Mobile Monday DC: Touchscreens and Touchdowns next week!

There’s still some space left for the next Mobile Monday DC event, “Touchscreens and Touchdowns,” focusing on mobile and the wide world of sports. We’re meeting at Georgetown University this time to hear from another excellent expert panel, including reps from ESPN and the Washington Capitals.

Hope to see you there!

Pretty accurate, except for the rabbits

An article in Slate pointed me to a site where Google reports the conclusions it has made about your age, gender, and ad categories that interest you. In my case, Google got it mostly right; it thinks I’m younger than I really am, but I can’t object to that.

The categories are mostly accurate as well (“Internet & Telecom – Mobile & Wireless – Mobile Phones – Smart Phones” of course!), but for some reason Google thinks that I’m also interested in “Pets & Animals – Pets – Rabbits & Rodents”. We had cats when I was a kid, but…

Photo by Robobobobo from flickr

Yes to the stylus!

Farhad Manjoo thinks that it makes sense to use a stylus with smart touchscreen devices, and I agree. I keep one with my Kindle Fire, and find that the stylus makes the experience of using that device much better and more efficient. Despite the advantages that Manjoo outlines (and the added benefit of keeping finger smudges off the screen), the stylus has been out of fashion since the days of the Palm Pilot. This is in part because, as Manjoo notes, Steve Jobs hated the stylus. As a result, he made sure that his iProducts worked very well without one.

There’s another big advantage of the stylus; when it’s cold outside, do you really want to take off your gloves to use your phone? I expect that this may not have occurred to Steve Jobs. After all, when he looked around his office he saw something like this:

Do you think it’s possible that Jobs would have thought differently if he had to use his iPhone here?

Mobile Monday DC: Destination: Mobile

We had an excellent Mobile Monday DC meeting yesterday, all about mobile applications and services for the travel industry. Our panel included representatives from big players in the travel business (Marriott, Amtrak, Travel Channel) and from smaller startups in the field (PocketGuide, Taxi Magic, TravelZoo). It’s a natural subject for Mobile Monday; as Robert Spier from the Travel Channel noted, travelers are mobile by nature.

There was plenty to take in from the panel discussion, ably moderated by Stephanie Joyce from Arent Fox, who co-sponsored the event and provides the venue in their offices. Here are some highlights:

Travel is big business: President Obama mentioned in a speech on Jan. 19 that “Tourism is the number-one service that [the US exports]”. The panelists made it clear just how big a business it is. George Corbin described how Marriott discovered that its web site was the number 3 mobile commerce site, following Apple and Amazon. Another statistic from the evening: 1/3 of every dollar spent on the Internet goes to travel.

Mobile is a good investment: The panelists from Marriott and Amtrak both mentioned how mobile channels save costs, by reducing the number of calls to customer service. Amtrak is finding mobile to be the fastest growing channel, for information and ticket sales. TaxiMagic, by contrast, is a pure mobile service, which makes money directly from radically improving the ease of finding a cab in its target markets. (by the way, they’re hiring, as are the folks at Travel Channel/Scripps Media).

We’re just getting started: There are always new platforms to support and new markets to reach. Amtrak has a mobile app for only one platform (iOS) at present, and the Travel Channel is working on how to capture to experience of travel TV shows in mobile and digital form. The challenge for the smaller companies (Taxi Magic, PocketGuide) is expanding their reach to all of the markets they would like to serve. For companies with more established mobile solutions, like Marriott, there are always more ways to use mobile tech to improve the business. Marriott is exploring how to use mobile devices and services to improve the speed and efficiency of its “back of house” operations, such as housekeeping, to improve the customer experience while saving money.

Mobile is not easy (or cheap): The panelists, echoing what I’ve heard from many other companies dealing with developing mobile solutions, find that they never have enough money or people to do everything they want to do. It’s also hard to know what to do first, as customers don’t necessarily know what they “want” from new technologies and new delivery and business models. There’s an old joke in the advertising business that 50% of ad spending is wasted, but you don’t know which 50%. George Corbin from Marriott took that further. In mobile, he said, you can do 500 things, but only 10 matter. That requires (my favorite quote of the night) “ruthless prioritization“, and a clear focus on what the customer is trying to do with the apps and services.

