More Lessons to Learn from Apple

The wireless carriers and OEMs have been busy developing phones that imitate and try to best Apple's groundbreaking iPhone. Most recently, embattled U.S. carrier Sprint touted the success of its iPhone-like Instinct (Samsung) and the company's stock has recently gained on the news.

There's another lesson that U.S. carriers, and Sprint in particular, could learn from Apple about customer service. Last year, on my Screenwerk blog, I contrasted the customer service experiences at an Apple and a Sprint store. Apple has successfully turned customer service into a sales and marketing tool, which is undoubtedly mapping to the bottom line.

Sprint, which lost just over a million U.S. subscribers in Q1, should be aggressively cultivating customer service improvements in an effort to prevent further losses and differentiate from its carrier rivals. While I don't have visibility across all Sprint stores in the US, lackluster customer service has not improved in my recent anecdotal experience. There are long customer wait times, even for the simplest questions and issues (e.g., product returns). And employees appear to be largely indifferent to successful customer outcomes and so on.

So while carriers are busy trying to deliver hardware to match Apple's innovative iPhone they should be equally innovating and emulating Apple in another area: customer service.

Will Dash Save PNDs from Extinction?

The Dash Express is currently the one IP-connected personal navigation device (PND) on the market. TomTom, Garmin, Magellan, Sony and others have promised this but have yet to deliver the devices. And yesterday Dash upgraded the software on the device. Since launch it has included Yahoo! Local content.

I spent some time yesterday comparing PNDs in a retail outlet. The conclusion: although millions have been sold, these are mostly kludgey devices with awkward interfaces that ultimately offer limited functionality. Maps & directions are one of the "killer apps" for mobile but those can increasingly be obtained via speech (Dial Directions) from a conventional mobile phone and smartphones (Live Search, Google Maps). The GPS iPhone in particular is a competitive threat. And to some degree an increasing number of in-car navigation systems will also put the competitive squeeze on these devices.

In order to survive as smartphones continue to gain share, PNDs will need to: 1) come down in price, 2) become connected IP devices and 3) offer considerably more content as Dash is trying to do by becoming a "platform." Garmin, seeing this writing on the wall, is introducing a touch-screen phone and entering the smartphone market as a defensive maneuver.

Beyond GPS, which doesn't always work, the one thing that these devices have going for them is a larger screen. If they do follow Dash and become platforms or mobile Internet devices, they will have a role to play in the mobile Internet ecosystem. However, if they stand still and fail to innovate and add more content they'll run their course until other more dynamic and complete devices supersede them.

Nokia in China Search Deal with Baidu

Forbes reports that Chinese search engine Baidu will provide a mobile search service for Nokia phones in China. Baidu is the number three search engine globally according to comScore (because of the sheer population in China):

Global search marketshare

iPhone Frenzy Redux

July 11 is the date set for the release of the new iPhone. Smart shoppers will go to AT&T and not Apple stores to obtain one. Amid lowered sales forecasts, investment firm RBC published consumer research (via Silicon Alley Insider) that indicates high levels of apparent demand for the 3G iPhone. Among the data excerpted from the RBC research note:

  • 56% of those planning to buy a smartphone in the next 90 days plan to purchase an iPhone, up from 35% in March.
  • Purchase interest in Apple is 2x or more that of other brands surveyed: RIM 23% (RIMM), Palm 3% (PALM), HTC 2%, Nokia 2% (NOK), Samsung 2%, Motorola 1% (MOT), others 11%.
  • Top reasons for buying the iPhone include lower price (67%), 3G Internet connection (63%), GPS (47%), Microsoft (MSFT) Exchange email support (35%), and third-party apps (20%)

BusinessWeek offers a visual preview of some of the forthcoming 4,000 "native" applications developed for the iPhone. And the Register speculates about whether the iPhone will eventually adopt a QWERTY keyboard. (Voice control/input is the solution for those who don't like the keyboard.)

Dizgo Brings Real-Time Offers to Local Mobile Users

Colorado-based Dizgo has quietly opened for business in the city of Boulder and the Denver, CO neighborhood of Cherry Creek. Dizgo is a mobile marketing platform ("mobile discounts on the go") that offers merchants the ability to tap local interest in offers and discounts. It's also a loyalty program. The company just launched but has already signed up many local merchants (mostly restaurants) who self-provision ads on the system.

The service was founded by Jeff Kohn, an ex-Dex (yellow pages) executive. He knows the challenges of trying to get local advertisers to self-provision campaigns. But he says there has been good uptake of Dizgo, which also has a small sales force calling on merchants. The value proposition isn't "mobile marketing," but "reach your customers with real-time offers that drive foot traffic in the store."

In order to set up a campaign merchants go to an administrative dashboard, name a campaign, indicate start and end dates, compose an offer and bid on a category. Ads get on the system in real time, so an ad placed this morning can be found in near real time (think: offers for lunch or dinner). They can also be pushed out to those who opt-in to receive email alerts:

Dizgo merchant list

There are a few ways to get information as a user:

  • Deal Search: Users send keywords/queries to short code Dizgo (34946)

  • Deal Alerts: Users opt-in to receive offers from merchants (see above)

  • Deal Syndication: Dizgo is building an ad network

As the company scales nationally it will also offer a "white label" platform for third party use (think: YP, newspapers, verticals, local portal sites, cityguides). Kohn and I discussed whether the bad economy was encouraging merchants to experiment with the system and he agreed that it probably was. Kohn said that merchants were using their existing email lists to try and get their customers onto the system.

