Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Restaurant Wars...or are they?

Disclosure: I consulted for OpenTable for some time.

Every now and then, restaurant reservations juggernaut OpenTable sees an article about how their stranglehold on online reservations is under attack. The latest is this article in SFGate, and follows the usual narrative: OpenTable is too expensive, plucky startups are trying to show there's a better, more restaurant-friendly way to do business, and maybe one of them will be a success. There were a raft of "pay for play" reservations services that would allow the diner to prepurchase vouchers that would get them a seat; most of them have gone away (although Reserve, in this piece, has clearly pivoted from that). There was SeatMe, a really innovative product, which was gobbled up by Yelp years ago. There were even efforts by credit card companies to provide a concierge to do this. And this is the latest.

But most of these articles miss the point altogether.

Put yourself in the shoes of a restaurant owner: you have built a unique business on your creativity, your vision, and your hard work. Now comes the hard part: getting people to come to experience it. Marketing is a critical part of that, but many restaurateurs struggle with this: they are great chefs, after all, and they are frequently preyed upon by vendors offering them cheap and easy solutions to help drive traffic. Sites like Groupon descend, promising thousands of recurring customers, in return for a discounted, first-time voucher, but the reality is that most of the customers are "one and done." (Note: I worked in the "daily deals" business for 2 years, and heard my share of these complaints). Services like Yelp promise elevated visibility and lowered negative reviews in return for sponsorships; the tactics they are purported to use are, to put it mildly, high pressure. Point of Sale (POS) system vendors promise cutting edge analytics and tech, and deliver a solution that is almost out of the 1970's. What's a business owner to do?

OpenTable is probably not liked by a lot of restaurants; it costs money, and they have to keep that tight. So why do so many restaurants continue to use it? Because it has critical mass, and drives traffic, period. When you decide where to go out to eat, you want to get a great selection of choices: OpenTable gives you that robust, diverse selection. If you are not listed on OpenTable, that customer is rarely going to open another app to see what else is available. Instead, they'll choose another that is listed there. So OpenTable is not providing tech per se, but the all important marketing to the types of diners they want the most: affluent, immediate need, and not having to compete for eyeballs. And that's what so many of these articles miss: it's not about the solution, it's about the one-stop shop for customers.

And then there's the curious "facts." For instance, in this article, they cite two competitors: Reserve and Resy. Both are app based (unlike OpenTable's multiplatform ubiquity). And they both boast of their growing restaurant list. Except, there's something funny going on here. Take the restaurant Michael Mina, for instance. Resy has them:

Ah! So they've embraced the "new paradigm" and moved onto this new platform; great! But then I checked out Reserve:
Hmm. So, Michael Mina is doubling the work for their front of house staff by handling two different online upstarts reservations services? Interesting. But wait, there's more:
Yes, that's the same Michael Mina on, you guessed it, OpenTable. And this is not the only example: in my comparison there are several that are on these new "disrupters" that remain on OpenTable. Now, think about what that means to the restaurant: their front of house staff has to process reservations from 3 separate online services, walk ins, and phone (the latter is still the mainstay). That's a lot of juggling and effort. Why would they do they? Simple: they are covering their marketing bets. So these new services are not taking business away from OpenTable; they are just leveraging their front of house staff in hopes of finding another OpenTable for marketing their restaurant.

Can you get away without using OpenTable? Sure you can, if you run a well known destination dining experience. In foodie cities like LA, SF, and NYC, you can do this for some places, but even then, you run into problems. Take State Bird Provisions, in SF, for instance. Lauded by Bon Appetit as the best new restaurant in 2012, they chose to use UrbanSpoon, another smaller competitor to OpenTable. Within months, their resulting popularity made their reservation system subject to hackers and unavailability. Their solution? Even thought they did not need the marketing lift, they switched to OpenTable, And order was restored.

I know this may sound like a defense for OpenTable; it's not. The reality is that all of these competitors are missing the point: they will become as ubiquitous as OpenTable if they can replicate their (and many other successful startups) formula for success: identify a market pain point, create a solution that either solves that pain and/or incentivizes the massive customer growth needed. For instance, there will still be some restaurants that resist OpenTable, and go with another solution. Why not create a super-reservations system that books your table on whatever system is used? That's the approach e-commerce upstart Jet.com used in their launch to beat Amazon: they promised the lowest price, they showed every product, and if they didn't have it, they purchased it from another site for you, and ate the price difference. Result? They are on track for $1B in sales this year, with 3.5M customers, in less than 3 years of existence. 

Still not convinced? Ok, how about this: pay the customer. That's right, pay them for every reservation they make through your system. Crazy, you say? That's what venture capital is for: to spend on rapid customer growth. Of course, OpenTable has a counter to that, with their loyalty program, but imagine if Amazon decided to get into this game, and offered you $5 Amazon credit for every reservation? Bizarre? Maybe not: they've just added restaurant delivery to Amazon Prime, so it's not too far off. How about Uber? They offer UberEats for food delivery; how hard would it be to add reservations that earn you Uber credit? Oh, and yes, you can book an Uber to get there, of course.

My point is that there are lots of great opportunities in this space, and it's just a matter of focusing on the bigger picture. OpenTable has done a great job of staying focused on the critical mass: you won't beat them by trying to build a better version of what they have. You need to focus on the marketing, the value proposition to the restaurant and the customer, and the real critical way to build the mass you need. It's not for the faint of heart, and the folks there are smart. Competition breeds innovation, so keep going, folks. We all win.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Kickstarter WTF's: TrapTap

So, it's now been years since smartphones have become ubiquitous in the US. We've also seen the growth of Waze as a nav app, specifically because of it's combination of crowdsourced traffic, speedtraps, and road conditions; so much so, Google and Facebook fought each other for the right to buy them (Google won). So, we have a perfect blend of market, community, and technology to be able to report and share vital driving info. Right?

Um, TrapTap doesn't think so. Nope, these folks are introducing a small physical device that uses visual and audio indicators to tell you that there's something to watch out for. Could be a speed trap, could be a school zone. Oh, but you see that cop you just passed at 20 miles faster than you should be? Well, just before he pulls you over, just tap twice on this gadget and everyone else will get hooked up with the info on their TrapTap.

So why my gripe? Well, first you're creating a boil the ocean problem: in order for the purchaser to benefit, the community needs to be there. Except it's got to be built up by lots of people using this gadget. Which means all these folks have to pony up the $100 to get into the ecosystem. No, that's not a mistype: not free like Waze, or $10 for the small hardware; add another zero there. And don't forget, this is Kickstarter: you may never see this disc of magic, and instead find yourself funding some Canadian booze-fueled binge vacation. Sigh.

The truth is that I loved these folks' video, albeit being very bro-hipster-centric:

I like the fact that the user experience is more driver friendly than apps like Waze for reporting hazards. I just think it requires so much more, or a head start by licensing existing community data to supercharge the network effect. But this smacks of being a feature that's trying to be a product: imagine if this was built in to your radar detector, or an accessory for your Waze/Apple Maps/Google Maps? Think of how Square gives away their credit card reader to get new customers, or how Amazon charges $5 for a Dash button, but gives you $5 credit for your purchases. Now that is how to get this type of product to market.

