I Spent a Few Hours in the Future and I Liked It

Tuesday I was in New York City for the day on business. After finishing up my last meeting it was time for me to make my way to the airport to head home. The process of getting from 34th and Madison to my seat on Delta flight #6054 at LaGuardia took me through a series of events over the course of a few hours that gave me a hopeful glimpse into how we will perform everyday transactions in the near future thanks to mobile consumer technologies.

I started things off by launching Uber’s smartphone app to request a town car. With the evening taxi cab shift-change in full effect (good luck tracking down a cab that will take you out of Manhattan at that time of day) and an expiring promotion from Uber that would make the entire trip cheaper than a taxi ride anyway (thanks Ed!) I requested one of their contracted drivers pick me up through the app. With Francisca, my driver-to-be, estimated to arrive in 13 minutes (an unusually long wait for Uber by the way) I went across the street to grab an ice coffee from Starbucks for the ride. After ordering my drink I paid for it by showing the barista my phone which displayed a barcode from the downloaded Starbucks app for her to scan. The barcode contained my Starbucks card information and credit balance for her to deduct the appropriate amount from. After picking up my drink I went outside to meet Francisca who had called to confirm my location and her momentary arrival. Once we arrived at LaGuardia I thanked her and went inside Terminal D- no payment transaction required. That’s because the fare was calculated by Uber based on the time, distance and tolls incurred during the trip (which was tracked via GPS) and charged to my credit card on file with Uber, who emailed me a receipt of the transaction with all the details by the time I made my way inside Terminal D.

To get to my boarding pass I skipped the ticker counter and kiosks and headed straight to the security line where I opened up an email from Delta and launched the link to my QR code-based boarding pass. Aside from my driver’s license for identity purposes, that’s all I needed to get to my flight’s gate. Since I made it with time to spare I decided to grab some dinner at a restaurant called Bisoux. At my table, and every other seat in the restaurant for that matter, was a tethered iPad and electrical outlet. So while my phone was recharging I pulled up the restaurant’s app on the iPad to order my meal. I paid for my food, including tip, by swiping my credit card through the credit card reader attached to the outlet and had the receipt emailed to my work address. While I waited for my food to arrive (about 15 minutes), I used the iPad to catch-up on some email (and Twitter once my food had arrived). After I was done eating I got up and left without having to track someone down for a bill and payment. Heading over to the seating area at my gate I was greeted by more iPads and outlets (in fact the entire Terminal D at LaGuardia is outfitted with iPads, credit card readers and electrical outlets thanks to OTG Management, an airline food service company) to catch up on my news feeds until it was time to board my flight. One more showing of my QR code boarding pass to the gate attendant and I was off for DC.

In total, during my 2 ½ hour experience that took me from Manhattan to LaGuardia:

  • I conducted 4 transactions (buying coffee, transportation to the airport, buying dinner and boarding a flight)
  • Used 5 physical items to complete these transactions (smartphone, driver’s license, iPad, credit card and credit card reader)
  • Paid for everything using 2 mechanisms (smartphone and credit card)
  • Used 2 wireless networks (Verizon’s mobile network and LaGuardia’s WiFi network)
  • And in only 2 of these instances could I not control the timing of the entire experience (ordering at Starbucks and waiting in the security line at the airport)

With a few realistic software updates and better planning though, these four transactions could have been completed using just one device, a driver’s license and one wireless network by (1) incorporating the payment mechanism directly into the restaurant’s ordering app from OTG Management and making the app available for my smartphone, (2) enabling drinks orders through the Starbuck’s app and (3) enrolling in TSA Pre√ to avoid the traditionally slow security line experience.

Some other insights about the future I came away with from this experience:

Battery Life: This continues to be a huge issue with smartphones, which are increasingly being instrumented to perform computer-like tasks as a result of apps, GPS utilization, mobile browsing and multi-tasking (I drained half of my phone’s battery in a matter of 3 hours due to my little experiment). Without quicker improvements in battery life technology or in the development of wireless charging capabilities, which uBeam is attempting to tackle, the adoption of many of these types of consumer applications, especially those that leverage location, will be hindered. Until batteries can meet the daily demand of consumers the proliferation of charging stations at airports are an adequate solution but needs to be more broadly deployed across additional public and retail spaces (coffee shops, malls, etc.) to be truly valuable.

