Wireless ApplicationsFriday, June 26, 2009
Over the last year, I have written several trade magazine columns on how difficult it is to find and choose applications I would want to use on my smartphone and I have put forth ideas about some specific applications I think would be well received in the marketplace.
Some of these articles were aimed at the developer community, with an eye toward them better understanding the frustrations and points that keep coming up in discussions with other smartphone users. The developer community has many very talented people working on wireless applications and bringing them to market-the problem is in getting the applications noticed and purchased by customers.
Today there are more places than ever to purchase applications-stores operated by device manufacturers Apple, Nokia, RIM, and others, independent application aggregators' sites and, of course, network operators' stores. Unfortunately, it is too easy for a great application to become lost in all of this and, even with a search, it can often be difficult to find (especially when the search results in more than a hundred hits, as does a search for an expense tracking application for my BlackBerry).
Several of these applications will probably work for me, but I am not going to sit at the airport, at my desk, or in a hotel room and download a trial version of application after application until I find the one I want. I have done this in the past and in most cases it is an exercise in futility. Once I download the application, I usually discover it is not what I really want, or that it is poorly written, or perhaps the developer has never spent time traveling and, therefore, does not understand the hassles and frustrations associated with tracking travel expenses. So I give up.
As I was preparing to write this COMMENTARY, I went back over some earlier articles published in our newsletters including one by Barney Dewey, a business partner. Barney was the first to advocate what he called "active content"-content that resides in the calendar that is automatically updated by the application, which also retrieves information for other items it finds in the calendar. Now that RIM is supporting data push to applications, and Apple also claims to, these types of embedded applications are closer to being a reality.
The following are a few examples of what Barney wrote in 1999 and what we have been asking for. The first is a flight from LAX to DFW. It is entered into the calendar and in the background the flight is verified. When the gate number has been assigned, that information is sent to the calendar entry. If you are wait-listed for an upgrade and it comes through, you are informed and your new seat assignment is put in the calendar. There is also a weather icon next to the flight information and clicking on it will display the weather in Dallas.
The calendar also shows a rental car from Hertz and a hotel reservation. Sometime during the day, the application goes to the web and downloads directions from the Hertz airport location to the hotel, and since it knows your arrival gate, it inserts a note in your calendar indicating how to find the Hertz bus.
Other examples include an off-site meeting with a must-leave-by time calculated by the application based on the route. This time is adjusted as the application checks traffic and weather conditions and the changes appear on both your desktop and handheld.
I know this is a complex application or series of applications. Microsoft almost got this right a while back, but network operators had to purchase a complete software package and install it on its own network. Oddly enough, in the early 2000s, a group of Intel software developers from the Portland office took Barney's idea and coded it. In those days, before increased data speeds and graphics, most of the tasks were accomplished using text notification, and these developers added some nice touches. For example, if your flight was delayed or cancelled, it would present choices of other flights-but only those that met Intel travel guidelines. Once you booked your flight, it sent an email to your admin, rental car company, and the person expecting you telling them you had been delayed and your new arrival time.
It was a great first effort but Intel decided it had nothing to do with its core business. The developers tried to secure some venture funding and spin the product out of the company, but the dot-com bubble had just burst and there were no funds available. Somewhere within Intel sits this code, and it wouldn't take much to update it for today's networks and phones.
Today there are some great examples of applications that are almost what we are seeking. WorldMate Live is one and I use it all of the time for travel. The way it works is simple. I create a trip and name it, and when I receive email confirmations for my flight, hotel, and car rental, I simply forward them to WorldMate Live, which puts them into my trip AND sends them to my Outlook calendar. The application verifies each flight and updates its status, and I can ask for an update whenever I want. WorldMate Live also has a currency converter and many other features I find easy to use. There are a few changes I would like to see, but it is the best travel application I have seen so far (no, WorldMate Live is not a client).
Intuit liked an idea I had a number of years ago but was busy with corporate directions and it lost traction inside the company. Now I think it would be a logical next release for WorldMate Live or a competitor.
Like most people, I have a couple dozen rewards program cards for airlines, hotels, rental cars, etc. Each has several levels of membership depending on how many miles you fly, how many nights you stay, and so on. My idea is to establish a central repository where clients can enter all of their information into a single database that would manage all of my cards (and perhaps issue a combined rewards card). When planning a trip, customers would sign in to the site and, based on their rewards levels, the application would recommend the airline, hotel chain, and rental car company that would provide the most benefit. Once booked, the application would track the trip and update it much like WorldMate Live does. And since I want it all, I may as well request that it be smart enough to ask for expense information as I went along.
It would probably be more difficult to convince the airlines and other rewards programs to go along with the idea than to write the code. At first they might see it as a threat, but if it were presented properly, such an application might be seen as an additional opportunity. Later, I would like to see this application include tracking of my credit card purchases and the rewards as they are accruing, and expansion to include other rewards programs-even my pharmacy is now offering frequent buyer rewards, as is BestBuy. In the old days, we were given a handful of S&H Green Stamps that we put into books and then redeemed for merchandise. Nowadays, rewards programs or affinity programs are being deployed by everyone and anyone including supermarkets. I don't want to carry all of these cards with me. Some places let me to enter my phone number instead of showing a card, but most places want at least my membership number, hence all the rewards cards.
I would gladly pay a yearly fee for this type of service, or perhaps even accept advertisements on my screen to help offset the cost, and I would want a desktop version integrated with my smartphone so I could use the application from either device.
Speaking about Desktops
That brings me to something I really want and that I believe would greatly enhance the mobile application shopping experience. I want to be able to try applications out on a desktop emulator before I download them into my mobile device. As far as I know, the only company doing anything like this is Mpowerplayer on its Mplayit.com site where I can load a game on a desktop simulator and play it before I download it (Mpowerplayer is not a client, either). The Apple App Store comes close with a screen shot of the product, but that usually isn't enough to determine whether I want to buy the application.
CloneFone seems to have been in beta forever (also not a client), but when it launches, we will be able to go to its site or a site powered by CloneFone, enter the name of our network service provider, our phone number, and the make and model of our phone. The result will be a full simulator and a mapping of the menus on the phone. We will be able to program all of the features and functions of the phone and then download them to the phone, explore its capabilities, and try out applications to decide whether to buy them. I am really looking forward to CloneFone coming out of beta, and in the meantime I am hoping app stores might pick up on the idea. The Apple App Store would be relatively easy since all iPhones are essentially alike. Others might be more difficult because of the variety of phones, or even models of BlackBerrys, but it could be done.
I, for one, would probably buy more applications if I could run a simulator on my desktop or notebook and experiment with the program to see if it really does what I want. I have talked to a number of people who have downloaded applications, either for free or having paid for them, tried them for a few days, and given up. Now all of that code is sitting idle on their smartphone taking up memory, or after a while, it is deleted to make room for other applications. Others I have talked to don't even bother going to applications stores unless someone who likes a particular application has given them a demo on their device.
Network operators want to encourage more of their customers to move into the world of broadband data and they are pushing a variety of uses to drive data demand, but I believe the types of applications I have described above, along with a desktop simulator, would really help draw people up the data curve. None of these ideas are new, we have written about them for years as have others, but apparently the status quo is acceptable to the developer, network, and customer communities. I keep hoping some of these things will be implemented, and I keep talking about them in my speeches and in our Wireless Universities, but with a few exceptions, I haven't see any real progress.
Andrew M. Seybold