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What Square’s new Register and Card Case means for small businesses

23 May

Square today announced its Register and Card Case products to complement the existing Square reader and smartphone applications. While Square has been focused on the merchant experience, this move expands its role on the consumer side. (Consumers have been able to receive receipts by email or text message when making purchases at Square merchants.)

With the new application, customers will be able to search for nearby Square merchants, see what’s on their menu and view receipts for previous transactions. Customers can also pay right from their mobile phone and the payment is confirmed on the merchant’s iPad.

Merchants will have the ability to accept a payment without swiping a card. They can also keep better track of what they’re selling. A loyalty program allows businesses to reward loyal customers. Unlike check in based systems which involve users to self-report, this system would be harder to cheat.

One open question is whether these transactions will be treated as card present transactions for Square. I expect that Square will charge merchants the swipe rate for these transactions. If they’re paying out the card-not-present rates, this will eat into their margins.

What we’re seeing here is only the beginning. There are a lot of important problems that can be solved with the data that Square will be collecting:

Consumer problems

  • It’s 2 a.m. and I’m hungry. What’s open? This is a problem that search generally handles poorly. Yelp has done the best job of collecting this among anyone I’ve seen. (Google tries, but its data is less comprehensive.) Even when the data are collected, they are often inaccurate. (Holidays, business was slow so we closed early, etc.) The Square Register could contain a virtual Open and Closed indicator that is visible to consumers.
  • I have a craving for a dosa. Where can I get one? With menu item data, Square could answer that question — at least for its merchants.
  • I have a receipt, but I can’t remember who I was with. The Square app could allow users to flag tax-related transactions and record notes like who you ate with.
  • I want to tell someone about a place I ate at, but can’t remember the name. (And want credit.) People are generally bad at remembering place names. Merchants could also offer rewards for new customer referrals, much like online merchants do.
  • I’m in a hurry and I need an order to go. Consumers could order right from their mobile phones, the order would pop up on the merchant’s screen and the merchant could select an estimated pickup time. For the merchant, this also reduces the risk of nonpayment for phone orders that aren’t picked up.

Merchant problems

  • Updating Web sites is hard. Most local business Web sites I go to are horribly out-of-date. Menu items and pricing can be more than a year old. Hours are often wrong. Maps are hard to find. Square could take the data from the Register system and generate Web pages with dynamic information, including today’s specials and hours. Some card issuers and payment processors have offered Web site creation, but these have mostly been low quality efforts.
  • I don’t have a mobile presence. Very few local businesses have dedicated mobile sites. At best, you get a hard-to-read version of the main site. At worst, you see sites created by incompetent flash designers who knew nothing about user experience. These render blank on an iPhone. Square-generated mobile Web pages would provide easy access to key info such as location, hours and menus. Google says about 40% of searches on mobile devices are local in nature — as a result, this is becoming increasingly critical.
  • I don’t have time to enter data multiple times. Square could also generate a PDF that could be printed for in-store menus. Data entered once gets used for POS, paper menus, Web site, mobile site and promotions. This not only saves on work, it eliminates inconsistencies which can cause customer service problems. Getting a bit crazier and thinking further out into the future, a Square app on an Apple TV could show promotions in store.
  • I want to get people to try new items. Square could use transaction history to entice regular customers to try things on the menu that they haven’t tried before. With promotions, you want to spend your promotion dollars on transactions that wouldn’t happen otherwise. Paper coupons are dumb in this regard. Say you’ve got a raspberry tart that you think is amazing. You could find all of the customers who haven’t ordered it and send them a promotion.
  • I want to know what my customers think of me. An email after the fact could prompt users for feedback and generating a net promoter score. It can also be a way of drumming up more business. For example: “Would you recommend us to a friend?” If the customer says, no, you can ask why. If yes, you can ask for friends right then and there. “Whom would like to recommend us to?” The referral can be coded so that the business can thank the original customer for the referral. A Square app could also provide more actionable data than the typical Yelp review — a restaurant would know when they ate, what they ordered, etc. This would make it easier to identify problem employees or dishes.
  • I want to know how I’m doing compared with other businesses in my area. I charge $3.50 for a slice of pizza. How does that compare with others? How does my revenue compare? Of course, this all needs to be done in a way that protects business anonymity. Data would only be available when there is enough participation so that a single businesses’ information can’t be identified. Participation should be opt in, with the carrot being access to data. The key here is that data needs to be in a meaningful context. I’ve seen many startups that just want to throw data at businesses. That’s not good enough. Square will also need to answer the “So what?” What decisions should I make based on that data?