WiFi Networks: Connecting to publicly identifiable WiFi hotspots is unnecessarily challenging for laptops, let alone smartphones as quickly degrading connections and networks that require “additional information to log on” are a drain on productivity. Add to this the disparate WiFi policies across venues, such as WiFi being free at Washington’s Dulles airport but not at New York’s LaGuardia, consumers’ ability to enter and complete transactions is severely curtailed when a wireless carrier network isn’t available (like in a building or subway for example). Ideally the wireless carriers would take it upon themselves to aggregate various WiFi networks and offer up access as part of a mobile plan. Until there are better, more consistent solutions, companies like Connectify, which aggregates multiple broadband connections into a single high-bandwidth link, and Open Garden, which provides crowd-sourced mobile connectivity, are attempting to meet consumer demands for greater availability and throughput by leveraging the current publicly WiFi infrastructure.

Payments: Two types of mobile payment experiences are emerging in the real world depending on whether you are purchasing a product or service. When buying physical goods, like a cup of coffee, QR and barcodes are being used to facilitate digital payments at the register or provide proof of purchase. In these scenarios services like LevelUp from SCVNGR and Square, which recently announced a deal with Starbucks, are providing the underlying payment processing and generating the associated user codes. For transactions that involve purchasing a service, like a car ride, the entire payment experience can occur within the mobile app itself with companies like Braintree, which is used by Uber, and Stripe providing the transaction processing and merchant notification. At the end of the day what all these companies are vying for is a piece of the worldwide mobile payment transaction market which is expected to reach $1.3 trillion in 2017 according to Juniper Research.

Mobile Wallet: While every transaction I performed was through a specific app, the future of mobile payments is `all about the mobile wallet. Companies at every point in the mobile commerce value chain are joining forces to get their cut of the fast-growing mobile payment market by attempting to aggregate consumer activity and demand. Isis, the wireless carrier-backed initiative, is slated to debut next month on the heels of this month’s announcement from a group of brand name retailers and merchants regarding the launch of Merchant Customer Exchange, which is building its own consumer mobile payment application. Sitting between the carriers delivering the underlying mobile service and the retailers at the point of sale are mobile operating system providers Google, which provided an update on Google Wallet earlier this week, and Apple, which demoed Passbook this summer for the much rumored new iPhone, who are launching their own competitive mobile wallet initiatives. The key to the success of any of these services will be their ability to go beyond just providing a frictionless payment mechanism. The applications that seamlessly incorporate payment options, purchasing preferences, loyalty programs and promotional offers directly into the mobile app and transaction process will be the most successful wallet solutions.

Identification: While the mobile wallet has the ability to create a contact-less payment society, the one physical item it won’t eliminate any time soon is the government issued ID. A truly digital form of personal identification (be it a driver’s license or passport) would be too easy to forge or replicate by criminals and implementing fingerprint or retina scanning as an alternative form of identification is wrought with infrastructure and privacy concerns. So until biometrics can become a viable and cost-effective solution, the physical wallet is here to stay- unless you decide to use a mobile phone cases that doubles as a wallet.

It’s interesting to see how software development and hardware advancements are continually being leveraged to simplify and speed up the experience of completing transactions by challenging legacy models and removing manual steps in the process. Combined with business innovations, consumers are finally able to control when and how these activities are being executed which further enhances the overall experience. While not perfect, from what I was able to do over those few hours, I like where our future days are headed thanks to mobile.

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Game Time for Foursquare

When Facebook Places launched in August, the media wasted little time in calling game, set and match on Foursquare and its location-based social network (LBSN) brethren. With over 500 million users, the theory went, Facebook would become the most popular check-in service due to its sheer size alone. While Facebook hasn’t released any initial stats regarding the number of users or check-ins being generated through Places thus far, personal and anecdotal experiences from early tech adopters suggests the uptake hasn’t been significant. Having survived the unveiling of Places by growing its own user base from 3 to 4 million users in less than 2 months, and with plenty of money in the bank, Foursquare has a shot at growing beyond its early-adopter community and becoming a mainstream network. So how does Foursquare become the next Twitter and not end up like Friendster?

Make A Few Enemies (If You Want 500 Million Friends)

The launch of Places was a direct shot at Foursquare by Facebook. To return the favor Foursquare should go after Facebook’s core audience of college students (something I suggested to Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley in a conversation last year). Beyond revenge, this actually makes a lot of sense if you remember that Facebook’s success was built on its ability to capture the college crowd before opening up to other audiences.