But thanks, guys, for the entertainment. And if you get an acquisition offer...you're welcome. :-)

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Another Kickstarter Facepalm

In my ongoing newfound desire to share my unrequested opinions on various crowdfunding projects, I bring to you today another entry in the supposed "smart" products. Now, unlike my last screed, this device actually fits the more accepted definition of "smart;" it has sensors, adds functionality to address a problem, and enhances the use of existing solutions. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Bluejay, the worlds' "first" smart mount.

Now, upon first glance, this gadget seems to be a winner. Beautifully engineered out of aluminum and carbon fiber, clearly designed with an attention to upgrade the ungainly other solutions, and a plethora of functionality, the Bluejay offers to make the mount for your smartphone in your car far more advanced. There's a clear focus on balancing impressive design with technological wizardry, no wonder it made it's funding goals.

What does it do? Well, in addition to offering mounting options on the windshield, dashboard, or vent, it works with it's dedicated app to offer you the ability to locate your car in a crowded parking lot, an optimized user interface to make it easier/safer to use your phone when driving, a turn by turn GPS, driving stats, integration with IFTT, and more. Pretty cool, right?

Wrong. Let me count the ways.

First, the price. This lovingly crafted piece of tech costs just under a Benjamin. Ok, you can argue that's pretty good for all that, but wait.

The ability to find your car in a crowded parking lot sounds like a great idea, right? Up until you realize that Google Now (built in every Android phone, and available for iPhones) automatically stores where you parked, and can guide you back to your car. Cost? $0.

How about that optimized interface? Well, despite the fact that the promotional video for the Bluejay shows how much easier it is to send a text message while driving (illegal, by the way), it also is a problem that is easily solved in a far better fashion by better apps, like AutoMate for Android. And since Bluejay accomplishes this task with an app rather than something specific to the mount, it's inferior to the other options. Not to mention that Siri, Cortana, and Google Now all offer the ability to send messages hands free or place calls with voice, a far safer option. Oh, yes, cost? $0.

How about turn by turn GPS? Again, Bluejay does this with an app, and there are far, far, far better options. Waze is my personal favorite, with crowdsourced RT traffic and police detection, but Google Maps, or even Apple Maps, can do this far better, and have far more resources to make improvements. Cost: Zip.

Diving stats: take a look at the alternatives. Metromile offers you a "Fitbit for your car" that does all of this, as well as notifying of fuel, maintenance and errors; they give it to you free with their per-mile car insurance. There are DIY versions that plug into your ODB port with free apps to give you the stats, or you can be a big spender and spring for Automatic, which is stats overload and real needed car functionality. Granted, no aluminum/carbon fiber mount for your phone, but the same price.

And lastly, the mount itself. While undeniably beautiful, it is a steep premium to pay for minimal design, yet strongly functional, car mounts on the market today. Got an old CD player in your car? For $11, you can turn it into a magnetic mount to suspend your phone in midair at the perfect angle. At the other extreme is ProClip, who will gladly sell you the highest quality, American made, mounting solution for your specific phone, complete with power. I've owned two of them, and amazed at the quality; I'm now tempted by their iOAuto Pro magnetic mount, and for half the price of the BlueJay.

Sadly, while Bluejay is clearly beautiful, it's value is greatly inflated, and yet it achieved it's funding goal. Another case of Kickstarter-fueled hype, alas. Backers beware!

Friday, April 01, 2016

The Downside of Crowdfunding

So, while I recently pointed out a potentially good product to come out of Kickstarter, there are certainly examples of ones that, really, never should be funded on principle. Case in point: I bring you Woollip, the supposed "Smart Pillow,"

Now, take a moment to digest that. These days, you hear "Smart...." And you think of a device loaded with sensors, designed to give feedback, and improve a problem. Think of the Fitbit, a smart pedometer that uses social reinforcement, gamification, and real-time feedback to help you get more exercise. Or the exploding smartwatch market, with dozens of models (Android, iOS, and more), focused on moving notifications out of your pocket and onto your wrist, as well as anticipating what you need to be told about before you need it. Smart devices indeed.

Woollip...not so much.

This is anything but. Instead, you get an inflatable travel pillow, supposedly to help you sleep better on a plane, car, etc. It's design is meant to accommodate different types of sleeping positions. And deflates for easy transport. That's it. Sensors that detect your quality of sleep (a la sleep trackers)? Nope. Ok, perhaps a white sound generator to help you sleep. Nope. How about syncing to your phone to wake you gently in the ideal phase of sleep to ensure you awake refreshed before your trip ends? Um, no.
Instead, you get a cheeky video, and a pillow the size of a kitchen appliance that I am sure will not bother any of your fellow travelers. Not to mention the folly of the inflatable aspect: how many times have you seen travelers frustratingly try to mess with those? Imagine being next to a middle seat dweller who whips out this baby.

Sadly, it has already exceeded the funding level it was looking for.  The true irony for me is that it's "designed" to be used on a plane, and with the tray table down, as well. You know that pocket behind the tray table? It used to contain a relic of the past: Skymall, a "catalog" of items that you flipped through before the days of using tablets or Kindles. Smack in the middle of that ancient tome was an ad for what might look to be a familiar product, albeit with a decidedly worse marketing photo:
There truly is nothing new under the sun. And just because something is marketed as "smart," or appears on Kickstarter, doesn't make it new, useful, or, in this case, even a good idea. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Kickstarter & the Like

I recently have been amazed at the plethora of products being offered on Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding websites. I have had both good experiences on crowdfunding sites (my Pebble is still going strong, and getting smarter), and poor experiences (the Coin card...2 years, no shipment, and reduced functionality), but I thought I'd revive my blog to start showcasing some of the good, bad, and plain stupid ones I come across for your entertainment.

First up today: a good one (I think). The FlipFlic offers a small device that clips on to your existing window blinds. It's solar powered, and a has a plethora of light and temperature settings. When the room's getting too cold, it allows the light to come in, rotating your blinds open. Too warm, and it closes them. Not only is this a good energy saver, but it's a clever use of "smart technology" to accomplish a task without having to invest in a whole platform of smart devices. And yes, it claims to be app based, as well, for scheduling and manual overrides. Nice touch to have it solar powered, so no wiring or batteries.

My only criticism is $150 for a pair is a bit steep for the functionality, but I'd be interested to see if they could provide a good case study on the energy savings (something a company I advise, EnerAllies, does really well for retailers) to offset the cost. And, of course, it being Kickstarter, you never know if the final product is going to match the statements or if it will even ship, but this is version 2 for them, so I'd say there's a good chance.

I look forward to showcasing some less than exciting Kickstarter finds.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Textbook way to re-establish trust

Like many people, I was very excited by the prospect of Coin, a credit card replacement that offered the ability to combine multiple cards into a single one, selectable with an encoded switch, working with any credit card reader today. Like others, I got in on the ability last year to preorder it at a 50% discount for $49, with a proposed shipping date of the "summer." All was good.

Throughout the wait, Coin has been very cool, providing "VIP only" password protected updates, truly making you feel like a special customer. The updates, though a little light on details, were honest, insightful, and good. Then, as summer began and there was no word on dates, it started to feel a little uncertain, but hey, we'll see, right?

A little over a week ago, a news update! Great news: iOS users would get access to the app by the end of August; Android, by end of September. As an Android user, this is pretty depressing, as this was the first hint that there was some sort of advantage for iOS users; not the way you want to find out. They told us to stay tuned for details about when our Coin would ship, somehow vaguely associating it with the app release dates.

