August 15th, 2012

Mobile Commerce: Finally, Something Worth Mocking

To be clear, I am not mocking mobile commerce. At all. First, what might mobile commerce mean?

Well, it might mean "selling you crap through your phone's or other mobile device's web browser", as opposed to, say, "selling you crap through your laptop's web browser". That's what I'm going to call "mobile commerce".

I suppose it might also mean, paying for something using your phone. I'll call that "Near Field Communication" or possibly "carrier billing", depending on what is meant by that.

Sometimes, people include things like subscription news services, or e-books, or e-music, or mobile banking, or whatever. After all, you're paying for it, in one way or another.

I'm going to start in on recent coverage of mobile commerce, because I've hit two stupefyingly silly articles in a row, on a topic that might be loosely considered, "Hey, I need an investment idea focused on m-commerce. Who should I buy?"

"Groupon CEO Andrew Mason ... [claimed Groupon] has the largest percentage of transactions occurring on mobile devices of any major e-commerce company — at least that they know about."

That's the only instance of the word "largest" in the article. I hope Tricia Duryee can push the blame for the headline on someone else, because it is a wildly provocative summary of a wildly provocative assertion, neither of which are adequately supported. I figure if someone only sold one thing and that one thing was sold via mobile phone, they'd have 100% mobile commerce sales, and _that_ would thus make them the "largest mobile commerce company". Sure it would.

The balance of the article is about the idea of "instant offers" (your phone notices you are near a TJ Maxx and generates a coupon good for 30% off of one item, just for you, if you walk in now, or you notice you are near a TJ Maxx and ask if they have an offer for you), and Groupon's woes, and there's even a paragraph that's a near miss at discussing NFC (har de har har).

The mockability here is mostly at the headline, which I suspect is not the author's fault.

Meanwhile, over at Forbes, Eric Jackson has written another in what is probably a page-view generating series of highly provocative predictions. The last one was about the DOOOOOM facing "Web 1.0" companies and specifically predicting the imminent (5-8 years) demise of FB and Google. This one is about how Someone Else is going to Eat Amazon's Cake, because apparently Amazon's phone and tablet apps are "really bad. Spartan in a bad way, the apps are overly utilitarian." A complaint, I might note, which has never stopped being made about any of Amazon's storefronts, but never mind that now. I want the juicy bit.

Okay, so who does Jackson have in mind? Here are some possibilities he enumerates:

"Pinterest is probably the most interesting company out there today for me when I think of mobile commerce."

"Etsy is also an interesting community of hand-crafted goods with a feeling of community. It’s still pretty nichey today, but it has a chance to be the dominant “craft fair” of the future."

I kind of love the idea that there is someone out there who can suggest that Amazon will be less of a force in mobile commerce than Etsy. I mean, cool. In a handblown glass vulva goddess necklace sort of way.

Other candidates: eBay, Flickr (say, when we all start paying for the photographs we use in our blogs) or Instagram.

I think Jackson realizes these are kind of weak competitors for Amazon, so he hypothesizes the new mobile commerce giant has yet to be born, and won't have a website at all. Further, "when this yet unknown mobile commerce app can start to integrate with something like Apple TV (and iAd) in real-time. Or when your personal assistant, Siri or whatever Google chooses to run in competition, can truly start to intrude in your life and suggest things to buy that they know you will just adore. And rather than hating the intrusion, you’ll welcome it."

So, if I understand this correctly, the new mobile commerce app will involve ... your TV? I'm confused. Because the actual competition here is QVC? Wait, maybe he's subtly suggesting that QVC will be the next big name in mobile commerce? Also, the idea that a digital assistant like Siri might start selling me crap unsolicited sounds more like the basis for a humorous horror short than a serious mobile commerce contender.

