Friday 18 June 2010

Why I've given up on Foursquare. For now...

Before I go any further, and in the style of a newspaper football report, I'll give you the ending before going back to the start and explaining:

I've given up on Foursquare because I don't see the point of it!

That's not the only reason, there are a few others such as cost-benefit trade off, the hassle of managing multiple social networks and uptake by friends - but the main one is really that I'm not sure I get it.

To my credit, I gave it a go.  As a natural sceptic (I'm sure I've mentioned that I prefer to call this pragmatism), I was sitting on the negative side of the fence already but I put this aside and decided to run with it for a couple of months.  In that time I think that I had 'some' success - I developed an, albeit small, network of friends, achieved a few badges and am mayor of 5 places - a couple of which I even added myself.  But beyond the (very) limited bragging rights, I really don't see what I got out of it...

With any such application, in order for it to achieve any sort of success there has to be a balance, a trade-of between cost and benefit for the consumer.

I can see what the locations/places get out of it - they do nothing but get their name and location featured.  If they go so far as offering an incentive for the mayor or check-ins then they may also get a bit more free publicity and also get to be seen as current and trendy (does just using a word like "trendy" show me up for being anything but?).

For Foursqare itself, I can also see the benefit - a constantly user-updated list of locations and business premises, categorised according to type, with a (relative) indication of popularity.  They also gain an understanding of their users habits and preferences.  All of this is of course fantastic info for advertising and promotional activity.  Added to the fact that location is the holy grail for advertising relevance it's a no-brainer there - although my main caveat here is that it's a no-brainer as long as you have a critical mass of users that you can advertise to....

As a user though, what do I get?  

I have to think about another social network to keep updated, I have to remember to find the location and check-in via the app.  It seems like that isn't a lot of fuss, but when you balance it against the benefit, it is, because I'm not sure I see any benefit.

Foursqare is just too one-dimensional for me.  If (or should I say when?) Facebook adds a similar check-in feature, the information immediately has context and relevance in the realm of my existing friends sharing what they are doing.  Outside of this wider context, it's just a list of where people have been which, if you're anything like me, wears thin pretty quickly.

By way of an analogy, I saw an interesting article discussing why people object to news site paywalls - the argument being that basically although you are happy to pay for a physical newspaper, this is worth it because they offer more than just news, they aggregate much more information such as news, sports, weather, gossip, entertainment etc. etc. and are digested in a more information-sparce context.  However online behaviour is different in that consumers are far happier using different sources for their information - Sky Sports for footy stories, the BBC for news, Mashable for social media/tech trends, Tech Tree for the latest in technology and maybe even Perez Hilton for gossip - moreover online, information is ubiquitous, so why should you pay for it...?

Is there a future for Foursquare?

Well, Foursqare appears to be gaining some momentum, but I would be very surprised if this ever gets anywhere outside the congestion zone - it's a London-digital thing.  So in it's current guise, no.

However, and I would guess that this is the real play, were Foursquare (or it's functionality) to be integrated to an existing social networking site, this would be a massive boost.  Take your existing network of friends and allow them to check-in to a location, share their status/ what they are doing and upload pictures of themselves there - now it starts to have a context and benefit...


Wednesday 9 June 2010

iPhone 4. What's it all about then?

For those who are not aware - and I think that many of us in London-centric digital-land (myself included) sometimes forget that not everyone is on the pulse of the latest breaking trends; some people aren't minutely aware of the raging smartphone war; some think that an iPad is a sanitary product; and, dare I say it, there are even people who haven't a clue what Twitter and Foursquare are - on Monday (the 7th June) at Apple’s annual World Developers’ Conference in San Francisco, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the new iPhone 4.

What's the iPhone 4 got then?

Not wanting to miss the boat as per usual, this blog post is my take on the new device (after all it is far more than a phone), its release and my initial thoughts about what it means for the industry and consumers.  However, to start with, here's a typically schmaltzy video espousing the virtues of the new device (if you can't be bothered with sticking about for over 6 mins, you can skip it as I'll give a brief synopsis below):

I'll talk about what I see as a couple of the main features (of both the device and the new iOS 4, announced previously and which also runs on the iPad and will be available for compatible 3G, 3GS and iPod Touch models) a bit later on but a quick run of the salient points is:

