Wireless Wonders

No news, just comment about mobile phones and services, from a veteran practitioner...3G, GPRS, WAP, Bluetooth, WiFi, etc...

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Future discount buying...idea #42/100...

Following on from my previous post about the use of mobiles and NFC in the shopping process, I started to think about even better deal-making opportunities.

Having a mobile dialogue with the store allows for deal-making that was not previously possible. In any shop it is always possible to negotiate prices, but this is usually not done for lower-price items because it is unmanageable. Price-matching is possible in larger grocery stores on their larger items, like televisions and other electrical goods.

The mobile allows a dialogue to take place with the store without requiring any store staff. This is a major step forward. Here's one example that might be possible...

We all shop for certain items over and over again. I buy 6-pack baked beans every week (I have a large family). What stores are looking for is customer loyalty and an increased spend, which is becoming increasingly difficult to secure. Card schemes are one approach, but all stores have them and the perceived benefit of staying with one scheme is marginal (and almost non-existent).

I would like to be able to buy 100 6-packs at a discount. This is presumably in the shop's interest, although FMCG retail experts can give you better insights into the economics and psychology of shopping. Now, at the time of browsing the goods, I could enter into a negotiation for a bulk-buy, agreeing to pay up-front to secure the discount. I would to this on my mobile.

What I want however, is not to have to load 100 6-packs (if they have them) into my car. I want the shop to carry them for me and I pick up as many as I need whenever I'm in the store. At the checkout, the store's IT system will already know of my pre-payment on the item, so it doesn't get added to my bill.

I may have overlooked some glaring issues here. I lack the detailed understanding of the grocery economics machine, but I think the principle is basically correct. The real point that I want to highlight is that this is only possible with mobile because it provides the access point into the shopping "IT Brain" that can do the bidding, rather than relying on staff. True, staff could also access the same "IT Brain", but think of the logistical difficulties.

I look forward to buying 600 packs of beans soon...

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NFC proximity sensing in shops...idea #41/100...

The potential of Near-Field Communication (NFC) is very exciting indeed. A couple of nights ago when I walked into Sainsburys to do my weekly grocery shopping, I found myself yet again thinking about my mobile within the shopping experience.

Accessing product information in the shop still seems like a good idea to me. One of my earlier thoughts was the potential for shops to provide their latest offers information via an RSS feed. Of course, aggregators are already cropping up to do just this, like Real Simple Shopping (nice abbreviation!)

It is a non-trivial problem to walk into a shop and automatically sense its proximity via the mobile device. There are many ways to address the problem, but I am starting to think that NFC is going to emerge as a prime candidate. Simply by walking into the shop and touching the phone against an entry beacon, it is possible to direct content onto the phone. That could be a URL, for example, pointing to an RSS feed.

There seems another possibility...

Could the NFC "swipe" be used as a pairing mechanism into Bluetooth/WiFi points throughout the shop? These could then be used to access more content without incurring any data costs. It might also provide the means for wireless bar-code scanning via a mobile, tapping directly into the store's inventory system.

Were such a mechanism provided, would the shops implement their own walled garden? Pricing comparison tools, like Dulance (which also has RSS), might not go down too well. Although, Mazda in the US found that allowing pricing comparison in their garages (they provide free Internet cafes) enabled them to get the sale. They made their upside on upgrades and options.

Can we imagine a future in which the shopper is able to make pricing comparisons and then enter into an automated bidding arrangement with the shop - on the spot - to get a better deal? For example, Acme Washing Powder is 20% cheaper elsewhere, so the shop offers some alternative at an apparently similar value, such as 2 packs of Brand X at some attractive discount, or some other deal that is essentially an upside for the shop.

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Ebay and Volantis...

I notice that Ebay (UK) has outsourced production and maintenance of their mobile site (Ebay Anywhere) to Volantis. Clearly, Volantis has the expertise and tools to run a mobile site, whereas Ebay presumably doesn't.

What does that tell us about mobile site production? And what does it tell us about Berners-Lee's comments that site designers aren't doing enough to make their sites mobile-accessible? Well, if you need the expertise and vastly elaborate middleware of Volantis to make it all happen, then...well, it's not likely to happen is it?

We have the standards in place for a common language, but little, or no, standards (or tools/infrastructure) for delivery. I still argue that someone should be looking at how to host a decent multi-device delivery service that is accessible to all. I actually think that operators should be doing this, but they probably aren't in a hurry to do so because in reality they aren't so sure about unfettered access to 3rd party sites. Moreover, it may not have occurred to them.

Perhaps then, there's a market opportunity here. After all, if mobile Web traffic can be driven through such a service, then there's a revenue-making opportunity.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Brainstorming, not mushing...idea #40/100...

