Monthly Archives: April 2013

Five Ways Google Glass Will Transform the Tourism Industry

Google Glass, for those of you who don’t already know, is a mobile device worn like sunglasses that projects information on a small, transparent screen located in one’s peripheral field of vision. When paired with a smartphone via BlueTooth, Glass is capable of displaying a variety of information without the user ever taking the phone out of their purse or pocket. The device also has voice recognition and ear buds for a complete audio/visual experience. Lightweight and flexible, Google Glass is like having a tiny but powerful smartphone strapped to your head. I recommend taking a quick video tour of Google Glass (GG) to see how it works.

There are five ways Google Glass will transform the tourism industry.

One: Everything you (or your developer) knows about User Interface (UI) design will need to be re-thought, perhaps radically, to accommodate Google Glass’ smaller screen and voice recognition. By smaller, I mean a lot smaller, say 1/4 the size of a an iPhone5 screen. You will not be able to view most websites on the GG screen, even if they are responsively designed. Even most smartphone apps are too busy for the GG screen ~ screen clutter must go! Visual content (text, graphics, videos, maps etc) will need to be pared down to the barest essentials. There is also no keyboard on Google Glass and never will be ~ all app commands come via voice. I take some smug satisfaction in this development, as I said in an earlier post that voice reco was both the past and future of the man-machine interface. Many young, thumb typing speed demons, who learned their skills on video game consoles, disagreed with me at the time, but they will have to find something else to do with their hands now.

Two: GG will accelerate Google’s role as the Gorilla in the $10 B tourism industry (and it’s due to their massive content and computing power). In the computing world, we refer to apps and the devices they run on as “clients.” Thin clients rely on some other computer to do part of the work; fat clients do more of the computing work themselves. Google Glass is an ultra-thin client relying almost entirely on powerful computers and content found at (where else?) ~ Google! Google Earth. Google Maps. Google Art Project (photos of museum pieces). Google Street Maps. Google Business Photos (virtual tours of the inside of your hotel or restaurant). All these will be readily available to GG through the fat, very fat, supercomputers located within the Google empire. “Oh, they wouldn’t just waltz in to my business, museum, or piazza with those fancy 3D cameras and take pictures, and then post them on the Internet.” Wouldn’t they? They may already have. What you need to do is ensure your content, the story you have to tell, gets picked up, stays fresh, and goes along for the wild ride.

Three: Ad supported monetization strategies will not fly. Remember ~ this thing is strapped to your head. Your eyes and ears are captive. I’ll speak for myself ~ I do not want advertisements that close to my brain. It’s bad enough they put ads over the urinals. GG tourism apps will succeed by virtue of the extent to which they enhance the user’s experience and by that virtue alone.

Four: GG will disrupt the teletmatics business just as it was getting started. Telematics are mobile computers installed in your car. Car manufacturers, fearful of lawsuits from users who might wreck the car while using them, and fearful of seceding app control to non-car companies like Apple, have very carefully and slowly moved forward, keeping most app developers at arm’s length. 2013 was supposed to be their year, when they were going to allow your app, designed and built for iOS or Android, to collaborate with their telematics units, as long as the UI (and therefore their risk of lawsuit) was carefully controlled. But ooops! Too slow. GG are designed to enhance and not distract the user from his or her primary activity, like skiing or driving. Time will tell if this is the case, but both the car manufacturers and the lawmakers are once again caught flatfooted, or as we say here in America, “a day late and a dollar short.”

Five: Content is King. The King is Dead. Long Live the King. It has long been said that content is king, and I agree in general, but only content that is device agnostic. That means your content…your stories, your tours, your insight, wit and charm…must play well on any device, regardless of type or manufacturer. Yesterday it was the desktop web. Today it is the mobile web, or the native app. Soon it will be Google Glass. One day they will pour a mobile device with an eyedropper in one ear, where it will settle into one of our teeth. Whatever. The point is, make sure your tourism content has the quality and format to travel well, from one device type to the next, so you can make money when future tourists are visiting your sites with, well, their tooth phone.

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Why Travel Apps Fail

When the Guide Dog Bites

He came to see the famous Rembrandt painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” on exhibition at one of the best museums in the world, The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. All along his trip, his smartphone had been an invaluable aid, helping him to find and buy the best deals on airfare and hotel, alerting him to a last minute change in his flight, navigating him through an unfamiliar city, and giving him tips about the best places to eat. Like a highly trained guide dog, it never faltered, never failed. App after app delivered on its promise.