  • Small but perfectly formed - 24% thinner that the last iPhone and flat backed so a more 'comfortable' device to pocket and leave on a desk - the device looks really nice and, by all accounts, the build quality is superior to anything else (Vertu excepted maybe) on the market; 
  • Top notch display - the "Retina Display" delivers 300px per sq. inch and looks really (seriously, really!) sharp;
  • 2 noise cancellation mics - should help with voice recognition and call quality;
  • 5 megapixel rear-facing camera with LED flash - nothing particularly ground-breaking here but something that they really needed to improve based on competitor offerings;
  • FaceTime - Apple's attempt at re-inventing video calling.  More on this later...;
  • Front-facing camera - in order to support video calling;
  • HD video capture and iMovie - video editing capabilities (it'll be interesting to see how much this is actually used although it does look good);
  • Multi-tasking - (one of) my biggest criticisms of previous versions has been the lack of multi-tasking so it was great (albeit expected) when this was announced with iOS4 previously;
  • Improved file management - allowing the arrangement of your apps into folders;
  • Improved email inbox management - another of my criticisms was the painful process for switching between email accounts, this has been addressed with a shared inbox and threading of messages; 
  • Improved battery life - apparently giving 7hrs talk time and 6hrs 3G browsing (10hrs on WiFi).  Battery life is a bugbear of mine so this is a nice improvement although it remains to be seen how this stands up in the real world and what effect apps and multi-tasking will have on this; 
  • Gyroscope - not just tracking the pitch (front-to-back) and roll (side-to-side tilting) of the device, but also the yaw (side-to-side rotation).  Integrating this into games and applications as well as advertising has the possibility of greatly enriching the users gesture feedback as the Wii did for gaming; and 
  • iAds - Apple's rich mobile advertising format has the potential to help force the pace of mobile advertising growth, again, more in this a bit later... 

Basically, nothing significant that we didn't already know on the basis of previous releases, leaks and losses but it's still exciting to see the typical Apple razzmatazz and the way that they package these features - and not forgetting the usual media response and comment...

Surprisingly (not least for me) Apple have departed from the norm of an initial US-only launch and will be releasing the iPhone 4 both in the UK and US, later this month on the 24th June.  There is no news on UK pricing but in the US they are shipping at $199 for the 16Gb version and $299 for 32Gb.  Given previous experience I would expect them being a touch more pricey over here but maybe, given that there is no carrier-exclusivity here anymore, the competition may keep the prices low.  The expected four will be carrying the iPhone 4 and my studious monitoring of their Twitter feeds caught their announcements:   

O2 were unsurprisingly first out of the blocks at 20:03 on Monday evening, with a link to their pre-registration page and also mentioned a limited-time special upgrade offer for in-contract customers;

Orange were next up at 21:29 that evening also, the ever friendly Conor directed followers to the Orange pre-registration page where you can sign of for further updates;

Vodafone didn't manage to beat my arbitrarily imposed (and pretty irrelevant) midnight deadline by tweeting their announcement at 00:07 on the 8th.  Again, followers were directed to a pre-registration page

And so T-Mobile were the last risers, not getting their Twitter announcement out until 15:16 on the 8th (indeed Conor from their new bed-fellows Orange actually beat them to the punch by a few minutes).  T-Mobile seem to not be taking pre-registrations and instead directed followers to their media centre for updates - not the best user experience it has to be said...

So what are the important bits?

There's plenty that can be talked about from the list above but, in my opinion at least, there are a couple that are worth some real attention based on their potential for further changing the market - FaceTime and iAds...

Wasn't video calling a damp squib last time round?

You could say that (he says, entering into a cyber-space conversation with himself - that's got to be a bad sign.  Almost as bad as psycho-analysing yourself in cyber-space, he replied....)!

I'm sure that I'm not the only person who remembers the launch of the new carrier 3 back in 2003 and the adverts heralding the advent of a new era of mobile video calls.  Well, it never happened.  Whether due to call quality, high cost, poor user experience or the lack of someone to call who also had a capable phone (which reminds me of the question - who did Alexander Graham Bell call when he invented the first telephone?), consumers refused to take it up and so video calling has remained restricted to enterprise (and more relevantly non-mobile) application since.

Could FaceTime change that?  

We've seen before that Apple leads the way in delivering top quality user experience and products and services that people simply want to use.  As a mate (and fellow mobilist) Murat recently tweeted: 

"Yeah video calling has been around for ages but so had phones, experiences rules - if it's slick it'll give video calling the kiss of life"

On the basis of the Apple video above and the review from CNet below, both the user experience and the quality (aided by FaceTime initially only being available over a WiFi connection) look pretty damn good:

So that leaves the cost and having someone to call.  

