Planet technology

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

Lonely Planet is a 45-year-old startup. In 1973, we took a simple idea and adopted a content platform: providing information to travelers was the goal and books were the best medium. It was state of the art at the time – and early experimentation and adoption has defined the company since then.

In this article, we reflect on how technology has evolved at Lonely Planet and how we have adapted our content to emerging platforms over the years. Some of these experiences have been successes, others failures. Here are some of the lessons we learned from taking risks along the way.

The 70’s

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

Across Asia at low cost guide created by Tony and Maureen Wheeler, which led to the birth of Lonely Planet.

Technology: A royal typewriter purchased in Singapore to produce Lonely Planet’s very first manuscript.

Unfortunately, this historical artifact was later stolen from Penang. Royal Typewriter # 2 was also purchased in Singapore and can be viewed at the Lonely Planet Museum from our Melbourne office.

Maureen Wheeler collecting hand-drawn maps for the Second Lonely Planet Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget, at 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 the Control Program Monitor operating system and custom accounting software, so manuscripts had to be typed!

Soon after, the T10 alone could no longer handle ever-increasing amounts of sales information and entering and editing writers’ texts.

The cards had always been drawn by hand at Lonely Planet. They were produced at a larger size to allow cartographers to work on the smallest details, then reduced to the size of a book photographically. It was a labor of love that took a long time – so much so that some of Lonely Planet’s early maps were featured in a British Library exhibition on mapping.

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

We reused these edition cards in edition. It was a very archaic system: updating the type or symbols involved removing / replacing the old sticky labels, and any line changes involved scratching the ink from the special drawing film the cards were drawn on.

So in 1988 we bought our first PC for mapping: an IBM-clone XT 286 running AutoCAD version 2.5 software, combined with a digitizing tablet (input) and plotter pen (output). This workstation cost almost AUD $ 20,000! Fortunately, the cost of materials dropped rapidly and within a few years every artist had a PC and a digitizer on their desk.

Soon after, Lonely Planet set up its first IT department (a man) and established its first local area network (LAN), which relied on telephone data cables threaded between PCs. We ran our network cables through the roof, but were a little put off by the electric shocks and falling stacked furniture. At first, computers were quite dangerous!

The 90’s

Technology: products for consumers.

Lonely Planet was now getting a little more tech savvy and quickly began 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 avid travel friends at O’Reilly suggested that Tony and Maureen take a laptop with them on their trip to the United States and publish a daily newspaper on the groundbreaking Internet magazine they were on. point to throw. Hewlett Packard provided a compact OmniBook laptop for travel, as well as a car phone (which plugs into one of the many lighters). Tony and Maureen even experimented with a first digital camera, but uploading images to the web turned out to be a project ahead of its time.

In 1995, the company launched, one of the first consumer travel websites and today our flagship digital offering. Shortly after, we launched the Thorn Tree forum, a community of travelers who have been sharing advice and expertise for over 20 years.

The first home page of


Technology: mobile devices.

The early 2000s saw Lonely Planet experimenting with our content on mobile devices. We launched Palm Pilot / City Sync guides in 22 different cities, but the experience was awkward and didn’t perform as well as a physical guide.

Despite receiving around half a million downloads, the functionality and monetization needed a lot more thought. Soon after, we worked with Nokia, a partnership that would last for many years, to launch city guides on SD cards.

In 2006, to keep the momentum going, we launched Lonely Planet City Guides for Sony PSP – PSP planet – and, as mobile has quickly become a part of everyday life, content suitable for this platform has also become 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 application space has changed dramatically in its first decade; in 2008, our hugely popular iPhone phrasebooks were $ 9.99!

The first Lonely Planet apps on iOS

In 2009, we had 99 standalone iPhone apps in the App Store.


Technology: tablets and more mobiles.

Mobile development continued at a steady pace. We’ve 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 The 1000 Ultimate Experiences app was created exclusively for iPad.

In 2013, we launched a number of new mobile products, including audio tours and an experience 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 experience augmented reality, using the Layar app to allow readers to scan Lonely Planet covers and access exclusive content. Meanwhile, Compass guides have been launched on Android; this app superimposed Lonely Planet content on the user’s location via the camera.

Lonely Planet’s Compass app overlaid destination content over camera view

In recent years, on a deeper level, we’ve completely redesigned the way we gather and curate content for a multiplatform world, focusing first on high-quality destination coverage and then using experts to create products specially designed for different contexts.

The launch in 2016 of Guides was the result of our dedicated mobile team understand use cases for travelers with mobile devices and how our content could better serve that audience. 1.8 million downloads later and over 150 cities in the guides, we’ve been dedicated to enabling travelers to share their own experiences on the road and Travel was born.

The future…

Technology: your voice.

This year, we focused on other spaces where travelers 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 travelers 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 travelers the best information possible, no matter what platform or device they are using.

The biggest lesson we’ve learned is the value of listening to travelers – because all that really matters is whether they find our products useful or not.

Have a good trip!

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