I sometimes feel compelled to point out to people that if you are going to sell something, you do actually sort of have to deliver it, even if it is just bits off a server. Etsy is just people putting up pictures and descriptions and sharing payment systems -- and then doing fulfillment out of their bricks and mortar storefront, aka, their living room, a spare closet, the extra bedroom, whatever. It's not clear to me that Pinterest or Instagram have any payment system set up for anything. Flickr has a payments system and sells some stuff. Other than people selling train t-shirts and goddess necklaces and magic wands (hey, I've bought some of this stuff -- it's cool!) and doing a lot of hand processing over at Etsy, I'm not convinced that any of Jackson's examples actually move physical product or much in the way of paid-for digital product.

But it's hardly worth bothering here. I mean, Pinterest? Mobile commerce? For realz?

For non-mockable coverage of trends in mobile commerce, try this:

ETA: To give you a sense of "state of the art" in mobile commerce, here's a prototype demo (a demo of a prototype, not a demo of a product -- and boy is that an important distinction).

Your call whether that's cute or mockable -- it's definitely not competition for Amazon's mobile app, which let's you actually buy stuff (I have), at least not yet. I kinda liked the kids and the slice of fake pizza and at least the vid is short. I picked it up from, but there are a ton of other blogs out there covering it, too.

Trying To Buy Things at Physical Stores

Today, T. and I walked down to the local hardware store (Ace). We love the local hardware store. We love the birds. We love the people. We love the stuff. They are nice and we buy stuff there. R. has a loyalty card.

Anyway. Today's outing had two goals: get keys made (and stuff to hang them on), and acquire a garage door opener remote that would fit on a keychain. I expected the first one to work and the second one to fail and I was right. It just doesn't seem like we should need that many keys, but it turns out somehow we do.

Anyway. Keys made, asked about keychain garage door opener remote, no one there (include the extremely knowledgeable and always helpful S.) had ever heard of such a thing. Okay, off to the internet, where I was not overjoyed about the third party seller options, but did go out to eyeball the opener to figure out what the brand was. From there, I went to the maker website, where I found out all kinds of things like, Yes, you can get a keychain remote and, Yes, you can get some hardware and an iOS app so you can open the thing with your phone.

Who knew.

But there is a lesson here about why physical stores operate at a significant disadvantage to online stores. In order for the physical store to offer the kind of knowledge that is available online, it has to ... be online.

Mind you, I'll keep patronizing my local hardware store. I love them.

Mobile Commerce, NFC edition

Al Sacco at CIO has a long piece about how Near Field Communications (use your mobile device to pay for crap) could be used for more than, er, just paying for crap mobile-y. Here are some of his examples, apparently from Forrester Research (people pay for this stuff. Maybe it's better in the for-pay version):

Instead of your keycard, student ID, or timeclock punchcard, you could check in and check out of access controlled and/or want to know you are there places with your NFC enabled device. This is a fair set of examples: no obvious payment involved.

Instead of your bus card, city swimming pool pass, parking lot access, library card: these are all grouped together as the government using NFC. This is not a fair set of examples for two reasons. (1) Some of them are payments (and the headline is not just for payments), notably everything but the library card. Parking is a wash; maybe local residents wouldn't have to pay but non-locals would? (2) Government is usually an area that has to serve a really wide range of people and NFC is not accessible to a wide range of people and probably won't be fore a while.

Also, "And city residents could get access to public facilities, such as swimming pools or libraries, with a tap of a tablet.", who brings a tablet to a swimming pool? Don't answer that. I don't want to know. I've seen people texting on iphones while sitting on the edge of the kiddie pool. Just seems like a bad idea.

Using NFC to give tourists access to guidebook-y info seems more or less like using QR codes for the same purpose. *shrug*

Third example: go to a store, tap a product tag, phone now knows stuff about you and product and can tell you nut allergic person not to buy this product. I wouldn't trust it. They have trouble getting the label on the product right; there's no way they are going to keep the NFC tag up to date.