There aren't a lot of tools out there right now that enable merchants to promote discounts or deals and have those distributed the same day. NearbyNow does this, TheStoreBook (newly launched) and one or two others seek to do it.

The highly focused, local nature of this site (Boulder) is helping adoption on the merchant side and probably will drive it on the consumer side as well. I asked Kohn for early consumer response data. However Dizgo hasn't officially launched yet to consumers so I'll have to wait for that.

OpenTable Intros Mobile "Beta"

At long last, a "mobile optimized" version of the venerable dining search site OpenTable has debuted at mobile.opentable.com. The company opted to take the WAP (wireless application protocol) route to support the mobile Web. It serves up screens to march users through a highly-structured process of finding a restaurant and making a reservation. At the highest level it offers the choice of specific metropolitan areas, followed by regions (within the metro area), neighborhoods and then specific restaurants. Once a choice is made, the service delivers a brief description of the restaurant along with links to specific times when there are open tables.

Users are prompted to enter their first and last name, email address and telephone number. There is no evidence that "secure browsing" is being initiated, nor are OpenTable "members" given th option to log in, so it will be interesting to see whether regular users of OpenTable on the desktop are dissuaded from using the mobile service.

My cursory evluation indicates that the mobile site may be a little too skinnied down. OpenTable on the desktop provides for much more serendipitous discovery. If a popular place is booked, it is much easier to navigate around and find viable alternatives. Also, in the mobile format, it is unclear whether it would be faster just to call a restaurant directly to make a reservation or find out specials, etc.

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See also, Greg's earlier post with some screens.

Yahoo! Launches Mobile Site for Olympics

Yahoo! is promoting a new Internet dedicated mobile site for the forthcoming Beijing summer Olympics:

Yahoo Olympics mobile

Presumably Yahoo! Sports advertisers on the desktop will also gain mobile distribution to those same audiences with this site.

Sprint's Instinct Has Real Limitations

While waiting a considerable length of time for the software upgrade to my HTC Windows Mobile phone in a local Sprint store, I had an opportunity yesterday to get "hands on" with the Sprint Instinct. After hearing all the hype and tales of sell-outs I was eager to see it.

I spent about 20 minutes with the o'er-hyped device. However my comments below don't rise to the level of a full-blown Walter Mossberg-like review:

I found its email system and Web browser to be less sophisticated than the iPhone's or the BlackBerry's. I also thought the phone's onscreen keyboard was harder to use than Apple's. It would flip unpredictably from landscape to portrait mode. The Instinct does allow handwriting recognition as an alternative, something the iPhone doesn't.

If you're a devoted Sprint customer, or want to avoid AT&T, the Instinct is an OK choice. But it's no iPhone.

I agree with the Mossberg review that it's a poor substitute for the iPhone. Had the iPhone not come along the standard of comparison would be quite different. However we can't turn back the clock and in that context it simply doesn't live up to the hype.

I didn't test the video and image aspects of the phone but I spent a fair amount of time on the Internet and playing with other features of the device. It can be customized and has a nice interface and look and feel but it's quite limited by comparison to the much more robust iPhone. Most importantly perhaps, it doesn't have a software ecosystem around it, as the iPhone now does.

Beyond core usability it's this ecosystem of developers that will likely separate the winners and losers in the smartphone market going forward. Blackberry knows this, Nokia knows this (hence Symbian open source), Microsoft knows this, Google and Yahoo do too. However there is a scenario where the ecosystem doesn't matter as much if next-generation mobile browsers make the entire Internet truly accessible on mobile devices. In that case phone (and camera) features could be quite competitive with the iPhone.

Skyhook Announces 'Hybrid Positioning System'

Skyhook wireless, which came to national attention through incorporation of its technology into the iPhone, is announcing a combined location-awareness technology that takes Wi-Fi positioning and combines it with GPS and cell tower triangulation (for mobile handsets):

Skyhook Wireless is delivering the most advanced positioning system in the world by combining ground breaking positioning algorithms along with comprehensive environment survey data. XPS builds on top of the revolutionary Wi-Fi Positioning System (WPS) that is already deployed on tens of millions of mobile devices worldwide. The original version of XPS delivered "multi-mode” location switching between WPS and GPS readings based on availability and error estimates. XPS 2.0 combines raw Wi-Fi, GPS and cell tower readings to produce a single hybrid calculation.

People often fail to understand the limitations of GPS, illustrated here by Nokia:

GPS 1

GPS 2

A hybrid system like this -- the only one in existence apparently -- will speed location detection and make it more reliable accordingly. This technology will be available on handsets that ship in 2009 and 2010 according to Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan.

OpenTable to Go

OpenTable has introduced -- no surprise here -- a mobile version for on-the-go bookings. Here are some screens:

Cities

OpenTable neighborhoods

OpenTable mobile reservations

The mobile site is stripped down version of the desktop version, without the reviews (diner's choice) or local popularity indexes. I would imagine a future iPhone version would reproduce more of the content of the full site. Of course you can use Opera Mini or Skyfire and get the full site from a mobile phone.