Now, finally, he is standing in front of the painting, smartphone in hand. He had purchased a new app that promised to guide him through the exhibits, including the Rembrandt. Excitedly, he taps the app icon on his device, and launches the app.

Then the guide dog bites him.

Head bowed, eyes glued to the tiny screen of his device, furiously tapping and pecking, he works the app. Rembrandt’s magnificent masterpiece, the very thing he came to see, hangs before him, glanced at but not fully appreciated. The app is no longer an aid or enhancement to the traveler’s experience. Rather, it has become the worst possible travel companion ~ a distraction. The app has failed him, failed the Master, and failed the Hermitage.

Why?

The major reason apps fail is due to poor design, primarily of the User Interface (UI). The UI is that part of the app with which the user interacts ~ screens, buttons, sliders, knobs, and the like. The UI is to an app what a dashboard is to a car. If the UI is poorly designed, as many are, then the user will waste time dinking around with the app, trying to extract its benefits rather than enjoying them.

We can only wonder if we would have today the wonderful book “The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming” by Henri J.M. Nouwen, if the author had had his nose buried in a smartphone rather than studying the famous painting, as he did for days on end, pondering its every minutia and brush stroke. On the other hand, how might an app have helped Father Nouwen if it enabled him to hear the voice of the artist explaining his own creation ~ his motivation, his influences, his purpose, his techniques? What secrets would we learn? How might that enhance our experience, or not?

Only the individual tourist can decide if, when, or how technology enhances or detracts from their experience. Our job, as app developers, is to deliver excellence, and then let the individual choose for herself.

Driving in the Rain

As an example of a well designed UI, imagine you are driving your car and it starts to rain. Even if you have rented the car and are unfamiliar with it, chances are good you can turn on the windshield wipers fairly quickly without taking your eyes off the road for too long. You are the beneficiary of a well designed UI. It is important to car manufacturers that you, the user (driver), not become distracted by their UI (the dashboard), lest you wreck the car, become injured, and (in the United States at least) sue them. For that reason, car manufacturers are very careful UI designers, and follow rigorous standards for design practice and quality.

Not so for app designers. UI design and quality can vary from app to app. Most are not designed by UI professionals at all, but rather by the geek or nerd who coded the app. He or she may be a great programmer, but UI design is a completely different skill set, and one most development shops are unwilling to pay for. Sure, the app gets built and it works, but the UI is flawed, and in the case of our Hermitage visitor, it becomes a distraction rather than an enhancement.

The Hermitage would be right to be annoyed, for that app has not served them well. Museums and other tourist destinations would be wise to know what apps are being used in their environment, and steer visitors to the better ones. If no such app exists, the organization could always build their own.

Now…Fewer Features Than Ever Before!

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to cover all the elements of a good UI, but there is one recommendation I will make: Less is more. This advice is especially true for travel apps, where the point of interest should never be the app itself but rather the very site, person or object that draws the tourist in the first place. The key is simplicity, or simple elegance as I like to say. I would be cautious of any app that offers too many fancy but useless features, which tend to divert the user’s eyes down to the device (such as to watch a video). Rather, toursim app designers should borrow a page from the car dashboard design manual, ensuring the user’s head and eyes are up and on your points of interest as much as possible. Using more audio content and less visual content is a best practice for a travel app.

The “less is more” design point has proven its appeal again and again, with companies such as Apple and Google using it with great success. The original Google page was simply their company name and a box into which we entered our search term ~ nothing more. But notice what happens over time. Pressures to add more bells and whistles inevitably creep in, if for no other reason than to keep up with the competition. Imagine one of those companies announcing the new version of their product with the headline, “Now even fewer features than ever before!” or “Good news! Nothing has changed.” It doesn’t happen.

Techno nerds and geeks love to add features, because they love what the technology can do and often lose focus on what the technology should do. A good UI designer never loses that focus, always keeping the User Experience (UX) front and center in the build process. The pièce de résistance of an exquistely designed UX is when the technology completely fades into the background of the user’s life (yes invisible), a phenonemon we refer to in the computing industry as “Ubiquitous Computing.”

A Caveman Lights a Fire

A great example of ubiquitous computing is the humble thermostat. As cave people, we regulated tempurature by throwing another log on the fire ~ not very ubiquitous. It became more ubiquitous for men, but less so for women, when the caveman had his cave wife throw the log on at his command. Eventually we evolved out of that injustice with the invention of central heating and the thermostat you probably grew up with and may still have: the one where you set the temperature and the heating and cooling system maintains that set point withing a degree or two.

