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Loopt’s u-Deals offer an interesting twist but with many challenges

22 Jun

Loopt today announced a product called u-Deals that turns the Groupon model on its head.

Instead of a large team of sales people who go out and sell businesses in anticipation of consumer demand, Loopt is trying to collect the consumer demand and use it to generate merchant interest.

It’s an interesting twist, but it has a lot of challenges. The biggest challenge is cannibalization. People are going to want discounts on places they already frequent. Businesses generally don’t want to offer huge discounts to regulars. If they want to reward someone, they don’t need to pay a hefty cut to a deals provider to do it.

Here are some others:

  • The places that come to mind to most people are the popular places. Those places typically don’t have an incentive to discount. If you’ve already got a 1-hour wait for tables on a Friday night, why would you lower your prices? That would be silly. I would really love a discount to flour+water, but I’m not getting one.
  • Groupon and LivingSocial have set unrealistic expectations for people in terms of discounts. Many businesses can’t afford to offer such steep discounts. I would expect that consumers would ask for similar steep discounts and the businesses would refuse.
  • The businesses that typically need to offer deals are businesses that people haven’t heard of. The deal is a mechanism of creating awareness of a business. Obviously this doesn’t work with the Loopt model — in order to create the deal you have to be aware of it.
  • Consumers are generally passive and reactive. u-Deals requires consumers to do too much work in exchange for an uncertain payoff. Even if you could get all of your friends excited and wound up about it, there’s a good chance the business doesn’t accept the deal. I don’t want to risk my social capital like that.
  • The model doesn’t work for many categories. Restaurants don’t generally offer group discounts. (Despite the name, Groupon isn’t a group discount.) It may work for things like amusement parks.
  • There is a lot of latency. With Groupon and the other daily deal providers, you can use your deal within 1 day of seeing it. With Loopt, you’d have to request a deal, encourage your friends to request it, wait for Loopt sales to close a deal and then redeem it. This could take days, if not weeks.

Target’s mobile apps hit the bullseye with store integration

22 Sep

As smartphones proliferate, integration with mobile devices will be a key part of the offline retail experience. While many businesses offer a simple store locator, Target’s iPhone and Android apps and mobile Web site tie much deeper into their stores.

Among the key features:

  • Weekly deals. Browse through the current week’s specials by category.
  • Product availability. Scan a bar code or enter a product and it will tell you whether the item is available online or in stores. If it’s in store, availability is displayed along with the aisle that it’s located in. No more wandering through the store trying to find something. (In all of the times I’ve tried it, it hasn’t been wrong.)
  • Payment.* If you have Target gift cards, you can enter the information and store it on your phone. When you’re ready to pay, pull up the bar code on the screen and show it to the cashier.
  • Gift registry.* Look up a gift registry and find item locations.
  • Store locator.

*Not available on the Android app.

Target has long been among the most innovative retailers. Four years ago, it offered an MP3 player gift card at Christmas. It has also offered a standalone gift find finder app that suggested Christmas gifts.

In the future, I’d expect to see integration with previous in-store purchases and tighter integration between the mobile apps and the Target Web site.

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EVO vs. iPhone

9 Jun

I’ve been using an HTC EVO since last Friday. As an iPhone user for the last two years, this is the first Android phone that has appealed to me.  CrunchGear has a good comparison of the technical specs of the iPhone and the EVO.

The two biggest complaints others have voiced about the EVO are bulk and poor battery life. Yes, it is bulky. It’s the heaviest phone I’ve had in at least 5 years — at 6 ounces, it’s 25% heavier than the iPhone 4G. It’s width makes it more awkward to hold than an iPhone, but not uncomfortably so. But it also has a big, beautiful screen. Life is a tradeoff.

I haven’t had issues with battery life, but then I don’t talk a lot on my phone. Unlike with the iPhone, you can carry around a spare battery.

The other issue that has been mentioned regularly is the on-screen keyboard. The iPhone’s keyboard is less complicated, but the EVO let’s you accomplish more tasks (like entering numbers) without leaving the main keyboard. The one issue I’ve definitely noticed is that some keys on the left side haven’t been registering consistently. (e.g. “A” and “S”)

While others have railed against one or the other, the phones are different enough that they’re likely to appeal to different people. I’ve tried to identify those below.

For typical consumers, my recommendation would be the iPhone, provided that you’re in an area where AT&T’s network isn’t saturated. For me? I’ve got three more weeks to decide.

If you…

… have a lot of music or photos and like iTunes.