The cost front is covered initially because of FaceTime only running over WiFi from launch.  But even once this restriction is relaxed and you are able to make video calls over a 3G (or in time LTE/4G connection) with the near-ubiquity of data bundles, particularly with iPhone and other smartphone calling plans, this shouldn't be an issue at all.  The only caveat that I will add to this (and it applies to the call quality also) is that the carriers bear a significant responsibility here - both in terms of the network quality and also in relation to the application of the usual "fair usage policy" applied to all-you-can-eat data plans.  If they mess this up, there is little that Apple can do...

And finally there is the "who to call" question.  Well, there are an awful lot of iPhone users out there and you can be sure that a good proportion of them will upgrade to the iPhone 4 over the coming months.  However, from launch, FaceTime will only be possible from iPhone 4 to iPhone 4.  It will not be available on the 3G/3GS or other devices, which does significantly restrict the possible number of calls that can be made.  But it looks like it IS the intention to widen the distribution of FaceTime as an open industry standard.  This is the kicker as I see it - if Apple allows other manufacturers to implement FaceTime functionality into their devices there will be no barrier to uptake - I can call my iPhone 4 owning friend from my HTC running Android.  It is a massive "if" (particularly given all the recent patent disputes between rival manufacturers) but IF this happens, there should be no real reason for video calling not to become more popular.  It will never replace voice calling, we shouldn't expect that, but it could become a viable, accepted and consumer adopted calling option.

What does iAds do for mobile advertising and marketing?

To address this, I'll start with the killer stat - Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley (who knows a thing or two about the digital landscape having previously been dubbed the “Queen of the Net”predicts that mobile web users will be overtaking desktop within 5 years:

However, although mobile advertising spend continues to increase (as shown in a recent IAB and PwC study) there is still a disparity between the number of users of the mobile internet and the relative mobile advertising spend, in comparison to online.  The possible reasons for this are legion, ranging from brands acceptance of mobile as a channel to the creative restrictions of the current MMA guidelines.

Whatever the actual reason(s) may be, Apple and the other traditional big players, such as Google and Microsoft, are certainly turning their attention to the channel as recent acquisitions and comments have made clear.  So with Apple also announcing that they already have $60 million in advertiser commitments in 2010 for iAds (the advertising, served by Apple into apps running on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch), from brands such as Unilever, AT&T, Chanel and Walt Disney, including one (or more) that has had to stump up $10M to be the first advertiser, there is certainly no lack of brand focus.  This may be centred on iAds, but the wider mobile advertising eco-system can only benefit from this.

Additionally, the richer creative and improved user experience that iAds offer should serve as a benchmark across the industry.  To reference Murat again, he has blogged about the need for industry guidelines to evolve in-line with device capabilities.  This have never been more the case than now, as the iPhone dragged smartphone capabilities on its coat tails, so should iAds do the same for mobile advertising - and with the increasing penetration of HTML5 support into mobile browsers, the kind of functionality that was only possible within an app can be exploited within a browser context, meaning the richer experience advertising can be available across devices and it is up to us in the industry to ensure that this is the case!

Which all means...?

The iPhone 4 isn't a revolutionary or game changing device in the way that its predecessors were.  The smartphone market has caught up enough in the last year or so that the competitors are at least on the same lap of the race.  However, the iPhone 4 has certainly given Apple a burst of speed down the back-straight and pushed them further ahead.  You can be sure that the competition will kick on and respond, and in some areas they remain ahead (device customisation and "cloud" integration for example), but by pushing into "new" ground and forcing the market onwards, Apple continues to be the major catalyst for the progression of the industry.

Will I be getting an iPhone 4?  Probably not, no.  Do I think that it'll be the best device on the market?  Yes, I probably do...

Thursday 3 June 2010

What's the point of the iPad?

Apple have sold 2 million iPads in two months (is it even meaningful to mention that this is over 30,000 a day?) and predictions are that they will top 10 million by the end of this year.

Coincidentally, I saw my first iPad advert on the TV last night and was also dragged into a debate about the relative merits of the iPad on the train into London this morning.  Unusually for me, given my dogged (I would say pragmatic) refusal to fall in line with the Apple hype-factory following, I was taking a pro-iPad stance...

This brought to mind some conversations and thoughts that I have had previously about the iPad.  Basically, the question that has been on my mind for a while has been what, exactly, is the point of the iPad?  Once you get beyond the social-media hype that Apple consistently manage to stir up around their product launches, who is going to use the iPad?  And why?

Apple never fail to disappoint when it comes to whipping up a maelstrom of media frenzy in the months preceding a launch; with rumour, leaks and press exclusives satiating the demand of the Apple-adoring public.  Indeed, the irony of Steve Jobs' recent comment about Bloggers was not lost on me for one...  And so it happened with the iPad - months of speculation about the name, let-alone the features and functionality of the device, generated an amount of interest previously unheard of.