Fourth example: because you'll find NFC more compelling if you think it'll let you shove more ads at people. *shudder*

Fifth example: what I am here for. The Palm Pilot and other devices had an IR port that let you beam applications, db records and similar back and forth. It was the shit. It was probably the best thing about those devices and I've missed it the whole time I've had an iPhone. NFC would reproduce it, but for much more data intense stuff, like pictures, documents, etc. And the much bigger apps of the iOS world. Zynga is apparently already using this for multi-player poker on some android devices. Way cool.

Example six is mostly just more of the same: universities could use it for access/payments! It could be your boarding pass! Your concert ticket! I'm not sure how I feel about a car key that can book hotels. Is it cheating on me?

"In the auto industry, BMW has built an NFC-enabled car key that can not only unlock an automobile, but also eventually help you book and access hotels room while you're traveling."

Really, NFC is what it seems to be. Beam crap back and forth, a la a Palm Device in the days of yore; an instead-of-a-credit-card and an instead-of-some-access-device. That's it. There is no magic here, unless you consider advertising magical. Alas, like e-commerce, this requires a whole lot of highly available, highly reliable, highly consistent back end systems to make it work. And that's hard.

ETA: Almost forgot.

Here's something about NFC tag tech getting cheaper:

I'd like to point this bit out: "harness the power given off by a smartphone’s radio waves and send information back to it via printed digital circuits."

and then point this out, from

"Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is the use of a wireless non-contact system that uses radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to transfer data from a tag attached to an object, for the purposes of automatic identification and tracking. Some tags require no battery and are powered by the electromagnetic fields used to read them."

So if someone is trying to convince you there is magic in NFC tags, tell yourself, Self, it's just RFID tags, only smaller, cheaper, holds more.

While I'm here, notice this in the wikipedia article:

"Wal-Mart and the United States Department of Defense have published requirements that their vendors place RFID tags on all shipments to improve supply chain management. Due to the size of these two organizations, their RFID mandates impact thousands of companies worldwide. The deadlines have been extended several times because many vendors face significant difficulties implementing RFID systems. In practice, the successful read rates currently run only 80%, due to radio wave attenuation caused by the products and packaging."

Just because San Francisco has parking meters with NFC doesn't mean we should expect significant life impact from this stuff in the near future. Unless, that is, you're in inventory management.

RFID and Disney

I know perfectly well that Disney uses a bunch of RFID stuff. Here's a summary that includes things that would not have occurred to me:

I found it by googling for it, but if I'd just been reading my e-mail, I would have seen this, because I get the micechat newsletter.

I was thinking about Disney and RFID/NFC because they did a Mickey toy a while back that would say different things depending on which ride you were in line for. Also, the locks on at least one of the World lodging facilities has locks with radios in them that communicate with hotel IS to read the card and know who to let in and so forth. I learned this when the battery in ours died and our cards quit working.

I've also experienced the line speed/wait time pass, mostly by doing it once and then having to explain it to people who were asked to hold the card and couldn't seem to understand or comply with the very simple directions.

It makes sense that Disney would like RFID to work with FastPass, because the rules for FastPass require humans to look at and understand return times and they just don't. Visitors don't care or have figured out how to exploit the failure to enforce and Cast Members are overworked.

I LOVE the idea of ride reservations; I'm an inveterate planner and my family has autism spectrum diagnoses. This would make our life way, way better. It'd be especially keen if instead of a separate FastPass card, it could all go onto Your Key to the World. But just because I love the idea doesn't mean it'll ever happen; it'll depend on whether the technology is really ready to be used on that scale (and that is by no means a sure thing) and whether the psychology of the system will net out positive. Enforcing FastPass rules will for sure piss off people who have spent years refining ways to exploit non-enforcement and ride reservations could potentially make the FastPass/Standby caste system that much more offensive to first-time visitors. Disney does love its repeat customers, but wants to make sure they get enough newbies to convert to repeat customers to avoid aging out.