Go with the iPhone. I haven’t been able to find a decent media synchronization experience for EVO. I used my iPhone frequently for podcasts and those are easy to set up and synch with iTunes. I also synch photos from my computer to my iPhone. Again, not something I can do with the stock EVO.

… want to customize your phone experience.

Go with EVO. You can customize a lot of elements of how the phone operates. You can create themes for different uses, e.g. a work theme, play theme and travel theme. Each theme can have different applications, shortcuts and widgets. It’d be even nicer if you could change themes automatically based on time of day or location. (e.g. work theme while at the office)

… don’t want to know what a task manager is.

Go with iPhone. Ordinary users should never have to see things like com.google.android.apps.googlevoice. It’s difficult to figure out what apps are running on the EVO. That’s problematic because you could easily have an unknown app running down your battery.

… want something that looks pretty.

Go with iPhone. It’s hard to top Apple design. The EVO is bulkier and certainly looks more utilitarian than iPhone. The EVO screen also shows fingerprints a lot more than my iPhone 3G.

… give out your Google Voice number to friends, family and colleagues.

Go with EVO. The Google Voice integration is incredible. Calls you make can be routed through GV automatically. Calls are logged correctly in the phone and on the GV site. Voicemail is also seamlessly integrated. Text messages aren’t integrated into the phone’s messages app.

… want a broad selection of apps.

Go with iPhone. Yes, it’s not open and yes, Apple can arbitrarily reject apps. But iOS has many more apps written for it. While many of the major apps are on both platforms, I couldn’t find equivalents for flickr or Zipcar on Android. Google Voice is the key exception of an app that’s on Android but not iPhone.

For gamers, the iPhone advantage is even stronger. With the gyroscope on iPhone 4, gaming will only get better.

…  like flickr, Facebook and Twitter.

Go with iPhone. The Facebook and Twitter apps for iPhone are much more polished than their Android counterparts. For example, on the Facebook app, clicking on a link someone has shared sends you on an infinite loop between the shared item and the person’s wall.  (Google VP Vic Gotundra recently gave a Facebook intern an HTC Evo in hopes of getting a better experience on Android.) I couldn’t find an official flickr app for Android.

HTC includes some tools for all three networks that integrate them into the phone’s UI. For example, contact lists from all three can be integrated with the phone’s main contact list. This sounds great — and is the right direction for phones — but the software isn’t ready for prime time. I often see the same people listed 3 or 4 times. (You can manually consolidate these for each person, but that’s a lot of work.) If you set up favorite people, you’ll see when they’ve updated their social networks. Background downloading of status updates also takes a toll on battery life.

… have terrible AT&T coverage.

Go with EVO. AT&T’s networks in SF and NY are overloaded and getting data connections or making a call can be a real challenge.

I’ve had few issues with Sprint’s network. Sprint also includes roaming on Verizon’s network.

… want something that “just works” out of the box.

Go with iPhone. The stock EVO is much more customizable than a stock iPhone. With customization always comes complexity. When iPod came out, a lot of techies criticized it for being a dumbed down MP3 player. Other MP3 players of the time had FM radios! They didn’t tie you into one company! But by stripping away all those extra features, Apple created something that just worked for the most common tasks for most people.

Same is true with iPhone. Owning the entire stack gives Apple a huge advantage in creating a user experience that just works across its enormous userbase. Video calling will work the same across all iPhone 4s. Not true with Android.

With HTC’s Sense UI, Android, Sprint customizations and apps all playing a part, the EVO experience doesn’t hold together.

Although features like social networking integration will be important, what HTC has done with EVO is too confusing for most people.

… want to be able to connect your laptop, iPad or other devices.

Go with EVO. Although AT&T is now offering tethering, they’re charging an extra $20 a month and the usage still counts against your 2GB data limit. For$30 a month, Sprint offers unlimited data and a wireless hotspot that supports up to 8 devices simultaneously. If you don’t need that, you might be able to use an app like PDANet to tether your laptop without paying the $30 a month.

… talk a lot, text a lot, use a lot of data or use navigation and want to economize.

Go with EVO. Sprint’s pricing plans are generally cheaper than AT&T for heavy users. For $80, Sprint includes unlimited nights (beginning at 7pm vs. 9pm for AT&T) and weekends, unlimited calls to any mobile phone (vs. just AT&T customers), unlimited texting (an additional $20 on AT&T) and navigation (extra $10 on AT&T). Sprint also has generous corporate discounts that can knock up to 25% off the bill. Low volume users who can get by with less than 250MB of data a month are better off with AT&T.

… are a world traveler.

