Driving Ms. Carolyn

It took almost a century for the telephone to become a platform for doing things that Alexander Graham Bell never dreamed of when he uttered those history-making words, “Mr. Watson come here, I need you.”

But it’s taken a mere decade for Internet telephony to become the mechanism driving a myriad of applications that were unheard of not too long ago.

Most of the time we drive new technology by what we want to do with it. Recently, I allowed a new technology to drive me. And it was well worth it.

That technology, by start-up TeleNav of Santa Clara, CA is an application that — as someone who gets lost driving home — I’ve been waiting for a long, long time: A navigation system on a mobile phone. And like so many recent developments, it marries cell phone technology and VoIP.

Like on-board navigation and stand-alone GPS systems, TeleNav gives you audible turn-by-turn directions. It also provides am easy-to-read, full color 3-D map display. But TeleNav eliminates the extra gizmo — always a plus in my book. Directions are downloaded to your phone in realtime, so it doesn’t get out-of-date like OnStar. And it uses cellular data systems and a smart phone, so it doesn’t ring up a big air time bill.

It does some things that GPS devices don’t – like providing a gas station guide by price and restaurant lists by type. TeleNav can route you around accidents and roadwork and includes a pedestrian mode. The “yellow pages on your phone,” is how TeleNav Director of Communications Mary Beth Lowell describes it.

Right now, TeleNav is in an enviable position, sharing this market space with only one other player, Motorola’s VIAMOTO.

You can use TeleNav two ways. You can go to the company’s website and program your destination, which is downloaded to your phone. Or you get directions over the phone by speaking or typing the address.

TeleNav does all this far more inexpensively than other navigation systems — $9.99 a month plus the cell carrier’s data service. The application has run with Sprint Nextel service for a while and last week the company added Cingular — including the new iPAQ device — Boost Mobile and SouthernLINC Wireless. The application runs on any smart phone, including PDAs, and uses the GPS chip that is in most phones today.

For devices without a GPS chip, TeleNav sells a GPS add-on for $119. The company also offers NavTrack, an integrated system for fleet management that provides dispatching, tracking and reporting as well as real-time directions.

You simply download the application to the phone by making a call. “TeleNav is one of the most popular applications for Sprint Nextel users,” reports Ms. Lowell.

It all sounds great. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. So I’ve been taking TeleNav on a test drive for the last month.

The one thing that I worried about — moving out of range of a Sprint signal — only happened once. Not an issue, I decided.

But what I did have a continuous problem with was the system’s speech recognition. If you load the instructions online, this isn’t a problem. But my principal interest in TeleNav is as something I can use on the fly when I’m lost.

On my maiden voyage, instead of taking me a few blocks away in Santa Clara to my yoga class, TeleNav was all ready to navigate me to the town of Santa Clarita — about 400 miles south.

The way the voice menu works is that you tell TeleNav to “go back” if the place name or address isn’t correct. I found myself screaming, “go back” repeatedly in complete exasperation. The application also uses a lot of power, too, so be prepared with your charger.

After a few weeks, I was ready to say that TeleNav isn’t truly ready for prime time. That is, until I used it for a drive from the Southern Tier of New York State to northeastern Pennsylvania. It’s a drive that I have made many, many times over the past three decades.

It’s the drive I made as a college student, heading to my parents’ for holidays.

It’s the drive I made on a Wednesday morning in August 1981 when I was called at work with news that my father had died suddenly.

It’s the drive I made in 2002 when I was forced to acknowledge my mother’s cascading mental decline.

It’s the drive I made last July when my mother was dying. And the drive I made on my way back to California three weeks later, after her death.

So last week I decided to trust this fraught excursion to TeleNav, expecting confirmation of the route I had used for 35 years.

I was nothing short of astonished when the pleasant TeleNav voice told me to turn around and take another road.

At first I was ready to call the whole thing off. This thing is useless, I said to myself.

But then another impulse said, See where it takes you.

So I did, figuring I’d know if I was headed seriously wrong before I got too far off track.

It turned out that my intuition – unlike my sense of direction – was on track.

TeleNav drove me through Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains region. Perhaps not as well known as the Pocono or Lehigh Mountain regions, it’s an area of breath-taking vistas and picture-book rural farm towns. Even the region’s forlorn vacation destinations of yesteryear possess a certain charm.

It was the happiest trip I had made that way in many, many years. And, to make the whole thing sweeter, TeleNav took about 20 minutes off my trip.

Now, I could have gotten the same result from any other navigation system, including an old-fashioned road map — assuming I had enough spatial reasoning ability to read one correctly, which I don’t. But there’s a message here.

We hear a lot about how technology keeps us working 24/7 and militates against surprise and serendipity in our lives. But maybe that’s superficial – good for selling magazines and TV news shows, but one that doesn’t hold up if you think about it.

Like anything else — from the wheel to algebra to the printing press to the telephone — Internet technology is just one more tool in our portfolio of human-ness.

I’m sure that back in the 15th century there were many social scientists bemoaning the fact that the printing press took the “magic” and skill out of story-telling; failing to imagine a world where literally anybody, even English Language Learner George W. Bush, can read Hamlet anywhere, anytime.

More recently — last Wednesday, in fact — New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman updated the perenial complaint by describing a taxi ride where the driver was talking on his phone and watching a video, while the columnist was writing on his laptop and listening to an iPod. Technology, Friedman concluded, was hogging our attention and cutting off the human connection.

As I was reminded last week, technology isn’t just for doing things faster or smarter — or avoiding conversation with chatty cab drivers. It can just as easily be an avenue for the magic always waiting for us if we would just follow its prompting.