Then came last week's update, and oooh, boy, was it a doozy. The Coin...well, not quite finished. But hey, if you want to get in on the beta, you can! It works "85%" of the time and does not have the Bluetooth feature they featured so prominently in their site that alerts you if the card is too far away from your phone. Want in on that? They'll apply your $99 to it, and you'll have the ability to get a finished Coin for a small discount. Oh, and only 10,000 can get in on the beta. Oh, and the order of who gets "allowed" in the beta? Based on when you download the app. Not into the Beta, and rather wait of the finished Coin? Sure, no problem; sometime next "Spring."

The reaction, as you can guess, was universally "those bastards." Images of horrible crowdfunding scams leapt to mind, with sleazy founders spending their customer's money on exotic cars and shopping trips. It was a stunning turnaround for a product and company that had, mere weeks before, been a darling of the Internet. Except the narrative here was not the same:

  • This was not a crowdfunding campaign. You placed your order on Coin's website, not Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or anywhere else.
  • Customers' didn't "back" the Coin, they were asked to preorder it. You weren't joining a cause and taking a risk; you were conducting an e-commerce transaction, like you do every day online. 
In response, Coin did the best thing they could do, and every other company should do in this situation: they came clean, took their whacks, and made it right. Two days after the "Black Update," they sent this out:

An apology and an update

Dear Coin Backers,
First and foremost, we want to apologize to each and every one of you. We are building Coin for you and are extremely disappointed with ourselves that we made some of you unhappy with us.  We want to earn your trust again.

We apologize for our lack of transparency and clarity in our communications to you. You, as our valuable backers, should have been the first to know about all product updates. We honestly thought we could make our timeline. We were overly optimistic. The San Francisco Bay Area Coin Beta made it evident that we should conduct a larger nationwide Coin Beta.  We need your help with testing nationwide, but realize that this is not a cost for you to bear. Therefore, we will run a nationwide Coin Beta for no cost to Coin Beta Backers ($0) and increase the number of Coin Beta devices by 50% to 15,000.We’ll do our best to grow this number over time.  To clarify, your spot in the Coin Beta program is determined by your pre-order date, regardless of whether you opt-in with the iOS or Android app. We feel responsible to the commitment each of you has given to us by backing Coin and so we haven’t spent even one dollar of the crowd funding campaign. All our efforts and production has been supported by equity dollars.  

Coin Beta was a hard decision but important step as we want to deliver the device we all expect and nothing less. Getting Coin to work with thousands of different card readers of different makes, models and regions is not easy and that’s why we need the help of an extended beta team.

We are truly sorry that the first generation Coin is not ready when we said it would. Our team has been working hard day/night and weekends since May 2012 in an attempt to deliver Coin to you on time and while we are close, we are not at the finish line.  We have achieved ~0.84 mm form factor with e-ink screen and bluetooth low energy.  We even found a button that has a tactile touch so you can feel feedback every time you press the button on Coin.  Coin swipes successfully in 85% of the locations we visit.  Our hardware team is focused on the remaining 15%.

With Coin Beta, we will validate compatibility nationwide and improve usability.  Meanwhile, we’ll keep a focus on growing our manufacturing capabilities and are confident that we will deliver high-quality first generation Coins to you all.

We promise to do better with our transparency and updates to backers. We promise to keep working hard to deliver you a great product. We value your honest feedback, good or bad; and we are always listening.

Kanishk and the whole Coin team

PS - We appreciate your patience and support, but if you would like to cancel, we will promptly issue a refund to you. Please emailhelp@onlycoin.com with your order number. We hope to earn your trust again in the future.

This is the way to address issues, and re-establish trust. Look at what they did here:
  • They addressed this, fast, before it got too far out of control.
  • They apologized, a tone that was missing from their previous two updates. That matters to people who feel they have been wronged. No Ferguson-like excuses; just copping to it.
  • They acknowledged that they had not been transparent.
  • They acknowledged that the clarity of their updates was inexcusable (making it seem, for instance, that beta participation would be determined by when you installed the app, rather than when you placed the order).
  • They didn't try to put the onus on the customer: you want to be in the beta, great! That should not cost you a final working product. And after this, it won't.
  • They increased the number available.
  • They made it clear that those unhappy could cancel, an option that was not there before.
In short, a textbook way to handle such. That's not to say that this was all perfect:

- They addressed the customer as a "Backer." That's just wrong. Coin opted to go direct to sell this, not crowdfund; by calling customers "backers," they are either conveniently forgetting that, or trying to plant that idea in the customers' heads so that they will be more tolerant of issues in the future, as they would be if it were a crowdfunded campaign. It's not. They'd be advised to remember that: every credit card company will helpfully allow you dispute a charge for a preorder, if you try to cancel and the merchant refuses.

- They indicate that orders are considered part of a crowdfunding campaign; they aren't. Look, you chose this route, and you were damn successful at it; trying to rewrite history. Even today, they still are doing it: 

The Coin team should be commended for the way they are recovering from a series of missteps. And truthfully, they are on a race against the clock: the card industry is pushing for a switch to the more secure "chip and pin" method that Europe uses, instead of the magnetic stripe method Coin is aiming to streamline. Already, the #2 retailer, Target, has announced it will make the switch, after their large card breach. With such economies of scale, the costs will come down, and expect to see it in a growing number of retailers quickly. With that pressure, Coin cannot afford too many errors like this. 

There's still a lot Coin should be doing. What's the details of the "secure" method they have for selecting the right card on your Coin? How long will the battery last, and what's the method to replace it? What are the list, so far, of retailers it can be used with? How about the specific ones it can't? What cards are not replaceable by the Coin? The list goes on, but we should not lose sight of the fact that they have successfully turned from hype to hurt, and back to trust with good listening, savvy communication, and humility. Think of GM and their attempts to cover up the ignition switch disaster (which I am also a consumer of), and imagine they took a page from Coin and addressed it fast with humility: we'd be praising them as the "reinvented" GM, and a model of an old-school company learning from the new school.

Coin, keep it up. Remember the importance of radical transparency, and you will be rewarded by customers, as well as investors. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Flightcar: Concept Meets Reality

On a recent trip, I was able to fully try the new service from Flightcar. If you are a regular reader of Tretakoff.com, you heard my excitement about the concept. For a refresher, Flightcar allows you to rent out your own car when traveling, in return for free airport parking, and a cut of the $ if your car is rented. Since I was traveling from San Francisco to Boston, I was able to test out the full range of Flightcar's operations, as those are the only two cities they currently operate in: in San Francisco, we made our car available, and in Boston we rented a car. So, how did it go?

Some prelude first. When we made the reservation for the car rental in Boston, Flightcar's site allows you to choose your car and rate, a very appealing feature. You can see photos of the exact car, get a description, and more. As I mentioned in my previous post, we chose a 2009 Lexus GS sedan, at roughly half the price of a Nissan Versa economy car from the traditional rental agencies. Very cool. When listing our car, an older Lexus SUV, I did not have any photos, and I would be surprised if anyone rented it, given it's age and lack of photo (despite the fact that it looks almost brand new and has held up better than any car I have ever owned), but Flightcar welcomed the listing, nonetheless. Hey, even if it didn't get rented, free airport parking for 6 days is a heck of a deal.

