First of all, a little traveller’s tip.

Nowadays no hotel room is complete without one of those little electronic safe boxes they place in some inconvenient corner of the wardrobe. Made of what feels like atomic-bomb-proof steel, the safes are meant to stash away valuables such as cameras, passports and cash whenever you step away from your room. Because, you know, the hotel and its management are in no way responsible for your belongings.

Phone apt: When will we be able to use our phones to order books in India?

The second problem is that you might just completely forget what you kept inside. Halfway to the airport, you might realize your passport is far away inside the little box in your hotel room.

Recently, a seasoned traveller told me two ways of avoiding this problem. The first, she said, was to leave your shoes in the safe box as well. You have to be really absent-minded to check out sans footwear. The other method, for gadgety types like you and me, is to leave your phone inside. Preferably with an alarm of some kind.

Also Read Sidin Vadukut’s earlier columns

So next time you are on the road, you know how to use that safe box safely. Just leave your shoes, or phone, or both, inside. Along with your treasures.

Which also makes me wonder how indispensable the mobile phone is becoming. As indispensable as shoes!

Then, if phones are so universal, why aren’t there ways to use your phone to make shopping easier?

For instance, let’s say you’re in a bookshop when you realize that your favourite author has just put out a new book. There is no debate here. You must buy the book. But given how things are with the economy, you wonder if anyone is selling the book cheaper online.

What do you do next? The best option is perhaps to pull out your phone and browse through a few e-commerce sites comparing prices. This is clever, but quite possibly messy. Most sites probably don’t have mobile-friendly sites. Besides you’ll have to open each site individually. Not to mention the pain of having to type in, several times, The Excellent Adventures in Kozhikode and Tiruchirapalli of Kalayanaraman Parthasarathi, a novel by V.S. Achutanandan.

And this is not just for books. This is true for anything else you could possibly buy online these days. Surely there has to be an easier way to compare, contrast and tabulate.

These are early days yet, but some solutions are beginning to appear.

For instance, Amazon has just announced a new Price Check app for the iPhone in the US. Use the device to photograph a product, scan its bar code or even just read out its name, and immediately the app searches for prices on the website. A great way to double-check if you’re getting a good deal from a store.

Both eBay and Amazon have more standard apps for mutliple mobile platforms, including iPhone and BlackBerry, that you can use to quickly double-check prices. The Amazon app also pulls in data from other partner sites.

An even more exciting application, alas only for iPhone and Android users right now, is Google Goggles. It combines the phone’s camera with Google’s visual search capabilities. Snap a cover of a book, a label on a wine bottle or even the bar code on a product and the app searches the Web for information. You can then filter through to product searches which throw up prices (Goggles does a bunch of other cool things as well, such as translating text and scanning business card details).

All these apps, however, have one major drawback. They will probably work quite poorly in India for now. In Europe and the US, the apps have access to a much larger database of information and online prices. You can even buy shaving cream online in those markets.

Still, if you want a quick benchmark on prices, it doesn’t hurt to try them in India as well.

My favourite mobile buying app right now is RedLaser. Though it works only on the iPhone, RedLaser combines a fast, accurate scanner with good search capabilities. Besides using it to create price lists, you can also use it to make catalogues. For instance, just scan the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) numbers on books in our library, and then email the whole list to yourself. You now have a complete listing.

The great thing about RedLaser is that the developers have released the code to the public. Anyone can download the kit and develop solutions. This means we should soon have smarter apps that work on all kinds of codes. And hopefully, those that will work in India as well.

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