Sunday, 26 July 2009


Westie - West Highland Terrier DogImage by S and C via Flickr

I was driving over the highlands north of Braemar. It was the first week in January and bitterly cold and wet, the biting rain whipping over the exposed bleakness just turning to freezing. I stopped for the two despondent-looking hitch-hikers huddled together on the side of the twisting highland road. They were rosy-faced with the cold and grateful for the lift as they bustled wetly into the car.

“Where are you going?” They asked me.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I’m just following the computer.”

There was a sudden silence. I handed them the printout. They both held it, open-mouthed, alternately reading the list of instructions and looking up at me in case I had a knife or something.

“B-Braemar will be fine, if that’s okay?” The braver of the two said. But their expressions were clear – I might as well have announced I could see bats swooping out of the sky as I admired the shapes of their skulls with a twisted anthropologist’s drug-pumped intensity.

In 1988, you didn’t drive around the country cluelessly following a computer printout. Nobody had even heard of Autoroute, let alone Tom-Toms and SatNav. These are the perils of the early adopter. People think you’re a nutter all the time. I’ve learned my lessons the hard way – these days I let other mugs wrestle with the unusable geek-fodder at the bleeding edge of technology.

Last weekend, 21 years after Autoroute 1.0 (no printed maps back then – you got a screen map and a printout of directions) and Braemar, my mobile phone took us to Al Ain. Having just got a new N86 (following two perfectly happy years pooh-poohing early adoption freaks such as Gianni and CJ), I finally got a phone that does 3D mapping, SatNav and locational services thingies. It also does in-car FM music transmitting, Twittering, Facebooking and all the other things that we are told telephones should do nowadays. These things all being over and above the actual speaking to other humans stuff that appears to be going out of common practice with increasing rapidity.

The first thing that amazed me was the process of paying for the mapping application license. I bought a month’s trial, just for the hell of it (I’m like that, I can splurge Dhs32 with abandon – I’m such a mad, impetuous thing!) and the card transaction over the mobile was smooth and problem-free. In fact, I’d actually finished it before I realised this was the first time I’d actually paid real card-money for something over a mobile.

We set off for a happy afternoon’s following the directions of the slightly arch-sounding female voice emanating from my phone on the 180Km-odd hack to Al Ain from Northern Sharjah.

We christened her NufNuf. It’s a long story, but if the Brits have a Tom-Tom, we reckoned the Irish could have a Mick-Mick and therefore the UAE could have a NufNuf. NufNuf was the name of the West Highland terrier that Sheikha sent by private jet from London to distraught International School of Choueifat Sharjah Headmistress Dorothy 'Dotters' Miles after canine predecessor Kirsty was dimensionally transmogrified by a car driven by a careless parent. It’s been a long stint here in the UAE, I know...

NufNuf pin-pointed Jebel Hafeet on the map easily enough – so can I, by the way, but we wanted to see if she had a better route – and so we set off. On the way, we slipped in a sneaky detour to Sharjah post office, which rather led to a minor huff from NufNuf. “Recalculating Route”, she sniffed at us several times as we consistently ignored her advice to turn back in a number of increasingly desperate and highly ingenious ways.

Once out on the open highway and going in the prescribed direction, she calmed down a bit. It was clear that the maps she was using were good, but a little out of date. This shouldn’t be a major problem and you can appreciate that updating maps of Dubai would be enough to turn Magellan insane, but if people are going to go around selling maps of somewhere like the UAE, they need to take the hit and keep ‘em up to the minute.

The other surprise was that NufNuf was au fait with the applicable speed limits. This led to me getting told to ‘Observe the speed limit’, much to Sarah’s smug glee.

The acid test was Al Ain, though. Would NufNuf negotiate that confusing grid of tree-lined roads with their mad roundabouts and flowery decorations? I’ve always made my way around Al Ain with a rich mixture of luck and judgement in an 80/20 proportion – the similarity of many boulevards to each other, the frequent roundabouts and confusing signage make negotiating the charming desert oasis city of Al Ain, as a place you don’t visit often, a real nightmare.

NufNuf breezed it. A tendency to repeat the same instruction three times and more was forgiven when life got hectic and she picked a better route than the one I’ve always used (don’t ask me what my ‘traditional route’ is, it’s sort of 'pass Hili Fun City and continue down the roads that feel right'). She can be a bit literal – she wanted to take us on a road that wasn’t the one that leads up Jebel Hafeet, but that’s OK – she was headed for the mountain itself because I hadn’t bothered searching for the Mercure Hotel that’s actually up Jebel Hafeet. If you search for it, it's there.

I’d have liked the option to pick a location on the map rather than search for hotels and things, but maybe I just haven’t found it. What I did find was that my mobile acts as a perfectly serviceable and useful SatNav, that it doesn’t cost much to keep the maps up to date and that I’d use it for getting around relatively infrequently visited places like Al Ain and Abu Dhabi in future. I’ll be using it in the UK and Ireland this summer, too, you can bet your sweet bottom.

I also found out that the four-hour drive to Al Ain and back with NufNuf assisting (With a long phone call and some compulsive Tweeting, I admit!) will do for a battery: an in-car charger cable is a most desirable accessory.

Mind you, she did talk a lot, did NufNuf. Particularly about that speed limit business...

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Phillipa said...

We used a GPS device in Italy that constantly harped on about 'legal' u-turns, speed limits and how much we'd drunk the night before. No doubt, they are marriage savers but they cannot forsee roadworks or damaged roads - and in Southern Italy there are quite a few. Reversing long distance is a pain in the arse, particularly when both it,and us, did the same manouvre twice.

Doug said...

What GPS software does your phone use? I've got a Samsung Omnia and although it's possible to get TomTom and Garmin nav software for it, I can't find Middle East maps anywhere.

alexander... said...

It's Nokia's own Ovi package, Doug. Partner vendor is Tanla OY, the thing is billed as Middle East Maps.

It's effective, I'll give it that...

Pip - it would seem somehow sacrilegious to use GPS software in Italy!!!! Open top car and winding roads. *sigh*

nzm said...

Our Nokia GPS's posh English male voice is called Nigel.

It's a woman's voice when wanting German, Spanish or French, so it becomes Helga, Maria or Clotilde accordingly.

sarsour said...

:) Miss Miles! We were all terrified of her of course, but she was a great headmistress.

samuraisam said...

I used to use the GPS on my communicator without voice guidance etc (just as a map basically); what I never understood was that with nokia you have to subscribe which costs about 900AED yearly which is something like 60-70% of the price of a dedicated navigation unit.

sonofgeektalk said...

I, too, have been ripped off by Nokia, only to find my license gone after two weeks when I did the much recommended firmware update (this is like 5 years ago or something)

I swore I wouldn't let Nokia do this to me again, and switched to Google Maps - MUCH better. And free !

(Have no idea how good their Dubai maps are, though)

nzm said...

Sam: AFAIK, Nokia Maps only charges GBP50.00 per annum for Middle East countries, or you can get monthly and daily rates too.

Are there other costs involved to make it more expensive?

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