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AT&T’s 180,000% markup

3 Feb

One of the challenges of international travel is getting access to communications. I’ve gotten used to being able to check email, look up restaurants, find maps and communicate with friends from anywhere in the U.S.

Take your iPhone overseas and all of this can get really expensive, really fast.

At AT&T’s pay-per-use rates, you’re charged $19.97 per MB. It’s cheaper to buy and send a physical post card to friends than it is to send a digital picture.

The only way around that is to buy a local SIM and use it on an unlocked iPhone. This process varies from country to country and can be quite a challenge if you don’t speak the local language. It also means that you don’t have coverage the moment you step off the plane.

I got lucky on my recent trip to Italy. The first store I walked into had a clerk who spoke English and understood what I needed. For 2 Euros ($2.76) a week*, I got up to 250 MB of data usage. At AT&T’s a la carte rates, that same usage would run $4,992. If you plan ahead, you can get 200MB for the low, low price of $199.

Even ripoff hotel minibars only charge 3x-4x street costs for convenience.

AT&T’s data markups are even way out of line with its international voice roaming rates. With voice,  AT&T actually provides some value in that phone calls to your number get routed by AT&T to your phone overseas. With data, the only convenience over a local SIM is that you don’t have to seek out a local provider.

The pricing is so absurd that the only people who would do this are business travelers who must be connected at all times, the fabulously wealthy or everyday customers who don’t understand the charges and will further resent AT&T when they get the bill.

AT&T’s the company that pioneered Digital OneRate, which eliminated nationwide roaming charges. I’d like to see them do something rational for international roaming.

* For comparison, this is also much less than AT&T charges for domestic data usage. With a contract, AT&T charges $15 for 200 MB of data. This works out to about $11 for 5 times as much data.

Mobile and the improving user interface

30 Sep
The zero-click experience in the Happy Hours app.

The zero-click experience in the Happy Hours app.

Some of the best user interfaces being created today are on mobile devices. I often find myself reaching for my cell phone instead of my laptop when I need a hit of information. Common tasks such as looking up a business, buying movie tickets or checking email are often faster on mobile devices.

The best example of this is the Happy Hours app. Launch the app and after a few seconds it will show you the nearest happy hour specials sorted by distance that are going on right now. No input required.

Why are mobile interfaces better?

  • Access to sensors such as GPS. The Happy Hours app on my phone knows where I’m at. On the Web, at best it can guess what city I’m in.
  • Limited screen real estate. People often feel the need to fill whitespace. Nothing else to put there? How about some more remnant ads? With mobile, there is less whitespace to fill.
  • No SEO. The app itself doesn’t have to be filled with links for search engine crawlers. At least half of the GoTime.com home page (the company behind the Happy Hours app) is links for crawlers.

Facebook Places is at the beginning of a long road

20 Aug
Facebook Places on the iPhone

Facebook Places on the iPhone

Facebook’s much awaited Places product finally launched this week. It’s the first step toward bringing friend finding to the masses.

People have been using Facebook to do this for years; posting their location in freeform status updates that their friends can read and comment on. (e.g. “heading to Cambridge for dinner.”) By turning that freeform text into structured location data, Facebook can make that data more useful.

From an iPhone or HTML5-capable mobile device, you can check in to a place, such as a restaurant, bar, movie theater, airport. You can also leave a message with the check in. The check in is posted to your wall and may appears in friends’ news feeds. On the mobile side, you can see a list of your friends and where they’ve checked in. Clicking on a place will show you details of the place, including a map and who has checked in.

The initial release is fairly simple. In fact, it’s not that much more useful than the freeform status updates.

Facebook is entering a very crowded space with competitors such as foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, Google Latitude, Whrrl and Twitter. Many of those products are much more robust. Facebook’s key advantage is the size of its social graph: within the past 24 hours, 18 of my friends have checked in.

There are many opportunities for improvement to Facebook Places:

  • Basic UI. Check ins are sorted by time, not distance. A friend checking in 2,000 miles away 2 minutes ago is less relevant than someone checking in 2 miles away 5 minutes ago. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the city isn’t shown. Considering that many people use Facebook to keep track of friends all around the world, this is a significant issue. Foursquare has a separate bucket of “Friends in other cities.” Update: Facebook now has a separate grouping of nearby friends.
  • Map view. Often, visualizing your friends on a map is much easier than scanning a list. Foursquare already offers this.
  • Visiting friends. Out of town friends who are in town aren’t indicated. One of the big potential values of social friend finding is discovering when friends are in town. If a friend from far away is visiting, I’m more inclined to want to get together than someone who lives in town.
  • Pictures. There is no way to associate a picture with a check in. Given the difficulty in typing on mobile devices, often a picture gives a lot more information. These pictures could also be used to build a much more robust Place page.
  • Pushing location. Sending people your location via SMS is tedious. You have to address the message, type out where you are. If they don’t know where it is, they have to pull up a map or text you back for directions. With Places, it would be easy to push a notification to friends with where you are, complete with map. This could be sent as a push notification on iPhones or as an SMS with a URL for other phones.