San Francisco, day of departure:

On the day of our departure, I consulted the e-mail I received from Flightcar: they indicated they wanted me to call an hour out to let them know we were on our way. Odd, given the online nature of the company. Why not an app, or direct message tweet? A little old-school, but convenient if you are driving. Note to Flightcar: I think you can chuck the "Press 1 to..." prompts when you call: 99% of the calls are going to the same folks, so why not make it easier for someone who is most likely in the car? Minor quibble. After the prompt, I was immediately routed to a knowledgeable operator who thanked me for calling, and assured me he would let the staff know I was on the way.

At the drop off point (slightly south of the airport), we were greeted by not one, not two, but three eager staff members, who practically sprung from their little green shed that serves as their office. All were dressed in Flightcar brown jackets, making it very clear this was an operation that knows it needs to assuage the concerns of dealing with a new operation. We pulled in, and immediately a black Town Car slid in behind us; the driver, without prompting, smoothly started to transfer our luggage to the car, while we dealt with the Flightcar staff. Professional.

The staff were very patient, explaining they were inspecting the car for any noted damage, noting the VIN, and asking about our GPS, and more. Very friendly, very assuring. In moments, I signed an iPad, and we were escorted to our Town Car. Bottles of water were waiting for us in the car, and were whisked away. We chatted with the driver, a professional limo driver, asking him how he liked Flightcar and what he thought of other services like Uber. He pointed out that Uber started out well, but was now more aggravation than it was worth, as they have focused more on their ride sharing service, Uber X. He liked Flightcar, as it allowed him to pick up some extra rides when he was not otherwise engaged. He was informative, professional, and a great conversation, while having us feel the true premium nature of being driven to our terminal like true VIP's. He unloaded our luggage for us, thanked us for the tip most profusely, and we headed to our 3-hour delayed flight to Boston.

Boston, Arrival Day:

We arrived in Boston, delayed by nearly 4 hours. I had called Flightcar in San Francisco to let them know we were delayed; they assured us there would be no issue. When we disembarked, I called to let them know we arrived. This time, ominously, I got voicemail after the prompts; Problem #1.. I left a message, and headed to the luggage carousel. While waiting for our bags, I called again. This time, I got a harried woman who picked up, who said "Oh, OK...it's just been crazy today. Can you call back as soon as you get your bags?" Bemused, I did, and called 5 minutes later; the same woman assured me that she was dispatching a Cadillac black car, and we should meet them in the Departures area. She took descriptions of what were wearing, and assured us it would be at most "10 minutes."

10 minutes later, no black car.
20 minutes later, no black car.
30 minutes later, no black car.
Problem #2.

Finally, the car arrived. The driver was young, clearly a bit harried, tie askew and shirt rumpled. Ok, it's a cheaper service, and I keep comparing it to the cattle cars of rental car agencies; I won't hold it against him. Still, we were clearly spoiled by San Francisco. Again, bottles of water awaited us, but his trunk was not empty: this meant he had to jam the bags in to fit them; more on that later. We drove to East Boston (right next to the airport, and turned down an unmarked service road; unnerving. He jokingly pointed to a white station wagon, and said "There's your car" with a smile. Eased the tension, as he drove past to the hemmed in Flightcar paddock.

Same green shed, but two rather tired young men unfolded lazily to greet us. The driver started loading the bags into...not our previously selected Lexus, but a GMC Terrain SUV. Not a word was said, until my wife asked what was going on. The young Flightcar rep indicated he was sorry, but the Lexus was never dropped off. She had to ask to get this information: Problem #3. She indicated that we had selected a luxury car; a GMC SUV was not that; he responded that it was the best he had. She pointed to a Porsche Cayenne in the lot, and said, "We'll take that, then." He looked frantically, and then said it had been already rented. She countered that we had rented a car we had selected, so they'd have to inconvenience someone else. He apologized, but said that couldn't be done. Now, perhaps it was because the car was not available for the full duration of our visit, but he offered no explanation as such, just an apology: Problem #4. 

She fumed for a bit, then asked for a discount. He agreed to provide a 25% discount; I asked him to write that on the rental receipt, but he demurred and assured me "they'd note it." Problem #5. I started the car, and the gas tank was bone dry; empty, complete with gas light on. I pointed this out, and the other Flightcar young man unfolded from the chair he barely left, indicating there was a gas station "down the road" and I could return it empty. Problem #6. Finally, we got into the GMC (which was very new, clean, and fine), and drove off; the gas station was within a mile, and we fueled up, and headed out.

When we got to our destination, I unpacked the luggage from the car, only to find that the entire wheel from one of my wife's nearly brand new bags had been ripped off the luggage. It had been there when we claimed the luggage from the carousel, but now, no more. It seems that the young limo driver, in his urgency to fit the bag in his non-empty trunk, jammed it so hard, he broke the wheel housing clean off. So, I had to drag the 50 lb bag. Problem #7.

In Boston:

My wife called Flightcar to report our experience. Of course, there was no record of any of this, including the promised 25% discount. The representative was helpful, sympathetic, and promised to help solve this. He indicated he would get in touch with the owners, and took her number to call her back. No call came to her, but I did see I had a voicemail later that day.

And here, dear readers, is where Flightcar did what every service company should note: they took a step back, and realized that the 7 problems we reported could either be addressed, and we could be mollified, probably never to rent from them again. Or, they could go above and beyond, and have us not only use them forever, but tell people like you why you should. And guess what? They took the high road of above and beyond.

First, they apologized for having mis-transcribed my wife's phone number, and calling me instead. Next, they indicated the rental would not be discounted: it would be free. Gratis. Nada. They had credited my card back, and apologized for the experience. Amazing, right? But it doesn't stop there. They indicated they had mailed a check for the amount of my wife's luggage to my home address.WOW. Now that's what I call thinking long-term, and something that would never happen with Hertz, Avis or any other. Flightcar, you've won me for life, and it cost very little, overall.

The next day, I received an e-mail from Flightcar, indicating our car had been rented in San Francisco. Quite a surprise, but my experience in Boston seems to prove that they have more demand than supply, so it makes sense. I remembered from my quick listing that if it was rented, I would receive a gas card, so I knew that was waiting upon our return.

Boston, day of departure:

Ah, the joys of travel. On the way to the airport, I was notified our flight was now nearly 4 hours delayed. Ugh. I called Flightcar, asked if I could keep the GMC for a few more hours; they indicated it was no issue. I asked them to let San Francisco know; they agreed to do so. A few hours later, we dropped the car back at Flightcar, and noted that there seemed to be an entirely different staff there, much more like San Francisco. The staff was a bit puzzled; it seems the staff on our arrival had noted the mileage of the car wrong. I looked at it, and sighed: the previous young man had written down the trip mileage, not the car mileage. Luckily, I had not reset the trip mileage, so I showed them how to note the correct mileage, but the staff assured me it was their error, and not to worry. Much different. Into a Town Car we went, with an empty trunk, and a professional driver. No issues. Someone clearly had kicked some butts.

San Francisco, day of arrival:

We got in very late, 2AM. I called to let them know we landed, and they immediately dispatched a car that would be waiting for us. We retrieved our luggage (this time with a cart, since we had a broken wheel to contend with), and headed up. Our Town Car was waiting for us, with a younger, but professional, driver, who transferred our bags. Luxury transportation and water bottles to greet us; very nice.