The next evolution of the thermostat is the programmable one, where you can identify periods of time (say from midnight to 6 AM) when the set-point can be different from other times, say after the kids get home from school. This is definitely a step forward in ubiquitous evolution, as the evolved thermostat requires much less human attention than its predecessor.

But what if the thermostat could sense when the kids came home from school by virtue of some human presence sensor? What if it were smart enough to learn, on its own, the unique lifestyle patterns of your family and set the temps accordingly? When you are at work and the kids are school, it would know, without your having to tell it, and it would adjust the temps in order not to waste energy, saving you money. You would never have to touch this device ~ it would simply fade into the background of your life as a very sophisticated piece of ubiquitous computing. Such a thermostat exists ~ the Nest thermostat from Tony Fadell, the guy who led the team that created the first 18 generations of Apple’s iPod and the first three generations of the iPhone. It is an amazing device and a perfect example of ubiquitous computing.

You should not be surprised by Nest’s provenance. Under Steve Jobs, Apple products were designed with an unwavering focus on the UX. Apple was not the first to build MP3 players or smartphones ~ plenty of geeks had done so before and burdoned their devices with oodles of fancy gadgetry, the weight of which sank them ~ but Apple made quality design and ease-of-use a top priority. Success required that kind of leadership and vision, and that is what your app will need too ~ if it is not to fail.

Won’t a Smartphone Tourism App Put Me Out of a Job?

I get this question from worried tour guides, and it makes sense to me. But my answer is always the same. “No, smartphone tourism will help you make money while you sleep.”

Allow me to explain.

Yesterday was Easter. I spent the day making a big meal for my family, stuffing and hiding Easter eggs for my two grandkids, and attending mass. Then I took a short nap. While I was sleeping, my smartphone tours, featuring my content and voice, were hard at work helping tourists who chose to spend their day visiting Washington DC’s monuments or Richmond’s Capitol Square. My apps informed, entertained, and pointed those tourists to nearby, good restaurants serving Easter dinner, just like I would have in person. Everyone is happy, including me. I am helping people and making money while I sleep ~ the perfect definition of passive income.

Mobile tourism apps do not replace what you do as a professional tour guide ~ they enhance what you do. They capture your amazing stories, skill and wit, and make all that brilliance available to tourists 24x7x365. They never take a day off. They never take a break. They are always “on.”  The quality of delivery is perfect ~ each time, every time. And they offer your customers another choice for enjoying your professionalism, one you can offer them for a fraction of the cost of a personal tour.

Look ~ until they invent the kind of holograph we see on Star Trek, no technology can replace the warmth, personality and charm of a real person. You will always be in demand. Use mobile technology to your advantage, to create new money making opportunities, and to reach more customers, offering them a multimedia experience that is harder to do in person, like the spooky reading with sound effects I created for the Edgar Allen Poe statue.

So go ahead. Build your mobile app while still offering your customers a personal tour. Give them a choice.

Then go take a nap. You’ll sleep easy.

How to Choose between a Web app or Native app

It’s slow. It’s clunky (compared to others). It’s not as pretty. It’s the so-called “web” app ~ as distinguished from the “native” app. So why build one? Well, there are some good reasons, and the biggest one is, web apps are “cross platform,” that is, they will run on any kind of mobile device that is connected to the Internet. So in the same way you access the Internet from a PC using the browser of your choice, regardless of who manufactured your PC, you can access web apps using the browser of your choice, regardless of who manufactured your mobile device. Sounds great, yes?

Not so fast, kemosabe.  Remember, there is a war on, Google vs. Apple vs. Microsoft vs. Blackberry and so on. Each of those companies make mobile devices, and they don’t want their device turned into a commodity. They don’t care much for web apps or the technology that makes them possible: HTML5. So the big (rich) players, namely Apple and Google, are investing gazillions to keep you, and the armies of developers who build apps, on their proprietary platforms, that is, on native. How do they do that? Innovation.

Native Rocks!

As of today (2013), the best apps are native apps. They look better, have more polish, perform faster, are available in the app stores and thus easily monetized, and are easier to use. Slick and fast, they are. Users love them. Plus, because native apps are built on platforms offered by hardware manufacturers who want you to LOVE the hardware they make, native apps make better use of the hardware than do web apps. Just look at any app taking full advantage of your device’s embedded camera, accelerometer, or headphone jack, and you’ll find a native app. Steve Jobs is knowns for having quoted Alan Kay with “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” The integration of hardware and software is where the magic of innovation happens.