What do we do from dawn to dusk? How do we spend our time? How does our mind work from one moment to the next? I suspect that we don't ask these questions that often.

We have intentions and we have tasks that we have to do and tasks that we habitually do. But what does the brain do all day long? I'm interested in those creative moments, when we have an idea, perhaps a novel idea (novel to our experience or consideration), but also a chance to break the pattern. For a moment, our minds take us into a realm of thought that's outside our regular daily schedule and habits. For example, I often have "entrepreneurial" thoughts that project my future into a different business pattern than the one I'm currently engaged with (we all have these, right?)

If we carefully observe when and how these moments occur, it is as if we are interrupted. Ideas bubble to the surface and we process them; connections are suddenly made, almost without effort.

I'm interested in these moments and whether or not they can be stimulated more often, controlled, captured and perhaps acted upon if we have external stimuli. You can probably guess what's coming next...

...the mobile...

Our "friend" the mobile is with us constantly. It also interrupts us.

Can it be used to stimulate creative moments? Well, I have a number of theories on this, most (all) of them underdeveloped and in need of a lengthy essay, not a bloglet. However, what sprang to mind was the notion that a mobile has a unique potential to interrupt, as it is always present to do so. Could this be taken advantage of?

Also, there is the oft-mentioned attribute of a mobile, which is its usefulness for "killing time". That's a phrase I don't care for very much. Time is far too valuable to think about killing it.

The common "time-killer" is game playing. For me, much of electronic game playing in the "time killing" mode is brain-mushing stuff. Admittedly, it might allow the sub-conscious to operate more effectively, but I don't have the experience or the research to back that up.

Could a "game" be devised that stimulates creative thought? Is there such thing as a brain-storming game?

Let's imagine that there is. Could that game also act of its own accord? Could it initiate creative thought by interrupting me with a challenge? In other words, my phone isn't sitting in a "do-nothing" loop all day, but is "thinking" in concert with my current "long-term" thought patterns and is developing challenges.

As these challenges are coming from my phone, it has the potential to involve communication. For example, might it suggest that I call "Mr Smith to talk about widgets", as it knows of Mr Smith and that there might be a connection with a widgets meme that had previously emerged out of playing the game. If my mobile also monitors all my conversations, emails, RSS feeds and messages, it might also know that Mr Smith is in some way connectable to the meme.

It might also suggest that I "read this page" and present me with a mobile Web page about the widgets meme.


I think I need a few creative moments on this one...

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Help lines and suggestion boxes...idea #39/100...

Perhaps your network is different, but mine - and others I have tried in the UK - don't seem to want any calls to their helpdesk. This is evident from the fact that it is hard to locate the helpdesk number, even on their websites.

Why don't they simply program it in the phone?

The number should also be as specific as possible. For example, Vodafone has particular helpline expertise for the Blackberry, so why not let me dial them "direct", instead of going through annoying menus?

Moreover, why should I call them at all? Can't I have a button (sorry to sound so simplistic) that says "I need technical help, please call me".

Furthermore, what about suggestions? It seems that despite all the apparent interest from operators in wanting to understand which applications customers want, they don't seem to want any suggestions from real customers. After all, if "the crowd" is so smart, then why not listen to them?

I'm keen to tell Vodafone/RIM about suggested improvements to the Web-client edition of the Blackberry, based on real experience. Whom should I tell? I've no idea...(And please don't make me hunt around for some web forum!)

Why don't devices come with built-in mechanisms for help and suggestions? A simple menu option called "Suggestions" with at least an explanation of how to make them, if not the mechanism itself (i.e. a suggestion box) must surely be a trivial addition to the software, but with potentially valuable results. (Menu options on mobiles ought to be easily customisable...but I'll get back to that in a future post.)

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Mobile Google...idea #38/100...

Perhaps you have tried mobile google. You can try it via your regular browser. It's instructive to search for your own site and then see how the Google transcoder copes with rendering to a mobile device.

Search results from mobile Google are ranked the same as standard searches. This is problematic because it would be better to take into account the "viewability" of sites via the transcoding process. Some sites are clearly not that viewable and best to eliminate them from the results, especially given the high cost in visiting sites on the mobile, both in time and most likely money (data tariffing).

Of course, the search engine and transcoder don't know which sites are viewable without attempting to visit them, because transcoding appears to be done on-the-fly. I guess that there's no reason, other than cost, why the search indexing process couldn't include transcoding, at least to assess the viewability.

How would a transcoder assess viewability? Well, there are probably a number of design rules that could be formulated to detect the likely success in rendering to a small screen, although it is not a straightforward problem.