Back at the lot, we were greeted by one rep this early AM. He was energetic and professional, welcoming us home, and handing us a check for $100; it seems I had happily misunderstood the compensation for renting the car! We approached the car with trepidation, and were shocked: they had not only cleaned the car, but had professionally detailed the interior. It has not looked this good since we bought it! We noted our GPS was missing; he fumbled around looking for it, and found it in the rear, apologizing that they had not replaced it. He also provided us a card with details on what to do if we found any damage to the car within 72 hours; not sure if that's comforting, or disturbing. A few more details ironed out, a finger-signing on the iPad, and we were good to go. At home the next day, we checked the car, and it looked absolutely great. Also waiting for us was the check for my wife's luggage.


All in all, this was an absolutely great experience: if it had gone seamlessly, I would have been pleased, but the fact that, when it went wrong, Flightcar not only stepped up, but went well beyond, shows me that this is the type of company I want to do business with for some time. They are focused on the customer experience, and realize that they can't just "stand pat." It's clear they have some challenges ahead, including legal ones, but this is the type of company that is not just trying to be innovative: they are trying to change the standards. That's the type of company I will always choose to do business with.

Looking forward to my next opportunity to use Flightcar!

Living With The Chromebook

I recently picked up a Samsung Chromebook from Best Buy. A couple of interesting seeming contradictions from that statement:

- Why Best Buy? I had not visited BB in a while, and was contemplating buying a new desktop or laptop. Instead of my constant loyalty to Amazon, I wanted to get a sense of size and weight of the computers, with the complete intent of making my actual purchase on Amazon. In other words, I was showrooming. In my examinations, I had not even considered the Chromebook, as previous cursory evaluations had left me underwhelmed. But this Samsung model was intriguing: incredibly light and thin, good price point, and intriguing. What really surprised me was the under-informed salesperson (more on that later) mentioning that Best Buy now offered a 15 day return policy with no restocking fee, encouraging me to try it out. This convinced me, and I pulled the trigger.

- Why the Chromebook? The size, the full keyboard, and the long battery life addressed all I wanted from a possible tablet, without the frustrating drawbacks I find in most tablets. I wanted a computer, not a "lean back" device to bring to work at my clients. Nearly everything I do is in the cloud these days, and I am an avid user of Google's services, so it looked good. I considered a Surface Pro, especially with the keyboard cover, but I was shocked at the weight. I had my reservations, but with a 5+ hour battery life and seemingly better offline integration, I gave it a shot.

So, it's been a couple of weeks. What do I think? I'll sum it up simply: I'm keeping it. On to why...

- Ultrafast boot up time. Open the cover, and you are logged on in under 5 seconds. Oh, yeah, that's what I'm talking about.

- Multiple user profiles. I use multiple Google services, so having offline access to my files is critical. With multiple profiles, I can keep multple Google account files offline.

- Surprisingly good video player support. When I travel, I tend to watch a lot of movies on the plane. The last time I had tried a Chromebook (thanks to the good people at Virgin America), the video player was a Chrome extension that could not even read MP4 files from a USB drive. They have definitely improved it, with a built in offline file browser that natively reads most digital media files, and pops an elegant player that remembers where you left off, multiple resolutions, and more.

- Fast. The Chromebook is essentially a big version of Google's Chrome web browser. Without the cruft of Windows or overly refined visual effects of Apple, it's lean, quick, and nimble.

- Surprisingly strong expansion. It comes with ports that happily handle your headphones from your smartphone with no annoying volume drop (as many PC's suffer), as well as USB 2.0 & 3.0 ports, plus an HDMI port. It also has an integrated SD card slot that instantly shows you the files on the card.

- Works perfectly with the Personal Hotspot option on my iPhone 5. So, even though it does well with offline files (and it does, as long as everything is in Google Drive), I always have a backup option. Haven't needed it too often, but nice to know.

- Handles file downloads. Yep, a pseudo file structure that's indistinguishable from a traditional computer. Download a photo, upload to the web...whatever. It just works.

- The support is sensational. I was not aware from the salesperson, but each Chromebook comes with support from a "Chrome Ninja." I had an issue playing a video file, dropped them a note, and literally in minutes my phone rang with a helpful Ninja to troubleshoot with me. Unlike many support teams, he actually listened to me, knew I was not a novice user, and quickly guided me to several ways to address the issue. Followed up with an email after to make sure all was well. For a company like Google which is largely faceless, this was an impressive bit of personal attention.

- Another surprise: purchasing a Chromebook gives you an instant upgrade on Google Drive to 100 GB. Wow. I suspect had I returned the Chromebook, I would have been able to keep it, but a damned good value. I have shifted much of my online storage to Drive from Dropbox, as a result, though Dropbox is easy to use with the web interface, as well.

- Yet another surprise that the folks at Best Buy failed to mention: Chromebook users get 12 free in-flight passses with GoGo Wifi. This came in handy on a recent trip, and was something I would have avoided religiously otherwise.

- I've been impressed with the HDMI support, as well. Plug in an external monitor, and bam, it's there. No muss, no fuss.

I've shifted to the Chromebook as my primary device, and I don't think I'm looking back!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

iOS7 Beta Impressions

As expected, at the recent Apple WWDC event, Apple announced a major revamp of iOS, with iOS7. Claiming to modernize the user interface, add updated multitasking, and overall a much more modern and elegant experience, iOS7 was released to developers in a beta at the conclusion of the event, with us unwashed masses promised the final version in the fall (most likely with a new addition to the iPhone/iPad family). But this intrepid iOS user was not to be deterred: I wanted iOS7 now. So, armed with little more than a vague desire, I launched my quest to get. that. damned. beta. This is my story.

So, my first challenge: how to get in the rarified air of Apple considering me a developer worthy of the beta. I expected to have to embark on a crash CodeAcademy course, or a torchlit ceremony of Steve Jobs worshipping. Anything Cupertino could throw at me, I was ready. I'd fool these high priests of code, and escape with the beta prize, with none the wiser. So steeled, I launched my quest with a Google search and a silent prayer to the Holy Steves (Jobs and Wozniak), and began.

And found that anyone can be registered as a developer for $99/year.  Seriously. That's it. An early-early-early adopter tax.

I decided that was simply too easy; after all, I had been ready for a challenge...and I'm notoriously cheap. After a few more Googles, I found there is a slightly sneakier (and cheaper) way. In order to use the beta, you need to have the unique identifier for your iOS device registered with Apple; this is a process that's included with the standard $99/year service. In fact, it gives you several slots you can use for testing on multiple devices. Some enterprising folks realized there were suckerspeople like me who may not be developers, but would want in on the beta, and so they started selling some of their excess slots. The High Priests of Cupertino heard about such indulgences and immediately issued a fatwah on such practices, but in the dark alleys of Twitter, several purveyors still plied their UDID slots in whispered 140 character come-hithers.

After searching Twitter for those that seemed likely candidates (as well as carefully monitoring the tweeted complaints and compliments on such), I chose a seemingly good service, iOSReg. Their tweets were routinely helpful, their mentions almost all positive, and they were transparent about their inventory (i.e. if they actually had any slots, and when you could expect, if ever, to be registered if you used them). So, in the wee hours of the Pacific US morning, the helpful Brits behind iOSReg tweeted they had slots, and 7 pounds and roughly 60 seconds later, I was now hooked up with a registered UDID.

Next step: getting the beta itself. Luckily, the folks at iOSReg were onto my idea, and included a PDF with specific directions on how to hit up a shady notorious Kiwi with the infamous monicker of Kim Dotcom (he of the military raid on his compound, defended by inflatable decoy drones), and his new service, Mega. Minutes later, the coveted prize was mine: My Precious iOS7 beta was downloaded. A few hidden clicks in iTunes later, and my iPhone 5 was sporting Sir Jony Ive's latest flatness. My quest was complete.

