Friday 24 September 2010

DIY apps. The Emperor's new clothes.

I'll preface this blog post by saying that I haven't really got the time to write it.  Although I haven't posted an update for a while (meaning that it is well overdue) I still have a pretty large pile of things to do instead.  However, a Twitter exchange with my ex-colleague, good mate and fellow mobile enthusiast Murat resulted in me climbing so high on my soap-box that I needed to let it all out - he does have that kind of effect on me I am afraid.  So we can probably consider this as a cathartic post...


Along with the fantastic Grapple, I was sharing a stand with the lovely Hayley (another ex-colleague) from Nokia at Ad:Tech on Wednesday.  She was talking about a new product that Nokia have released, the Ovi App Wizard, which enables you to create your very own mobile application, test it in an emulator, submit it for review and (with luck) subsequently publish it to the Ovi Store - making it available across supported devices.  I gave this a go yesterday evening and am pleased to say that it was a pretty smooth and pain-free process, resulting in me creating and submitting my app in little over 5 minutes.

I confess that I was pretty impressed by this. If there is one thing that Nokia (usually) do well it is process - I have had more than a few afternoon conference calls talking about "ways of working".

This follows relatively swiftly on the heels of similar platform/product releases by the likes of Kilrush and Golden Gekko (with Tino) and possibly preceding one from Google .  Whilst there are variations between these offerings, in relation to their target audience, platforms and feature sets, the common denominator is the ability to create your own app without needing to do a jot of coding.

So what's the issue?

Well, I am all one for the democratising power of Mobile - everyone has one, most people understand them and their use (and usefulness) will only increase over the next few years.  And I am certainly also someone who at times despairs about the way that Mobile, as a whole, can obfuscate and over-complicate in order to set itself apart and be seen as "special" - and in doing so, only succeed in putting brands and agencies off the effort.

But I do believe that there is a real danger of letting anyone create an app and put it out there.  For starters, the default position of "I must have an app" is something that, as an industry, we have a obligation to redress.  More often than not with questions like "Really? Why? What exactly do you want to achieve?".  

There is most definitely a time and a place for an app, but this needs to have been reached through a process of assessing and analysing the brand, the objective, the budget and most importantly, the target audience.  If those factors point to an app being the right choice then go for it.  But until you have been through that, don't discount SMS, MMS, a mobile internet site, or any of the other capabilities that exist with Mobile.  

Just producing an app for an app's sake, really is a case of the Emperor's New Clothes and my own app is a case-in-point...

The Emperor

I created an app that simply pulls the Atom feed of this blog.  
So, it just shows this blog.  
An app.  
To just show this blog.  
Nothing else.  
No other features.  
Just this blog.  
In an app.

So why on God's Green Earth does it need to be an app?

Just to be clear, I really like apps and I use them all the time.  They enable you to provide features that you just cannot yet do in any other way.  Take my post about a day in London courtesy of Google as an example - it just wouldn't have been possible without apps (NB: mobile browser support of HTML5 will in the future address this).  There are any number of apps that I could talk about endlessly.  One of my favourites being the Museum of London "You are here" iPhone app - I urge you all to have a butchers!  But the point is, the features that make an app so good (e.g. GPS, accelerometer, camera, compass, local storage, external or 3rd party integration etc.) are not all able to be utilised/deployed with a DIY app builder.  To create a rich, engaging and  innovative app you need to spend time and money developing one. 

But the problem with apps is that what you make up for in functionality, you lose in reach.  Not all devices (easily) support apps as we know them and, taking Ovi as an example, although in theory you get reach across a large number of Nokia devices how many Nokia users will actually utilise this?  So an app can immediately restrict your target audience.  This is fine if an app is part of a muti-faceted strategy and so you are achieving this reach with other activity; or if you recognise this limitation and it still delivers for your target audience.

But it is not fine if you are simply responding to the demand of "I need an app!".