As with most Facebook product launches, questions of privacy come up. In general, I think Facebook has done a good job with the default privacy settings on Places. You must explicitly check in; there is no background tracking.

Only your friends can see where you’ve checked in. Unfortunately, my social graph on Facebook wasn’t designed with location in mind. When I decided whether or not to accept friend requests on foursquare, I used a tighter filter than on Facebook. Now, I’ll have to go back through Facebook friends and create a list of who should have access to location. (See Post technology columnist Rob Pegoraro’s piece on how he classifies his friends.) Yes, old high school friends have been known to burgle homes based on Facebook updates. If that worries you, watch Rob’s video on how to adjust your privacy settings for Places.

The one big complaint I have with the privacy defaults is that your friends can check you into a location without your permission.

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United's mobile check in not ready for takeoff

4 Jul

On my last trip, I had the opportunity to try United’s mobile check-in and mobile boarding passes. The promise is paper-free check in. It sounds really great, but it’s not quite there. Partly it’s due to United’s horrible user interface, partly the newness that gate agents aren’t accustomed to it.

The user interface rarely misses an opportunity to add extra steps.

  • When online check-in opens up, United sends you an email reminding you to check in. But clicking on the link in the email takes you to the full browser version. (It should automatically redirect you to the corresponding page on the mobile site if you’re on a mobile browser.)
  • When you go to http://mobile.united.com, you have to enter your confirmation number (who remembers these?), e-ticket number (ditto), Mileage Plus number (I don’t remember it despite being a top tier flier for years) or email address (long to type). There’s no way to just cookie your email address or MP number for all future check ins.
  • You’re presented with upsells, including the ridiculously overpriced Award Accelerator. (No way to say “I never ever want this.”)
  • After you finally check in, you’d think you get a boarding pass. But now you have to enter an email address to send the boarding pass to. (Never mind that you just logged into your account with an email address; it’s not prepopulated.)
  • You’d think, “OK, now, I’ll get an email with the boarding pass.” Nope. You get an email for each segment. Neither of which contains a boarding pass, but a link to a boarding pass.
  • Instead of using one link tied to your record, there is a link for each flight. If you click on the email for the wrong flight, you can’t just flip to the other flight. You have to go back and open a different email.
  • When you finally get to the boarding pass, you see a 2D bar code read by the scanner, along with your flight and seat information in text.

After doing all of this, I went to the airport without any paper. First step: security. The TSA agent looks at my ID and phone to compare names. He then has me hold my phone over a reader. It beeps and lights up in green. Good to go. At the gate, I hold my phone over the reader. Beep. Green. Board.

At the gate for my connection in Denver, I get paged because the agent wanted me to swap seats with someone else. She asks for my boarding pass. When I say I’ve got a mobile one, she prints out a boarding pass with a new seat assignment. Being a geek, I refresh the screen and see that it shows the new seat and ditch the paper. Unfortunately it doesn’t scan and she has to board me manually.

Leaving SFO, I had to standby for an earlier flight because of weather. Although the boarding pass initially showed my standby status, somewhere along the way that disappeared. (Causing me to panic and race to the big screens in the gate area to verify that I was still on the list.) When I cleared standby, the agent called me up and issued a paper boarding pass. The link I had showed no boarding pass.

In a future ideal world, my phone would beep when I cleared the standby list, I’d click to accept and the screen would show the updated boarding pass. It would free up the mob around the gate, let me get a drink or food and get the plane out faster.

In Denver, my original mobile boarding pass was still valid. It took some fiddling to get it to scan. I thought 2-D bar codes could be held in any direction, but that didn’t seem to be the case.

Note that although the boarding pass is generated dynamically, the information is static. If your flight is delayed, you won’t see that reflected. You’ll have to go back to http://mobile.united.com and enter your flight information. It also self destructs after a flight, so if you need documentation for business purposes or making sure you get your frequent flier miles, you might want to stick with paper. (In theory, it shouldn’t be needed for miles purposes, but I don’t like to rely on theory when it comes to airlines.)

More on: airlines

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