So, how have I enjoyed the fruits of my labors? I'll give you my promised impressions, but a word to those who choose to follow my footsteps: it's not a path for the faint of heart. In fact, there is nothing like installing a beta or jailbreaking your phone (mine is not) to make you appreciate what you take for granted with iOS: it just works, without any instability or worry. Go beta or jailbreak, and you are suddenly very conscious of how elegant iOS really is, in that everything. just. works. On the beta, not so much. Which brings me to my last missive: if you use an iOS as a secondary device, this is a reasonable idea, but if you use your iPhone as your primary device every day, you may want to reconsider this approach, unless you are fond of frequent app crashes, reboots, and mysterious app features disappearing.

Also, like all restores of the iPhone, it has the maddening experience of finding some data is backed up to iTunes, some to iCloud, and still some more that just isn't. Before you embark, make sure you know all the apps you had on the phone, and any that use non-cloud based data stores, make sure you have backed up to your computer, or you'll spend the hours I did in reloading them.

On to the impressions:

- The UI is very much the star of this beta. Yes, much has been made of the "flattened" iconography of this version, but it's truly the multilayering as the predominant feel. From the perspective shifting of the wallpaper, to the "bleed through" of the color palette on translucent menus, it's all about emphasizing the layers. Very cool, very slick, and ultimately eye candy. There's a conscious effort to make as many of the apps stretch to the edges of the screen as possible, giving the illusion of more screen real estate in an effective way. There's even three dimensionality to the pulldown menus that adds a satisfying effect. Animations on app laucnching and home screen are satisfying. Overall, very slick.

- There's a lot of white, gray and translucency here. That looks cool and modern, but it almost requires a dark background for many of the apps and photos to actually see the options. Lots of new modern icons for sharing, saving, and reading that are typically inscrutable in Apple's tradition. It will take some adaption, but hopefully Apple will keep the helpful captions on the icons in the final version to help users tell us what the heck some of these mean. See the snapshot of Safari to the right here? Look at those icons on the bottom: you could maybe guess 1 or 2 of them, but overall it's a head scratcher.

- The beta is very unstable, even within the stock iOS apps. Add a reminder? App crash. Try to take a photo of a check to deposit with your favorite modern banking app? Oh, you wanted to see the picture as you were taking it? Nope. Skype works once...and then crashes on every launch, requiring you to delete the app and reinstall it. You get the idea.

- AirDrop is everywhere. For those non-Apple computer users (like me), it's a new approach: you can transfer just about anything to another Apple or iOS device. Photos, links, you name it: AirDrop is pervasively baked in to be the most prominent sharing option. As it's not available in pre iOS7 devices, it seems clear that Apple is quietly telling those Samsung ads that show effortless data sharing to shut the hell up with AirDrop front and center.

- There's a lot of bugginess on dialog boxes. Most text beyond 100 characters is simply truncated, with no way to see the rest. Multiple menu options are messy, pushing outside the boundary of the dialog box. A good beta, but clearly not ready for prime time.

- The best new feature of iOS7 for me is one I have longed for since my jailbreaking days: Control Center. A swipe from the bottom brings up a set of invaluable utilities. Toggle Airplane mode, wifi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb, and orientation lock. Adjust the screen brightness. The familiar media player controls. Trigger AirPlay (Apple TV users, rejoice). And a set of commonly used utilities: Flashlight (App developers with their hundreds of versions of this are weeping), Clock, Calculator, and the Camera. Yep, this is a clear winner, and to have it pervasively in every screen of iOS is most welcomed.

- New Smart Mailboxes. iOS 6 gave us the VIP mailbox, so we could be alerted to emails from the most important folks with push notifications, allowing us to ignore the rest. iOS7 takes it to the next level with a variety of Smart Mailboxes, including one for just Unread emails. Now that's helpful.

- Camera is definitely beefed up. Better UI for choosing flash and HDR. A new Square mode for all you Instagrammers. And speaking of that, a selection of several camera filters that you can see the filtered photo before you take the picture. Ability to zoom when taking video, as well as a much more subtle but helpful indicator that you are actually filming.

- For Pebble watch owners (and yes, thanks to the wisdom of the crowds, I am now one of them), some unexpected benefits: all push notifications come to the Pebble now. Yay second screen experiences!

- Being able to swipe to unlock on any part of the screen, instead of the designated slot on the bottom is a very nice touch, and helpful.

- The Notification Center (when you swipe from the top) is enhanced, though I am not sure for the better. It now has a helpful Today mode to show you what appointments are on your calendar today, with a very Jarvis-like summary of the current weather, instead of the graphical representation in iOS6. But there are now three modes: Today, All, and Missed. Those push notifications? Relegated to the latter two categories, which requires an additional click to see. And, sadly, Apple has not improved the UI for dismissing notifications: it's still just as frustratingly easy to miss the miniscule delete button, and instead open the app that triggered the notification. Worse, going back now takes multiple clicks.

- Much has been made of the new Find My iPhone functionality that requires you to enter your Apple ID to use the phone, instead of just popping in a new SIM card. I can't find any controls for this, so I assume that I'd need to go to the iCloud to trigger this. No rush, thanks.

- Multitasking is definitely more robust: a double click of the home button shows you all the running apps, complete with screenshots of the last state of the app. Interestingly, there is an icon for each app under the screenshot, to helpfully remind you of what app each is, but the UI is crowded, and seems to imply there is something different you could do by clicking the screenshot instead of the icon; not the case. Dismissing a running app is a direct steal from WebOS: flick the "card" up, and the app quits. There is also much about the intelligent monitoring of the apps that can be refreshed in the background, but, frustratingly, there is no way to explicitly tell iOS7 which apps you want that to be the case with. In true Apple tradition, you need to trust them that they know best. My limited experience is not showing it to be any different than iOS6, which further emphasizes a setting that allows you to see the status of such.

- Passbook is now on the Lock Screen. Why is this interesting? Well, if you use the Starbucks app, for instance, and have designated your favorite Starbucks within, your Starbucks card is ready to pay without unlocking your phone. Same with boarding a plane: your boarding pass is one click away without unlock. Nice touch.

- One enhancement to iOS6 I was happy about was Apple's poaching of the jailbreak developer who introduced the banner notifications along the top of your screen, instead of taking over the entire screen for every notification. It was slick, elegant, and controllable. iOS7 take a step back in this, making the banner notifications take up nearly twice the horizontal real estate. This is especially annoying, as many apps have important navigation controls that are completely covered by these notifications. Also odd: unlike the rest of iOS7's eschewing of black backgrounds in favor of translucency, the notifications are black backgrounds which makes it doubly annoying.

- Battery use has been dinged hard in the forums, but I've found the opposite.

- Remember that chip Apple added to Lightning chargers? Well, much to my delight those innovative Chinese manufacturers worked it out and I've stocked up on sub $10 charging cords. However, iOS7 now detects non-Apple certified devices, and pops a warning every time one gets plugged in. Nothing like paying the Apple tax, in either $ or annoyance. Thanks, Cupertino.