Therefore, it seems a sensible idea for Google to publish some design guidelines to let site designers understand the transcoding process. This would hopefully allow, and possibly encourage, some site designers to start thinking about the mobile experience, something that hitherto has escaped the attention of most designers and related tool providers.

It does seem that for the foreseeable future, mobile access to many sites will involve some sort of transcoding process. There are already a variety in use, not just at Google. However, the use of Google's transcoder is obviously of paramount interest, as so many users access the Web via their front door.

Google, and any other transcoding front-door, could go a lot further if they wanted to. It seems in their interest to do so, not least because if they can offer a viable mobile access service, then they will attract more traffic into their ecosystem and money-making machine. Mobile adverts, especially with the latest ad-links approach, are a possibility. Let's defer the advertising conversation to another time...

We have a wonderful convergence on a common language approach for mobile websites, namely XHTML, or similar (i.e. the -MP variant). However, we have very little convergence on a common "design language", or "grammar", that combined with transcoding approaches will produce a consistent and usable mobile Web.

Transcoding can be vastly improved by some kind of site annotation to guide the process. This is an activity in the W3C, but with little tangible output at present (not that I've seen).

A long time ago (2002) I posted an article suggesting that operators should host an annotation system that any site designer is free to use (at least via the operator's pipe). I suggested the idea to someone at Volantis, who make a site-adaptation product (which strictly-speaking is not transcoding).

I suggest that the Google team should make a lot more effort in this regard. If not them, then any search-engine company that wants to attract more mobile traffic to its site. Not only will it result in a greater user experience, but it will improve mobile search efficiency. Effective mobile search is of vital importance to the mobile Web.

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Monday, March 28, 2005

Virgin radio over mobile...

Personally, I don't see the point - and I'm generally an optimist about most mobile services. Aside from a completely inappropriate service model, namely non-personalised, non-selective broadcast radio over a narrow-cast channel, the costs are prohibitive.

Flat-rate users will enjoy only a brief taste of a daft service. Be warned that NO operator is going to withstand a (3rd party) streaming service in its flat-rate bundle. They would be crazy to do so. Here's the small print from Verizon's flat-rate service plan:

"Unlimited NationalAccess/BroadbandAccess cannot be used: (1) for uploading, downloading or streaming of movies, music or games;"

Judging by some forum postings, a lot of people have downloaded the app and find they get a perpetual "connecting" message, which is actually a tiny software fib. It should say "not connecting anytime soon...port blocked...good bye"...

This is not the future of 3G. Podcasting, maybe, but even that's doubtful (over 3G I mean).

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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Multi-device browser...idea #37/100...

Following some recent research, I have a whole bunch of things to say about the topic of mobile websites, so I'll be posting quite heavily on this topic in the coming weeks. My first posting is about testing on different devices....

Ouch! That's a painful topic....

All mobile developers know about the grief of designing for lots of devices. I've long contended that operators have a role to play in making this problem easier to cope with. I see that they are attending all the relevant forums, like W3C meetings and so forth, but what are they doing to deliver solutions?

Notwithstanding the fact that many operators seemingly aren't that interested in websites being mobile-accessible, except their own, they are in a prime position to move matters forward. The issue of tools is something that operators just don't seem to understand. That's why there are very few tools available for testing that are not vendor-specific (i.e. from the vendors).

What we need is a freely available open-source browser that:

1. Can simulate the user experience on as many devices as possible
2. Simulates CC/PP (UAProf) presentation to the server
3. Should dynamically tell us which phones are the most popular in the market, so that we can prioritise testing

Of course, hard-nosed testers will tell us that there's no substitute for testing on the real devices. Simulators aren't 100% accurate. That's true, but as things stand, mobile site design is more of a specialised craft than a commodity activity, unlike regular website design. There's a lot we can do before we get to real-device testing. Although, I think we should be aiming for a solution that more or less renders device testing obsolete.

There are many other approaches to this problem, but we have to start somewhere. In my opinion, operators should be collectively responsible for providing certain tools and guidelines. Whilst there has been a lot of effort in standardising on markup languages, there is little concerted effort to standardise on design approaches. The latter is actually what matters.

Device vendors should provide the appropriate "plug-ins" for their devices, so that the browser is always up-to-date. This should be a contractual deliverable that the operators insist on. They are in a position to make such demands. Vendors would be forced to insist on the same deliverables from third parties (e.g. Opera) so that all possible browser experiences are included.

It is my suggestion that the device browser should be an extension of Firefox, as this is already open source and extensible. It would be very efficient to simply switch views from desktop to device.

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