The demand for a tablet device was born.

But irrespective of Apple's success at creating demand, my question is still unanswered.  Just what is the point of the iPad?

Well, I can tell you for one that it doesn't replace the iPhone (or any mobile device for that matter) - it's just too big for that.  Apple may extol the virtues of it being a portable device but, unless you're going to put it in a bag, you're not going to carry it around too far.  Additionally, without voice capabilities (although the more expensive versions will have 3G for data connectivity) it won't replace many of the uses of the smartphone.  Indeed, debate rages about whether the iPad should be regarded as a mobile device - for search, Google do regard it as such so that may be the trump card in that debate, but in general (digital) terms I think it should probably not be.

And so on the other side of the spectrum in terms of the market, sits the Netbook and beyond that, the Laptop and PC/Mac.  There is a good argument that these guys will be the main casualty to the iPad.  What would you be more likely to do - get out a netbook or a tablet to have a quick browse when you're sat at home.  I certainly know what I would prefer to do.

There's no denying that Apple make really nice devices and that in terms of user experience they have few rivals, but the iPad will never replace their more powerful cousins - you won't be able to check your email, browse the internet and work on a document on the iPad.  So let me try and answer my own question:

The iPad has created, or at the very least brought to the mainstream, a new genre of technology.

The iPad is not about doing things like smartphones and 'standard' computers (by that I mean netbooks, laptops and PC/Macs).  You typically use these devices as a means-to-an-end; to meet an objective; to create something; or to manage multiple tasks at once.  They are tools.

I don't see the iPad as a tool.  It's a conduit, for the consumption of media.  Sure you'll use it to play games, but aimless games in the way you do on an iPhone to kill time, not like you do an a Playstation or even a PSP.  It's primary use will be for browsing the internet; reading books and magazines; and watching video.  So the real casualty is likely to be the more 'traditional' tools - books, magazines and TV, this is what the iPad replaces as it creates a new paradigm in the use of technology.

And you can rest assured that there will be a raft of similar (albeit less useable) devices over the coming months.  I would be certain that the smooth-and-sleek tablet band wagon will be jumped on by a number of manufacturers that can produce the hardware cheaper, bundle it with Android, or similar open-source operating system - meaning that the tablet is not restricted to those with cash to burn as the iPhone was for so long.  In fact, it's already happening.

So I'm drawn back to my original question: What's the point of the iPad?  My answer?

The point is progress.  It's about people doing the same things but in a new way.  And whether you like it or not, you certainly can't stop it...

Tuesday 1 June 2010

The battery life of Smartphones means we're now less mobile

If there is one area that has been (seemingly) neglected in the mobile device's march towards pre-eminence it is the humble battery.  The modern-day mobile phone has, alongside your keys and wallet (or purse), become part of the holy trinity - things that you just can't leave your home without.  But unfortunately, it appears that the mobile device's usefulness is inversely proportional to it's battery life - the more functionality, apps and features that you use your phone for, the less time it can last without a charge.  

The more useful your mobile phone becomes, the less you can use it!

It's like having a really fast car that can only maintain top speed for a few minutes before you need to stop and fill up with petrol (or maybe a Twettle that only boils one mug's worth of water?).

Is there an iPhone, Blackberry or Android user that isn't familiar with the rigmarole of turning WiFi on and off; dimming the screen; disabling push email; and shutting running apps to conserve that last 10% of battery life to see you home and to the sanctuary of a mains charger?  Is there anyone who doesn't have to stick their phone on to charge each night?  I remember a time when I didn't have to think ahead about what I was doing the next day, let alone the same day, to make sure that I had enough power in my phone.  Nowadays it's a must for fear of hitting the red.  

Ironically, my current mobile phone has made me less mobile, and with each iteration and upgrade it has got worse.

So what can be done?  Sure, I can make an effort to change my usage habits - perhaps not check my email so often for example, but that won't fix the issue only alleviate it for a short while.

As far as I see it, there are two things that need to improve - power consumption in devices and the amount of power in the battery.  I'm not sure that there is much that a single manufacturer can do - they need to work together to sort this one out because you can be sure that this is an issue that is only going to get worse.  

Unfortunately at the moment, rival manufacturers seem far more intent on slapping patent violation suit after patent violation suit on each other and demanding restrictions on sales than any sort of collaboration meaning that the likelihood of them addressing this together is slim.  And were one of them to harness the power of kryptonite for a mobile phone, it'll be locked down in so much legalese, the likelihood is that we won't see it for another 10 years and when we do no-one else will be able to benefit.

So I suspect that we'll be sticking to the nightly-charge routine for a while yet...