Then there is the matter of roaming charges ~ a key issue for tourism apps. Tourists, by definition, are away from home, and therefore subject to network roaming charges when they use their mobile devices. That can get expensive, especially if your tourism app requires heavy data downloads, say for audio or video.

One solution is to allow the user to download all that data-heavy content when she is in range of cheap or free WiFi, say before leaving home or at the hotel. Once those heavy files have been downloaded and stored in the device’s local memory, there is no need to ever download them again. Those files are then acessible anywhere, anytime, at no cost, even when there is no Internet connection.

Not so with a web app. In that case, very little is stored in the device’ s local storage. A web app pretty much has to download all the files every time the app is used, which is one reason why they are relatively slow. Once out in the field and standing near a point of interest, chances are the user’s device will not be in range of cheap or free WiFi, and so roaming charges may apply. Ouch!

White Knight? What White Knight?

So where is this white knight on the white horse I alluded to in my last post, the one who would save us from the platform wars? Why bother with web apps and HTML5? Why not just “go native”?

I’ve mentioned one big reason already ~ the cross-platform nature of HTML5. A web app is your best, least expensive way to build an app that will run on a broad range of mobile devices, regardless of the manufacturer. Otherwise, your tour app will need to be developed for Apple’s iOS platform using one programming language (Objective-C), and then again for Android using a different programming language (Java). Want a version of your app for the new Windows phone? Then it must be built using yet another programming language (C#). The next thing you know, you have three sets of code for three versions of your app, and your hassles and costs are skyrocketing.

Then there is the problem of which Android. Remember, Android is an open platform, or the wild, wild west as I refer to it. One result of this openness is that there are hundreds, nay thousands, of devices in the market using the Android operating system. Each one is different, and each has its own peculiarities, so your app might look great on one but lousy on another. Android is no walled garden.

A Garden Party in the Walled Garden. But who’s Invited?

“Ah, simple,” you may say. “We will just build our app for the Apple iOS platform and forget about Android. We will just have a happy little garden party inside of Apple’s walled garden, just like Steve Jobs wanted us to.”  Then kiss good-bye almost every tourist coming from developing countries, and certainly China, where Android devices are preferred over iOS devices by like six to one. Building your app for iOS only would be like opening a store and only allowing one out of every six customers to come in. Granted, that one customer tends to be more affluent and speak English, but I submit developing for iOS only is a shortsighted strategy for tourism apps.

There are companies, like Appcelerator and Phonegap, that offer ways to build a single set of app code and have it work on multiple platforms. That is one option and a good one to consider. Another is to build your app on HTML5.

HTML5 is a Knight in Training

HTML5 is no more, no less, than the next version of the same programming language (HTML, or HyperText Markup Language) that is used to build virtually every web site on the Internet today, including yours. Sure, you may have used WordPress, PHP and CSS to build your site, but under the covers is HTML. The “5” simply designates that this fifth version of HTML is highly accommodating to mobile devices. It is not owned by any one company, but is rather, developed by committee, which means it is slow to evolve while good intentioned developers have food fights (in committee) over which direction HTML should take. The ideas and intentions are good. HTML5 holds great promise, but it is still a young knight in training.

But I predict many of the shortcomings of web apps I have mentioned will fade away in due time, making it a good choice for your tourism app. More pervasive free WiFi will mitigate the roaming charge and performance problems. HTML5 or 6 will do a better job of leveraging the hardware, and offer programmers more tools for creating slick, polished apps. There will be solid ways to monetize web apps, without going through one of the proprietary app stores. In due time.

It Comes Back to Your Story

In the meanwhile, develop great content that can be used on all the platforms, both those available now and also those that are emerging, like Google Glass and “phablets” (a cross between a smartphone and a tablet). Think of it this way: Orson Wells made the movie Citizen Kane in 1941. The delivery “platform” for his content back then was film, and you could only see the movie once in your local movie theater. Since then, Citizen Kane has been migrated to newer and better platforms: black and white TV, color television, VHS, DVD, Blue Ray, and soon, streaming. The content (story, cinematography, script. etc)  is still the same, and is considered by film critics to be one of the best movies ever made.

Make your content with the same passion for excellence, tell your story and tell it well, and it will live forever.