The increasingly crowded and competitive guidebook market has been stirred up by the decision to put the Rough Guide range on the Internet - starting with the latest book on the United States. You can click around the country from Alabama to Yellowstone on the electronic version of the paper product. It's a dramatic gesture, but how much use is it to the traveller? To find out, I took a cybertrip to the state of Georgia, host to this summer's Olympic Games.
Getting started is much slower on the screen than in the book. Someone has to pay for the expensive business of putting 1,000 pages on the Net, and this week the chief contributor is Pontiac. So you have to twiddle your mouse while a banner bearing a fast red sports car, clearly beyond the reach of me and most other Rough Guide users, sluggishly materialises on the screen. This has two purposes - to enable the curious to browse around Pontiac's cyber showroom; and, more importantly, to subsidise the operation.
Next, you get a map and click on the state of choice. Icons take you smoothly to the newly arrived traveller's first challenge: finding somewhere to stay. From a list which mirrors the one in the printed book, I chose the Atlanta Dream Hostel on the grounds that the owner will send a leopard-skin limousine to pick up guests. In an ideal cyberworld, you would be able to e-mail the proprietor instantly to make a booking. But the main use so far of e-mail is by travellers responding to the contents. Alan Jones, for example, warns about Georgia's "dumb accommodation law", whereby existing guests in a hotel can extend their stay on a whim, even if other people have prepaid to occupy the same room. Maybe the leopard skin will elude me, so perhaps the place just recommended by Elwyn Hodges would be a good second choice - but it would help if he had given an address or phone number for the Marriott North West Hotel.
The opportunity for instant updates is, for travellers, the most exciting aspect of the operation. Rough Guides has engaged an online editor in New York to keep the "book" up to date. A year from now, the electronic version should be very different from the book's text, amended with the help of one Chip Cipcic. From Athens, Georgia, he e-mails: "You say the 40 Watt Club is owned by Barrie Buck, `wife of REM drummer Peter Buck'. Peter Buck is the guitarist, guys." The printed page will perpetrate the myth long after the Internet guide is cleaned up.
The Rough Guides' home page is at http://www.roughguides.com/Reuse content