Were you at the event? Please chime in with your thoughts and conclusions. I’ll try to add links to other reviews as I find them.

Our next Mobile Monday event is on February 6, this time covering mobile solutions for sports. Please sign up for Touchscreens & Touchdowns, and hope to see you there!

A few random thoughts on SOPA & PIPA

On the day when a bunch of big Internet companies and sites are shutting down to protest proposed online piracy legislation, a few thoughts about the online piracy bills currently making their way through Congress. (I don’t have a voting representative in Congress, so writing to my representative won’t really help.)

I think the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) in the House and “Protect IP Act” (PIPA) in the Senate are overkill, to say the least, but there is still probably a need for measures to stop piracy of intellectual property. I agree with the White House and Future of Music Coalition that there needs to be a balance between protecting IP owners and maintaining the openness and technical integrity of the Internet.

So how did we get to this point? I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, shared by media and Internet companies. It’s worth remembering in this debate that Google and Facebook, just like the big movie studios and record labels, are large commercial corporations with business models they want to protect.

The media industries, in particular the movie business, have been very slow to adapt their business models to the online world, and have resisted almost every new technology since the VCR and cassette tapes (and possibly before that). I heard this resistance from the music industry first-hand when I worked on mobile digital rights management (DRM) specifications in the mid-00’s.

I can sympathize to a degree: if you make music, movies, or books, for example, you will probably earn less from online sales than physical ones. On the other hand, as Rocky Agrawal suggests, that’s no reason to leave money on the table by not embracing more flexible distribution and sales models.

The Internet companies also share blame for deliberately misquoting Stewart Brand all these years (found the original quote here, page 49), and encouraging owners of intellectual property and content to give it away for free over the Internet. As Brand said (as well), “Information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.”

Google and other Internet companies have not really made information free; they have merely shifted the revenue flow so it goes to them instead of to the content owners. Newspapers, for example, have always been supported by advertising. In the new digital world, the news business is still an advertising business, except the advertising revenue now flows mostly to Google instead of to the papers.

That’s my $0.02. Here’s hoping that the good old democratic process will result in an outcome that we can all more or less live with.

Joining the Carnival (again!)

I’m happy to be included in the latest edition of the Carnival of the Mobilists, “a weekly collection of the Web’s best writing on mobile and wireless, hosted and collected by a different site each week.” This week’s installment is hosted by user experience expert Steven Hoober, who I heard at the recent MoDevEast conference speaking to an overflow crowd about how to “Design For Every Screen“. This collection includes my recent post analyzing data from Flurry about usage of apps and browsers by US smartphone owners.

Please have a look and enjoy the Carnival.

Thanks to the Mobilists for the support!

Everybody talks about the weather…

…but the National Weather Service (NWS) won’t write apps for it. This from Information Week Government, which reports that the NWS has “put a hold on the use of internal resources to develop device-specific mobile application for iPhones, Androids, or iPads.” The deputy director who made the decision reasons that there are already thousands of successful weather apps on the market that use NWS data, so there’s no need for the Service itself to write apps itself. The NWS employee union does not agree with this decision, calling it “demoralizing” and a step towards privatization of the National Weather Service.

To me, what the NWS seems to be doing is what we in the private sector call “adopting a platform strategy.” They’re focusing on the app and service infrastructure (the platform and APIs), leaving client side development to other parties. This is an excellent way of increasing adoption of your information and services. Just look at Twitter and Facebook, not to mention all of the companies using the Mashery, for examples of organizations that have used platforms to enable countless uses of their services in apps and web sites.

Perhaps the deputy director could have avoided at least some of this conflict by stressing the positive innovation potential of the platform as opposed to the negative of stopping app development.