Go with the iPhone. With GSM, you’ll at least have the option of international coverage in most countries, even if you have to pay exorbitant roaming rates. Of course, it’s best to unlock your phone and use local carriers if you’re spending any amount of time outside the country.

… are uncertain.

Try EVO. Sprint offers the most generous return policy in the business. You have 30 days to decide whether you like it. If you don’t, you can take it back and you won’t pay anything. They won’t even charge you for the service you used. AT&T will charge you for the service, plus the activation fee, unless you return within 3 days. Sprint’s early termination fee is also lower, $200 vs. $325.

NOTE: Comparisons here are based on a stock iPhone vs. a stock EVO.

Fixing public transit with mobile technology

16 Jun

As gas prices have fallen from last year’s record levels, use of public transit is falling. It makes perfect sense: the cost of driving has decreased, so more people drive.

One way to get more cars off the road is to raise the cost of driving. Paul Kedrosky, Greg Mankiw and others have talked about raising the gas tax to make driving more expensive. It sounds great in theory, but it’s political suicide for any candidate who would seriously push it. It’s also a highly regressive tax.

Another alternative is to reduce the cost of public transit. There are four cost components to public transit: cash, information, time and transaction. We could build better transit systems with greater frequency like in Europe, but that’s expensive. Mobile technology provides a cheaper route.

Cash fare – Typically the cash fare will win over the cash cost of driving or alternatives such as cabs, especially when you factor in the cost of parking in the dense urban areas best served by public transit.

A San Francisco bus stop

This bus stop sign provides very little information. Technology could be used to provide detailed information on demand.

Information cost – Public transit systems are a usability nightmare. Maps don’t have enough detail to figure out where you’re going. You have to decipher dozens of multicolored lines with tiny numbers and then hope that the line runs when you want it to. DC’s Metro system just released a study of the usability of its bus stop signs with one of the findings that information was printed in 4-point type at some stations. And you might not even have a map; some bus stops just show a line number.

Google Maps on iPhone has made this easy. I stepped off a plane in San Diego and put in the hotel address. Google Maps told me which route to take, the fare and how far I’d have to walk. There’s still the matter of finding the bus stop, but that can be solved over time using crowdsourced geotagged photos like the one at right. Google recently announced transit information availability on Android.

There are also dozens of transit-related iPhone applications that focus on specific transit systems.

Time cost — Public transit is often slower than driving. A big part of that slowness is not knowing when the bus or train is going to arrive — the waiting is the hardest part. Real-time transit tracking on mobile devices can help. When I lived near DC, I could see on my phone when the next train was leaving. If it was 20 minutes, I could have another drink in the bar. (Paid for by my savings from not taking a cab.) If I’d been waiting in the Metro, that 20 minutes would have felt like 60, adding to the perceived cost of transit.

Nextbus offers mobile transit predictions using GPS devices installed on transit vehicles. Unfortunately, it’s not location enabled and it doesn’t provide the level of detail (including maps with the location of vehicles) that Nextbus offers on its Web site.

Real-time data can be crowdsourced on heavily trafficked routes. Every Caltrain during rush hour seems to have at least 40 iPhone users on it. A simple app could transmit current position, which could be shared with other riders. (There’s already a Caltrain Twitter account that uses crowdsourced data for service interruptions.)

The Kennedy is packed -- take the L instead!

The Kennedy is packed -- take the L instead!

Real-time traffic information can also help increase the appeal of public transit. Subways and regional rail are often faster in rush hour. When I last flew to Chicago I was about to step into the taxi line when I decided to check the traffic conditions. The Kennedy showed all red on Google Maps. I flew by all that traffic on the Blue Line for $1.50, instead of paying $40 or more in a cab.

Transaction cost – Transit systems use many different payment methods. On San Francisco’s Muni there’s cash, multi-ride coupon books, transfers, multi-day passes, monthly passes. Want to ride the bus and all you have is a $10 bill? That will be an expensive ride. Want to ride the Muni and then transfer to Caltrain? You’ll have to decipher a new system. See my recent experience trying to pay for a Muni ride.

This is the area that has seen the least progress. Some regional systems have been implemented or are in development. Being able to pay by credit card or cell phone at the turnstile would make this a lot easier. A “buy” button after I select a route on my cell phone with Google Maps would be ideal.

Combining easy routing with real-time arrival information and easy payment will help increase the appeal of transit to people who don’t have to use transit. That would help address an ongoing problem with transit in America: we view public transit as for poor people and fund it like we fund welfare. Get more people choosing to ride transit and we might have more widespread support for it.

Heck, if Apple ran ads showing people using iPhones to find public transit, it might even become hip.

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