack loaded with water, spare lenses, and a packed lunch.

“Come hiking with us, and try it for yourself”, we said. “We’ll share the trip with you.”

The Venture Capitalist installed version 2.1.0 and asked for a premium code. We watched nervously as he downloaded the trip.

Suddenly the elevator stopped. The door opened to a high alpine forest. Morning sunlight filtered through the dwarf trees, scattering off erratics and wildflowers. Patches of snow lingered in the shadows. The air was crisp and clear. A mature blockchain rattled happily in the distance. We had arrived at the trailhead.

Release to Manufacturing

Paintbrushes

In these dire times something as trivial as a software launch is likely beneath your attention. We live in the most interesting of times. Fascism is on the march. They’ve come for the children, and they’re not giving them back. There is no app for that, not even a moral compass.

All we know is that there’s a lot of travelling in our future. Maybe we’ll be going to a march to protest state-sponsored child abuse. Maybe we’ll casually visit a country without extradition treaties. Or maybe someone will put us on a train. Either way, there is an app for that, and if we manage to smuggle a smartphone in our underwear we might be able to use it.

With that in mind, it is our pleasure to announce that our Android app has officially left Beta and is now available to everyone in the Google Play Store. With version 2.0.5 the app has finally graduated. Maybe you can even offer it a job.

We stand by our usual principles for this release: if it’s not good enough for us, it’s not good enough for you. To that end, we spent ten days in May wandering off the grid in southwest Utah, with Backroads for Android as our guide. The app performed admirably, and we came home with a bunch of tracks recording our adventures. They even synced up to the cloud and happily jumped to all of our devices without even asking us. This might not be the app the world needs these days, but it’s become a mighty fine tool for adventure travel.

Safe travels, and watch out for fascists.

Trip Sync

Mauna Kea Summit

You might think that keeping things in sync would be fairly simple. It’s just copying data around, right? But no.

What makes it difficult is handling conflicts. Just like in the real world, we’d have fewer problems if we all just got along. But like a programmatic Middle East, some data synchronization conflicts are simply intractable. In the abstract, there’s no right answer. Just, if we’re lucky, a compromise that all parties can agree to.

But we’re just a humble software program. The only game we know is abstraction, and we’re not invited to any of the good parties.

So we do our best, but even when we do everything right there are cases where the result is wrong. We don’t even know why, but we end up accused of corruption. There is no trial. We’re uninstalled. Game over.

Next time around we have a thought. Spending some time in the real world always brings inspiration and, sometimes, solutions. This one is simple, and it seems to work for almost everyone in this day and age: what if we hand off all of our externalities to someone else?

It turns out we’re not really in the data synchronization business at all. Instead, we simply provide a conduit for data to be synced. A higher authority can decide what’s right and what’s wrong, and worry about who killed who. We’re just a data-agnostic platform, a neutral happy medium without a message, an arms dealer to good guys with trips to sync up and down. If we had a business model, it would be keeping our hands clean.

One question remains unanswered. To whom shall we externalize the problems that weigh so deeply on our souls? Well, dear user, if you don’t know the answer to that, then it’s probably you.

Which brings us to our latest Backroads premium feature. As of version 2.0.0, you can now use your OneDrive account to sync trips between your devices. And when we say sync, what we mean is that we give you upload and download buttons on your trips and you decide when to press them. The app will warn you if you’re about to overwrite local changes, or about to upload an older version to the cloud.

It works quite well, and we think you’ll really like the feature. We think there’s at least one more fun thing we can do with cloud storage, so this isn’t the end of the story. And maybe this cloud thing will catch on after all.

I Sync, Therefore I Am

Utah 476

A few years ago, back in the late Cretaceous, programming was a lot simpler than it is now.

In a nutshell, the bar was lower. Users had lower expectations. Software didn’t do all that much, and it was perceived as a minor miracle when it actually worked. Shrines would be erected, candles lit, flowers arranged. Celebrations might continue until the IT guys got tired, sent everyone home, and finally got some sleep.

Most of our recent work on Backroads has focused on improving the tracking experience. Of course, someone interested in travel is probably also going to be interested in recording their travel locations. And yet, we released many versions of the app without any support whatsoever. Intolerable, for the world’s best travel companion app™.

However, even with world-class support for tracking, it still seemed like something was missing. In our dreams we were haunted by Zawinski’s law, feverishly tearing open fractal matryoshkas of envelopes with no underlying message to be found. We’d awake sweating under rumpled sheets, hoping it was just the head cold.

Clearly we needed something more. These days, if an app can’t successfully impersonate you on social media and overthrow foreign governments with carefully crafted fake news, it’s barely considered sentient. Three stars at best. Your minimum viable product is viable no longer.

But deep down, we didn’t want to read anyone else’s email. Nor did we want to add to the noise on Facebook and Twitter with travel-related spam. There’s quite enough of that already, and election interference really isn’t our forte.

As we tossed and turned, we remembered that computing, at its core, used to mostly be about copying things around. Registers to cache to memory to disk and then back again, until CPUs got so complicated that even the bus you take to work is now mostly speculative. The same principle can still be seen in modern computing, which at its core is about making permanent copies, surveilling them, and then selling you ads. One might call it standing on the shoulders of giants, except the giants are probably robots.

Then it hit us. Just like the embarrassing social media posts that will follow you around forever, what if we synced copies of your tracks around to every device you own? The future is now, and it’s an indelible data stream that can’t be turned off. Why wouldn’t we want to participate in that? And as of Backroads 1.1.4, you can too.

Now all we need is a blockchain and a neural network.

Android adventures

Leprechaun Canyon

Well, our secret is out.

We’ve ported the Backroads app to Android and released it to the masses as a Beta. You can now get it from the Play Store for free for Android 4.0.3 and above.

In case you’re curious, we used Xamarin Forms to create the Android app, allowing us to share our core business logic with the Windows version. Startup times are a bit long and the app is a little sluggish, but it’s a minor miracle that you can even write a decent Android app in C#.

A shortcut we chose is to only expose the trip companion aspects of the app in the Android version. Trip planning is a fairly involved activity, requiring substantial amounts of user input, and is best done with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. So the recommended workflow is to plan your trip on your Windows PC, export the trip to your Android device, and follow the day-to-day of the trip on that device. If there’s something you would really like to do on your phone, but can’t, please let us know.

One thing to note is that Google Maps needs a network connection once in the lifetime of the app before it will work. So make sure you run the app and enter a page containing a map before you disappear into the hinterlands and run the app for the first time offline. Otherwise, mapping functionality won’t work at all. Thanks, Google.

There’s also no system-wide support for offline maps in Android, so don’t expect to see any map markings while your device is offline. Your GPX tracks, will of course be rendered as you’d expect. So make sure any waypoints you care about are present in your tracks.

Beyond that… as mentioned, the app is still in Beta. We’ve dogfooded it quite a bit, but it still isn’t quite as battle-tested as the Windows app. We also haven’t run it on that many Android devices, so we’re looking forward to your feedback on how it works for you. Enjoy the app, and stay safe!