- iTunes Radio, aka the Pandora-killer, suffers from some serious UI issues. In Pandora, you can "train" Pandora as to the songs you like, the ones you don't, and still ones that you may or may not like but want to skip. In iTunes Radio, it was impossible to figure out how you told Apple this, and trust me, you really want this. I know some have been pleased with the seeming intelligence of iTunes Radio in choosing songs you will like, but that was definitely the opposite for me. In scouring the blogs, I found that the controls were mysteriously hidden under the "star" button; that brings up a contextual menu to allow you to do the things that Pandora does. This is annoying, and needs to be fixed, especially if I am to use in the car. On the plus side, there are definitely less ads and less intrusive than Pandora, but it's a non-starter if I'm shutting it off out of annoyance.

- Messages is...messy. The flattened UI is definitely an improvement, as is the contextual menus for calling the messenger, or seeing the details of the contact. However, new messages are pushed below the last message, requiring a scroll to see them. The cute three dimensional animation on sending messages is just that: cute, but unnecessary. Personally, I would have preferred a choice of views, but hey, I bought in to the Apple walled garden: I can't bitch too much at the feel of the walls on me.

Still lots to experience, but right now, I'd say this iOS beta is not ready for the casual user, something Apple has been quite diligent in stating, and I have been diligent in ignoring. Time will tell if I am to keep this on, as I rely on my iPhone heavily. If all follows past betas, a new updated beta should be due in a couple of weeks; I may try to hold on for that. However, intrepid readers, learn from my experience and decide for yourselves. I'm back to translucent, flat-land...see you there in the fall.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

iOS: Rethinking The Calendar

Apple's iOS has routinely been beat up for the user interface in the stock apps that come with the iPhone/iPad. Lately, the criticism has been on the use of "skeumorphic" design (i.e. design elements meant to resemble a real-world analog, like the use of simulated wood and green felt on Game Center or the simulated  brass casing on the compass), but lost in the noise is the real challenge: making the apps much more useful. Today, let's look at the iOS Calendar app and some of the alternative versions that may make you rethink using it.

First, the standard app. Like most calendar apps, derives it's look from the classic paper DayTimer from the analog age. Decent information delivery, with the option to switch between List, Day, Week and Month views. Good separation and use of the screen real estate to display all day events vs. timed ones. A separate drawer to manage received calendar invitations. Prominent controls to go to Today, vs. whatever day you are on. Excellent accommodation for multiple calendars (i.e. Facebook events, multiple Gmail accounts, etc.). Easy, linear entry for new events, complete with the ability to invite attendees. And, of course, Siri integration for hands-free calendar entry.

So, on the surface, just fine. What's wrong with it? To answer, let's look at some of the alternatives:

Apple iOS7 Calendar. Like most of the iOS 7 UI, it takes on the "flattened" look, maximizing the screen real estate, and slimming down fonts. A clean, modern look, with some additional UI nods, deliberately lifted from some of the best competitors. For instance, the split screen showing you a calendar and day view pictured here is a direct knockoff of Sunrise, which we'll get to later. Functionality? Not much change in the features, however, from what little has leaked out from the beta (the full version comes this fall). Just a facelift, but, to be fair, a darn pretty one.

Sunrise. A new look for the calendar, making it much more usable, with more information on each event, such as attendees, type, and more. Intelligently presented, laid out as a endless scrolling day view, with easy navigation to go to specific days. But where Sunrise really (ahem) shines is its integration with multiple calendar services, and it's intelligent parsing thereof. For instance, you can see Facebook, LinkedIn and Google calendars fully integrated in the same view. It also adds in current weather, sunrise and sunset information, and pulls contact photos to show who's attending your meetings from your social media accounts. Directions are integrated with your choice of Apple's beleaguered Maps app, or the Google Maps app, if you have it installed: appointments with address entries let you get directions right from the calendar.

Some minor drawbacks exist, however. The app takes a little too long to load at launch. It also then needs to do an update of all of your calendar events, which can be embarrassingly long. No  week or month view; just a hybrid of a day and agenda view.

MobileDay. Have a lot of conference calls on your calendar? Then this is the app for you. It intelligently reads your calendar info, finds conference call and access code information, then allows you to connect to the call with a single touch, automating the tedious step of dialing, waiting for prompts, and entering in codes. This is exceptional for those of us in the car a lot: one touch initiates all you need, without need of pulling over to enter in those long sequences. It works with most every conference call service, knowing just how long to delay between dialing and entering access codes. And it pulls in the non-conference call events, as well. Easy prompts to quickly send an email to those attending a meeting if you are running late. It also uses color coded earmarks to distinguish what calendar the meeting is from.

On the drawback side, some may indeed be put off by the slate-and-green color scheme. The only view is an agenda scroll, with sometimes too much information on the screen to get a good sense of your day. Another side effect of the display is that it does not visually represent overlapping meetings, so it's not helpful to detect conflicts. It is extremely call-centric, so meetings with calls are artificially larger than ones without.

NeverLate. From a UI standpoint, it does not differ too far from the stock iOS Calendar, but NeverLate's expertise is under the hood. If your appointment has a physical address, it calculates when you need to leave by to make the meeting, based on current traffic conditions. It updates in the background, and alerts you 15 minutes before you need to leave with a reminder, as well as updating you on changed traffic conditions. It provides direct links to your favorite GPS app, prefilled with your from and to directions, including Apple Maps, Google Maps, and the newest Google $1 billion acquisition, Waze. It connects with Evernote to allow you to log notes from the meeting. It gives you (albeit with a couple of clicks) details on the meeting attendees, complete with thumbnail photos pulled from your contacts or LinkedIn, and allows you to text or email attendees. It allows you to call in for conference calls with a click, and uses good use of color and flags to indicate what calendar the event is from. You can also see your calendar in a map view, to see how geographically your day looks.

On the downsides, navigating to Today while viewing another day does not have a dedicated control: you need to click on the date to get back. It also does not provide a week view. It's core strength of traffic forecasting is a little limited: it only pulls the traffic info at the time you are looking at the entry, rather than historic traffic info. Why does this matter? If you are trying to determine what time you need to get up for an early morning meeting, you only see the traffic info at the time you are looking at it. For traveling in the Bay Area, that can be a difference of up to an hour: if you are looking at it at 10PM, it will show you travel time as if you left at 10PM, rather than the 8AM time of the meeting. Many meetings come with information on the specific conference room in the address field, which it cannot parse, of course; if you update it with the address, and the meeting's conference room is changed, updates wipe out your additional address info. It would be better to allow you to tag a calendar event with a location, or choose from frequently used locations. Oh, and Facebook integration is non-existent, but if you have set up Facebook as one of your stock calendars, that's probably OK.

So who's the winner? Actually, none. The closest winner for mobile professionals would be NeverLate, with it's intelligence and layering on of excellent, useful information. But the real winner would be to see a hybrid of iOS 7 Calendar's UI, with NeverLate's incredible intelligent assistance, MobileDay's one-touch conference call handling, and a touch of Sunrise's informational overlays and social integration. Now that iOS 7 is in beta, perhaps they will add such features before it's public release, but if not, let's hope one or more of these folks continue the innovation they have been bringing to the iFamily.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Airbnb meets rental cars: Hello, Flightcar

Would you rent your personal car out to a traveler? That's what Flightcar, a new company operating out of San Francisco and Boston, want to help you say "yes" to. What if I told you your car would be covered by a $1 million insurance policy? And that you'd get free parking at the airport? And that you'd get free valet curbside service to your flight and when you arrive? And that your car would be professionally cleaned before your arrival...for free? Not convinced? Ok, tell you what: what if I throw in a $10 gas card?

