Monday, April 23, 2007

How Location-Based Social Networking Should Work

I'm excited about the possibilities of location-based mobile services. By this I mean software services that take advantage of a user's physical location (determined by a GPS transponder in the phone or by geographic information transmitted from the phone to the mobile network) to provide current and pertinent information such as traffic, public transit data, local attractions and restaurant reviews, localized shopping, and, most importantly, localized advertising, all determined by the user's location. The ability to offer an advertiser an audience qualified by their actual current location would be of huge value.

But today, in 2007, most LBS applications suck. They're difficult to use, and require so much time and attention to sign up, set up and use that most casual users will never try. It's a chicken-or-egg dilemma, but without a growing and active userbase, an LBS will never become successful.

The Killer LBS App
Start with Dodgeball. Functionally, it's a good place to begin. It's under the nurturing care of Google, so there are plenty of possibilities for piggybacking onto existing services that already have userbases, like Gmail.

Right now, users of Dodgeball are required to 'check in' actively via SMS. For some phones without GPS functionality, this is the only way it could work. But let's look further forward into the future, and go ahead and add passive GPS-derived check-ins. No more typing "@local bar name" and waiting for a flurry of SMS messages to go out to all of your friends. Instead, just go to the bar, and if you've turned your visibility on, then your friends will know where you are. If they need to be reminded, then just click "Announce My Location", and let your phone's GPS service take care of the rest.

The next step would be to build a mashup of Dodgeball, Google Maps and Gmail Chat, so that all of the big LBS benefits are delivered seamlessly through one solution.

Let's move on to the illustration of what this could look like, to facilitate the explanation:

From a mobile device (or from a desktop, but for the full benefit of the mobile aspect, let's assume we're using a mobile device), the user accesses a list of friends. Each friend's location is being tracked and reported by the GPS component of their mobile device, and their location is logged on the list. An illustration:

By selecting the Map view, the same list of friends can be viewed visually, with each contact's location displayed on a map, as shown here:
And finally, by selecting a friend individually, their profile can be accessed, a call or SMS can be initiated, or directions to their location can be requested:

How Google Money Could Work

This is a follow-up to my previous post about how a web-based personal finance tracking solution could make life easier, as an improvement to the current state of Quicken, which is currently shackled to a desktop application.

I'm very deeply entrenched in Google's suite of online products; I use Gmail and Google Calendar extensively. I use Dodgeball and Google Voice Local Search and Google Earth and Sketchup, etc. I'm also very excited by the future prospects of Google Apps for location-free and collaborative document management. Generally, I find that as Google continues to add functionality and interoperability to their suite of online offerings, my life becomes easier to track and my personal information easier to maintain.

The one exception so far is my personal financial tracking, for which I use Quicken. A web-based version of such software, offered by Google and taking advantage of existing features in their other products, would be a useful way to manage my life.

Calendar products manage time, ensuring that I don't double book my schedule or miss a planned activity. Personal finance programs manage money, ensuring that I don't spend more than I budgeted or miss payment deadlines.

Spending time often means spending money, and many events in my time schedule directly correlate to events in my financial schedule. I schedule my time using one piece of software, and my money using another one. But why not mash them up?

Here's an illustration of what I mean:

How It Is
I call to schedule a haircut for next Thursday evening. After I've confirmed the appointment time, I create an event in Google Calendar, indicating the time and place. Now, if I want a fully accurate view of my upcoming transactions in Quicken, I'll need to remember when I get home a few hours from now that next Thursday, I'll be spending some money on a haircut. Unless I create a calendar event to remind me to enter the transaction (which would be a fantastically redundant waste of time), then I'll just have to remember, because Quicken is installed on my desktop computer at home.

How It Should Be
I call to schedule a haircut for next Thursday evening. After I've confirmed the appointment time, I create an event in Google Calendar, indicating the time, place, and expected cost. The end. It could look something like this:

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Google and pork products

So this one is a small issue, and doesn't cause problems to the user as much as it's just mildly amusing. But I thought I'd bring it up anyway.

Users of Gmail are familiar with the unobstrusive text ads that appear alongside messages. The content of these little snippets is determined based on words contained in email conversations. For instance, if you're emailing back and forth with a friend about your upcoming trip to Cabo San Lucas, deciding when you'll go and where you'll stay, you're likely to see some text ads along the right column advertising Beach Rentals in Cabo or travel sites for booking your flights.

I think this feature is very useful. It's a great value proposition for users, advertisers and Google. Advertisers are guaranteed a receptive target to their message, users aren't bothered with irrelevant ad messages, and Google...well, Google is Google because they always gets paid.

But Gmail has a cannabilism problem. As it scans, looking for keywords to match to web content or ads, it's scanning itself! And the hilarious case in point - the spam folder:

A few times a day, I click on my Spam folder, do a quick scan to make sure nothing legit got tagged, and then I empty it. Gmail's trusty ad keyword searcher, however, dutifully picks up the word Spam and, invariably, every single day, gives Recipes for spam casserole. For spam and eggs. For spam on toast.

It's a return to the Monty Python litany that created the word's tech-based meaning in the first place. I suppose I'd laugh a little less often if this glitch got fixed, but isn't it a glitch all the same?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

How Quicken should work - data in the cloud

Quicken is immensely useful. Without it, I'd have no idea where my money is and where it's going, because I'm pretty financially irresponsible by nature. It's a lifesaver. But when I'm not at home, physically sitting in front of my home computer where my Quicken data is stored, I'm lost.

The problem? Plain and simple, there's no way to review or make changes to my data remotely. Okay, at least not for me. The premier version of Quicken has a service that allows limited remote access to data, after authorizing the application to allow data sharing with, but it's still a stop-gap solution, because the 'real' home of the data is still the home computer, and transactions aren't automatically synchronized.

So here's what I propose - I want a web-based personal finance application, entirely location independent, with my data stored 'in the cloud'. I want to be able to access it from any internet-connected browser, and I want the encryption and security to be top-notch, just like my banks' websites. Now I'm imagining this as a Quicken product because I like Quicken's easy interface, I trust Intuit with my data, and I already have years of financial transaction data stored in Quicken's format. But a trustworthy third party could make this happen too. (Google Money, anyone?) I know you guys have a working relationship with Intuit already...

For true remote accessibility, I want a mobile-friendly interface too. If I'm away on vacation, or on my lunch break at work, I'd like to be able do a quick reality check with my phone to see whether buying that flashy new trinket would keep me from being able to pay next month's rent, or to check up on when next month's XYZ payment is scheduled to be processed.

While we're at it, and to make remote access even simpler, I'd also like to see fully automated account synchronization. I have accounts at multiple banks, a couple of different credit cards at different institutions, and investments at yet another. Quicken is great, because it allows me to see all of this data tracked in a single place, with a good user interface. But should I have to invest 15 minutes every time I want to update and review my accounts? When I sit down to review my financial status every day, I don't want to have to log on to my bank and credit card websites, download my transactions, open them in Quicken, etc. etc...I want to see an accurate snapshot view, a simple dashboard with a clear projection of my immediate financial future.

Of course, by concentrating so much personal data onto a single server and automating secure authentication processes, there would be some big security risks. Some big technical challenges would have to be addressed, and fair warning would have to be given to any users of such a service that doing so could endanger their privacy. Understood.

But as a consumer, I'd like to have the choice of whether to take those risks in exchange for greater convenience. At the moment, I'm stuck without any choice at all.