Considering that (1) with 165 million Facebook users in the U.S. alone there is bound to be some backlash by young adults against parental “friending” as well as overall loss of interest in the platform and (2) Foursquare’s raison d’etre is to help people find new things to do in cities, Foursquare can offer college users a unique experience. Students who already use Facebook now have the chance to create a new, curated social graph based on people they want to interact with socially- and one that doesn’t include their parents. By leveraging Foursquare’s discovery element, which the company has started rolling out across several campuses with the launch of Foursquare for Universities, students can develop relationships based on sharing new experiences.

The result is the creation of a real social network- one that occurs in the real world and not just online or through social games. Facebook is accurate in not calling itself a social network as it operates more like an ambient network- one that allows people to communicate and interact with their accumulated social graph from afar. Because Foursquare’s purpose is to enable face-to-face social interaction it has the opportunity to become the place where your real friends are– i.e. people who you’d actually want to grab a drink or hang out with if you knew they were nearby. This statement can’t honestly be made by anyone trying to socialize beyond Dunbar’s number on Facebook. Time will tell if Facebook’s just announced Groups rectifies this situation or is too cumbersome for average users to implement. If not, they can resort to playing dirty by enforcing their newly granted LBSN patents.

Show Me The Money (Or At Least a Discount)

Not to be lost in the social aspect of Foursquare’s service is the underlying business opportunity. While Mayor-ships and virtual badges have been the drivers of Foursquare’s early successes, to a maniacal level in some instances, I agree with early stage investor Dave McClure, though not in such eloquent terms, that game mechanics will only take LBSN’s so far and that tangible financial rewards are how these networks can turn into more mainstream services.

That’s not to say that Foursquare should abandon its game mechanics. In fact the social activity driven through these features of Foursquare’s service should be leveraged by local businesses because these mechanics can create the right type of incentive structure. Local merchants are eager to tap into in-discretionary spending habits (especially those of college kids), but in a cost efficient manner that creates loyalty beyond just the initial lead generation. In the same breadth, consumers are interested in deals at local establishments- especially promotions they can opt-in to. That’s where leveraging Foursquare’s Swarm Badge to drive group participation makes sense.

The concept around Swarm Parties, in which businesses offer discounts to customers once a minimum number of users have checked-in on Foursquare in a given time period, has proven to be effective in increasing sales for local businesses in both the U.S. and overseas. This hasn’t been lost on the likes of recently launched GroupTabs which is looking to provide group discounts for local merchants by combining the check-in features of Foursquare with the deal incentives of Groupon. While Groupn itself has shown how effective it can be in driving one-time sales for local businesses it does also have its drawbacks. Foursquare can help businesses foster the long-term loyalty with consumers that is missing from Groupon-type offerings by helping merchants create incentives that can exist beyond virtual badges. This could include leveraging relationships merchants already have with consumers through loyalty cards, which CardStar is already doing by integrating Foursquare into its service, or creating new reward structures based on check-in frequency.

Find Other Ways to Help Users Grab Life… (And Experience New Places)

Beyond group incentives, Foursquare needs to find other ways to be useful to users and businesses in discovering one another. The recently launched “Add to My Foursquare” button is a great way to transfer an individual’s web-based interest in a venue, by adding it to their Foursquare To-Do list, into an actual visit to the physical store when they check-in nearby that business. Beyond web surfing, Foursquare’s recommendation engine, which is still being tested, could offer search engine-like opportunities for users to find, and merchants to pay to promote, businesses based on matching users’ check-in activity with potential interests. Combined these capabilities can not only enable better discovery and thus socialization opportunities for current users but also act as a starting point for new users who don’t have a check-in history but want to benefit from the wisdom of the local crowd.

Foursquare’s ultimate success, in addition to keeping the service up-and-running, will depend on its ability to create tangible benefits for its current users, before they start losing interest, while simplifying the value proposition for mainstream Facebook users to understand and start using Foursquare. If not, companies like Google Ventures-backed SCVNGR, which now has 500,000 users of its own, has the pieces in place to compete with Foursquare through its own brand relationships, university outreach program and group-buying functionality, are waiting in the wings to take on Facebook Places.

Ball’s in your court Foursquare. I’m rooting for you.

Photo credits: Dunny/WeeklyShot, The Social Network/Columbia Pictures, Jerry Maguire/TriStar Pictures and DodgeBall/20th Century Fox Film

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