OK, that answers the question of why you'd want to list your car. But what about renting a car? Would you choose Flightcar? Why? For an upcoming trip to Boston, I priced rental cars out: the least expensive for about $500 for a compact for the time I will be there. Flightcar? How about a swanky 2009 Lexus GS for less than half that? You even get to see a picture of the car, learn about its owner, its description, mileage, and they throw in GPS. And yes, it comes with the same valet service for you as a renter as it does for an owner.

Sure, there are limitations: you can only drive 90 miles/day for that rate; they are limited to SFO and BOS right now; the car selection is limited. But, factor in that they give you free long term airport parking, regardless if your own car is rented, or you don't even need to rent your own car out, as well as their low prices, and it's a heck of a deal.

Convinced? Well, the only way to prove it is to do it, so I'll update after my trip! Stay tuned...

Pebble Impressions and Update

Thanks to the folks here who voted, I opted to expedite my Pebble experience, eschewing the Grey color I originally chose, and going for the Black. A couple of weeks later, and my wrist was wrapped with a Pebble. Voila! Thank you all for your encouragement; the results were overwhelming in favor of the going for it now. Good job, Internet!

So, now that I finally have the smartwatch I have been waiting for, for a year, what do I think?

I haven't worn a watch for nearly 15 years. I stopped wearing one because I have an innate sense of time (or have carried an electronic device at least that long that has a clock in it), and wearing a watch made me tense. So, I was a bit concerned that the old familiar tension would come back, but I'm happy to report it's not the case. Part of it seems to be that, since it is truly redundant as a timepiece for me, and 15 years of conditioning to look elsewhere for the time, I simply don't consider it as a tireless taskmaster (as I did watches). Another seems to be the whimsical watchfaces seem to distract me. For instance, the use of words to tell time, as you can see on the left, appeals to me on many levels, and usually elicits a smile. 

I was also concerned the watchface would be too large, as is the fashion these days, but it's just right. Screen size is a good balance of length and width, and the buttons are decent sized, though a bit hard to press. I worried the strap would be bothersome, but, despite being completely unremarkable, seems to be just fine. The subtle curve of the body is delightful, and the responsiveness of the backlight when I shake it is a very good balance of sensitivity and alertness.

Ok, enough about the superficial qualities. Being able to receive texts on your wrist with a slight vibration is superb: this is the way they were meant to be interacted with. It means I can see a text while I am stopped at a traffic light without fumbling for buttons, or asking Siri to read me a text message. And with the latest firmware updates, it handles multiple texts elegantly, and easily. Same goes for emails: I actually have turned off notifications in the iOS Notification Center for emails except for the VIP emails; the Pebble picks up just those elegantly.

The display is great. I was a little nonplussed about the e-paper choice when I ordered it, but it's exactly the right interface. Great contrast, power sipping (a week on a charge!). The pairing with the iOS app is absolutely inherent, and even that is designed well, especially when notifying you of firmware updates, as well  as installing them.

And then we get to the best part: mypebblefaces.com. Yep, the API is starting to bear fruit, providing almost 500 new watchfaces and apps for your Pebble. Going out for a night on the town? Change your Pebble to a swanky analog watch. Want to impress the Geek Squad? Fire up a binary watch face. Heading to that Star Trek: The Next Generation marathon? Engage the LCARS watch face. Installation is literally a click from your iPhone's web browser: it communicates with the Pebble app, and loads on your Pebble in seconds. Of course, the Android versions get more options (weather, etc.), due to the openness of the Android ecosystem, but that rarely feels like a constraint with so many to choose from. Beware, however: the more animated the display, the more it will suck the Pebble's vaunted battery life. So while that watchface that looks like a sweeping radar screen looks pretty cool, be prepared to charge your Pebble more frequently.

So what don't I like? Well, the buttons, as mentioned, are pretty hard to press. Minor quibble, but still. The UI of the watch itself is pretty bare bones, and makes no use of the iOS app. For instance, setting an alarm on the Pebble requires quite a few button pushes, and the UI makes it nearly impossible to know if it's set (it is, but there's no indicator), if it's repeating (it does; the only way to stop it is delete the set alarm), or even if it's am or pm (apparently, only 24 hour time works). Why not just let me set all of that in the app, and communicate to the Pebble?

Then there's the battery indicator. It only shows up when it's low, and that's only if you go to the inner workings of the Pebble menu on the watch. No battery meter on the main watch face, or ability to query the battery level from the iOS app. Bizarre.

Finally, the Pebble and iPhone sometimes seem to get out of sync, like many Bluetooth devices. The iOS app takes over your whole screen, demanding you enable it again when this happens. It could be more elegant.

Overall, I really am pleased with the Pebble. It does exactly what I wanted: a subtle, professional way to know if a text, call or e-mail is here. I really look forward to the ongoing extensibility of the app, and it's ability to talk to multiple apps (How's about Kinetic, folks?), but I am very pleased with the ongoing awareness it brings me, without any increased tension.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Silicon Valley: Billion Is The New Million

On the heels of today's leaked info that Yahoo is buying Tumblr for $1.1 billion comes the news that some folks think that's too little. Tumblr earned a whopping $13 million in revenue in 2012; that's right; not $30 million, not $300 million: $13 million. Essentially, they are being bought for an almost 85x of their earnings. And someone is complaining?

Tumblr offers a lively photo-based blogging service...for free. It is quite active, and has a lot of users, which explains Yahoo's interest. And yes, Tumblr has burned through the cash, all $125 million of it. With 18 whole employees, and millions of users, it still couldn't generate enough revenue to hold on for more than a few more months...and Yahoo gives it a massive exit...and someone is complaining?

On the heels of Facebook's completed $1 billion acquisition of Instagram (12 employees), and it's imminent $1 billion acquisition of GPS app Waze (80 employees), it's pretty clear that $1 billion is rapidly becoming the $100 million of the dotcom bubble era. The fact that we are already moving to people complaining about being bought for a freaking billion dollars is absolutely the clearest indicator that we have not learned anything from the previous bubbles in Silicon Valley.

After the crash that took down Web 1.0, we said we'd look at companies providing real value, real revenues, real need. Mobile makes Web 1.0 and 2.0 look like chicken feed: absolutely everyone has a mobile phone, and is on it, constantly, so the hype is escalated. Yet, the reality remains for advertisers (real advertisers): traditional media = dollars; digital = dimes; mobile = pennies. Yes, those pennies add up to real money, but we're just not sure when. Instead, we get billion dollar photo sharing and crowdsourced traffic info.

As long as the eyeballs are there, smart folks with tons of cash will throw it around like drunken sailors; it just doesn't matter to their bottom line. Facebook, Google, Apple...all have lots of billions to throw away on bets. Yahoo, a brand that many had pronounced dead until Melissa Meyer injected it with life, had $3 billion in cash on hand. That's right, a "dead brand" with $3 billion in the bank. Topsy turvy already, but add in the fact that they just pushed 1/3 of their chips all in on a site that produced $13 million in revenue last year, but has great growth and stickiness, and you have to wonder if we're all looking at a poker game that fewer and fewer can play at, especially those companies that actually produce revenue and real value.

$1 billion is the new $1 million in the Valley. Ante up or go home, it would seem.