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Is Apple’s Innovation Fizzling?

11 Jun

Apple’s marketing head Phil Schiller remains confident in the company’s ability to innovate, with CNBC’s Brian Sullivan. Rakesh Agrawal, reDesign, and CNBC’s Herb Greenberg, provide perspective.

Video.

Google hits $800

19 Feb

I talk with the Street Signs gang about Google hitting $800 a share. What does this mean for Apple and what does Google do next?

Video.

Picturing a new vision for local search

7 Feb

I frequently tout Yelp as the company that has the best local database in the United States focused on restaurants and entertainment. With thousands of Yelpers around the country who aggressively review businesses in their cities, Yelp manages to stay well ahead of their competitors. Where a new restaurant can take months to make it into Google Maps, it’s often listed on Yelp before it opens thanks to devoted Yelpers who keep an eye on what’s going on in their neighborhoods.

Yelp also has another key asset, which has long been hidden: a large volume of pictures uploaded by Yelpers. While these have been available on the Web site, they haven’t been the focus. Yelp’s iPad app puts them front and center.

Local search has long been optimized around the data sources that are available and the way computers best process information, not the way consumers look for information. Looking for the address of Lovejoy Bakers? Piece of cake. Local search will find it for you. Looking for a romantic restaurant that’s not too crowded but has a modern feel? Good luck with that.

Here’s where pictures can play a big part. Solving such queries is incredibly hard because they require value judgments and computers aren’t good at making such judgments. Even among different people, those judgments vary. Romantic, crowded and modern mean different things to different people. If you read dozens of reviews, perhaps you could get a good sense for whether a business meets your definition of these words. But that’s work that very few people are willing to do.

It’s much easier (and more fun) to flip through dozens of pictures.

Pictures provide easier and faster answers to:

  • Is this place a dive?
  • Does this place cater to people like me?
  • It this place kid friendly? I never would’ve guessed that a brewpub near me was kid-friendly until I flipped past a picture of a play area with kids in it.
  • What does this place feel like?
  • Is the food pretentious?

Pictures also help with another problem that many user reviews have: too much time spent talking about the reviewer rather than the place being reviewed.

Popular venues in major cities such as flour+water and 21st Amendment in San Francisco can have more than 100 pictures. In smaller cities, it might be just one or two.

We’re just at the beginnings of truly using images in local search. I imagine that we’ll soon see image recognition algorithms that will sort the uploaded pictures into categories such as food, interior, exterior, etc.

Cell phones are increasingly becoming data collection devices and Yelp users are at the vanguard. Yelp claims 3.5 million monthly unique users on mobile devices. If only a small fraction of them are contributing content, that’s still thousands of people providing ground truth. Yelp reports that a photo is uploaded every 30 seconds via mobile devices. With check ins, photos and real-time data corrections, local search is becoming a much richer experience.

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How to pay at Starbucks using your Android phone

2 Feb
Android-enabled Starbucks mobile payment device.

Android-enabled Starbucks mobile payment device.

Starbucks made a lot of noise recently with the launch of mobile payments in the United States for iPhone and Blackberry users. As an Android user, I felt left out (as is often the case.) But there’s a way to use your Android phone to pay for your coffee. Here are the steps:

  1. Borrow a friend’s iPhone or iPod Touch.
  2. Set up your account and enter your Starbucks card information.
  3. Go to the “Cards” screen and click “Touch to Pay”.
  4. Take a screenshot of the bar code that appears. (Hold the power and home buttons.)
  5. Email the screenshot to yourself.
  6. Print the screenshot. (I printed it at 35% zoom to get the right size.)
  7. Cut-and-paste (physically) the bar code to the back of your Android phone.

Viola! Mobile payment device.

It’s even better than the iPhone app: it’s quicker (no need to find and launch the app and click a button) and it works even when the battery is dead.

It lacks a lot of features. You can’t find the nearest Starbucks, reload your card or see your transaction history. But for the most common task of paying for coffee, it is the optimal experience. It would be nice if Starbucks stored your preference on whether to print receipts, but that’s an issue with either method.

This illustrates one of the key challenges facing mobile payment systems that are emerging: in their desire to get our money, banks and retailers have already made paying for things incredibly simple. Swiping a credit card is just.not.that.hard.

Any digital wallet will have to be just as simple. Launching various applications, digging through menus and entering security codes are all steps that add friction to the purchase process.

Apple, Google and others entering the NFC/mobile payments game would do well to have standardized interfaces to flip among payment, library, transit and access cards versus having every app developer design interfaces as he sees fit. These could be tied to location — if you’re at Starbucks, the Starbucks card automatically shows up first.

Target-ing iPad savvy shoppers with a fresh take on paper

22 Nov

Target continues its mobile innovation with the launch of its iPad app. The app makes it easy to find the nearest store and look up this week’s specials.

Target has had a long history of innovation. I’ve written before about a combination MP3 player/gift card and Target’s Android and iPhone apps.

While browsing through the circular, you can build a list of items that you want to buy. You can also get additional information on items for sale.

It would be nice if it also told you what aisle the item was stocked in, availability at your nearby store and synchronized the list you build with the iPhone or Android apps. In-store availability and aisle location is provided for a limited number of items. (Target’s database, which is available on iPhone/Android, seems to be more robust, but the linkages haven’t been made.)

Target has offered its circular online for years. But the flash-laden app seemed overdone, sluggish and just didn’t have the same feel as flipping through the paper circular. The iPad app pretty much replicates the experience of paper minus the environmental guilt. (And fussing with pages that stick together.)

Newspapers should be very worried. Free standing inserts that provide half the bulk of many Sunday papers are an important revenue source. They are also an important circulation source: while many editors may recoil in horror, yes, some people do do buy the Sunday paper just for the ads.

Newspapers can also learn from the Target app. I’ve been using the iPad apps for the WSJ, New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today. In translating a primarily paper experience online, Target has done a better job than all of them.

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.

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