An app that is as one-dimensional as a restricted RSS reader will not engage, it will not bring a brand closer to it's audience.  Indeed, it is more likely to disengage and disappoint your consumers.  So I would say yes, do create and app.  But only if it is the right thing to do.  Otherwise, harness the power of the ubiquity of mobile and look in other areas for you engagement and innovation.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Problem + Simple Technology = Solution

I'll say one thing for the tube strike - at least it's happening on a day when it's actually quite pleasant to walk!  And furthermore, if it wasn't for me having to walk back to St. Pancras yesterday evening I wouldn't have come across one of the best uses of technology that I've seen for a while...

Let me elaborate.

On the corner of High Holborn, at the junction with Kingsway and Southampton Row, there is a large and - what I would call eff-ing - busy crossroads.  There is lots of foot traffic heading in all directions, and with the entrance to Holborn tube station just on the corner there is always a crowd of people at busy times waiting to cross and often jumping out between the road traffic.  

View Larger Map

The crossroads is controlled by traffic lights but there is always the usual game of chicken at the switch-over as cars and bikes try to get away like they're in a drag race and pedestrians try to make it across before being being skittled.  In effect: 

Loads of traffic (including kamikaze bikes) + loads of pedestrians = mayhem.

That's the problem.  So what impressed me so much about the solution?  Well, its simplicity. A countdown timer on the traffic lights that indicates how long you have to cross the road and until the traffic is going to start moving again.  Simples init?

You can see details about the solution on the TFL Pedestrian Countdown at Traffic Lights page.  And credit where credit is due to TFL, it seems to work (at least when I used it).

Traffic signals

I guess it is another great example of the age-old adage that if you've got a problem, more often than not, the simple solution is usually the most effective.

Friday 3 September 2010

Location, location, location (on mobile)

Last week I attended and IAB seminar about using location on mobile.  Now whilst there was nothing particularly new discussed, it was good to hear how the opportunities that mobile location provides is being presented to brands by the likes of Navteq, Geocast, Mobile Commerce and Incentivated (I shan't mention which two did not have a specific mobile optimised site when I browsed to them on my HTC Desire...).

The talk included the usual sales pitches from brands with offerings that utilise location in some way, but also a piece from Alex Kozloff (Mobile Manager at the IAB) that addressed consumer perceptions of location services.

And of course there was more than a few minutes addressing Facebook Places and the relevance to Foursquare and the like (my opinion on this is pretty clear - especially now that Facebook has launched its offering).

Now, the whole world of location, and particularly on mobile, is probably too big to address in a single blog post - simply because there are so many dimensions to it (and maybe also because it's Friday afternoon).  But I think that the one think most people are agreed upon, is that it's a pretty big deal.

Put as succinctly as possible, location adds an additional, and significant, layer of relevance to any comms or activity.

However, let's kick a couple of incorrect assumptions into the long grass right off the bat:

1. Location based services (LBS) are not a new thing.
LBS have been possible either via carrier lookup or user entry for a number of years (I deployed a mobile site with MultiMap integration based on user input for a popular car brand, specialising in black, back in 2006).  Unfortunately the downside of these approaches were/are cost and user experience.  Pulling in your location automatically, without the need for user input and with the only cost being battery life is pretty powerful.  However, that is not to say that they are not still relevant.

2. LBS are not restricted to smartphones
The two methods mentioned above both operate without the need for GPS, meaning that you can make use of location whilst the consumer is using only their browser or even SMS (Mobile Commerce operate some nice services that perform a mobile number lookup with the carrier to establish your location based on the mobile phone masts that you are connected to).

Indeed, using the GPS location may very well make your activity LESS relevant - if I want to find a restaurant I'll more likely want one close to where I live, not whatever station my train is sat at on the way home.  So as with any mobile technology, location needs to be used appropriately.  But that said, the research presented by Alex was clear:

"If you using location makes it more relevant for me, then you go ahead and use it!"

Of course there are some privacy concerns but on the whole, the use of location is being welcomed by consumers (in a way that behavioural targeting wishes it was...).  For example, 85% of users with a GPS enabled device use location when performing a search via their mobile.  That's quite compelling.

The challenge for mobile is ensuring that location is used in a relevant way.  That may be to help you check in quicker, find a pub that serves Babycham* near you, or just point you in the right direction.

* Apologies for the quality of that video but it brings back memories!