August 23, 2007

iPhone as your social network

Filed under: apple, facebook, iphone, social networking, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:45 pm

I had a chance earlier this week to try the new Facebook application for iPhone. The app, developed by Joe Hewitt, is a version of Facebook optimized for the iPhone. Many of the core features of Facebook are available on the iPhone, including your profile page, messages, pictures, status messages and your friend’s contact information.

It’s a very well done app that shows off the capabilities of the iPhone as well Facebook. (If you have an iPhone, go to to try it out; you can also go to that URL in a Web browser to see the functionality.) A video demonstration is at the bottom of this post.

Currently all of this is done within the phone’s Safari browser; it’s not integrated into the phone’s contacts, pictures or other capabilities.

As much as I love my computer, my phone is where the most important “social networking” happens. The social network needs to be embedded deeply into the phone.

Here are some of the possibilities:

  • Pick up a new phone and enter your account information. Your contacts are automatically populated, complete with pictures of your friends. No need to fiddle with re-entering all your data.
  • Check the status of your friends before you make a call. If you see that your friend is on the phone, you can call later or send a text message. (Similar to presence on IM.)
  • When a contact changes their phone number, the new information is automatically updated. You don’t have to worry about outdated phone numbers.
  • Pull up a map of where your friends are when you’re trying to meet up.
  • Take pictures and videos and upload them straight to your social network. (flickr, Facebook and others have developed workarounds that accomplish a limited form of this today.)
  • Get reminded of events in your network without having to manually add them to another calendar. The reminder leads straight to maps and directions.

All of this is technically possible. The biggest challenges revolve around who “owns” the customer. In the U.S. market, this has historically been the wireless carriers. Some carriers deliberately make it hard to do things like move contacts because that raises the switching costs for customers. Most restrict access to key phone capabilities (such as the camera, GPS) to internal developers.

Doing something like this would mean breaking a lot of the traditional rules. But Apple has done that before.

More on: facebook, iphone

(Video from Rodney Rumford)

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August 14, 2007

AOL launches improved mobile search

Filed under: aol, local search, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:10 am

AOL’s mobile searchAOL today released its new beta of mobile search. Congratulations to rockstar developer Alan Tai and product manager Farhan Memon. Alan did much of the initial prototyping on his own time while we worked to get approval.

I pushed the strategy on this, so it would be inappropriate for me to review it. See Om’s blog for more details.

I’ve long believed that you need to design for the medium. Shovelware didn’t work when we were first trying to put content on the Web; it won’t work now. The old version of AOL’s mobile search took the same 10 Web results you would get on a Web browser and shrunk them down to fit a mobile screen. That didn’t work.

People are in a different state when they’re mobile. Most people aren’t going to do research for a term paper or browse real estate listings on their cell phones. (Not least because most of the sites won’t work well when shrunk down to fit a mobile device.) The new mobile search is designed around answering the questions that people are most likely asking when they’re out and about: What’s the weather like? What’s the phone number for the local pizza place? What time is the movie starting?

Then there are the issues of limited screen space and difficulty in entering data. Time to answer is especially critical in mobile. This product was designed to get people answers to common mobile queries as quickly as possible.

August 4, 2007

Status from Minneapolis: we’re fine

Filed under: social networking, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:59 am

During weeks like this, I’m reminded that wireless and long distance networks that we take for granted aren’t designed for major emergencies. They’re engineered for average peak usage and can quickly become overloaded when tragedy strikes.

After this week’s 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, I found out about the status of some of my friends on Facebook:

Clint’s Facebook status

Tools like Facebook, Twitter, IM and email can be great ways to communicate in emergencies. You can quickly let a lot of people know what’s going on. I found out about the the bridge collapse when a friend IMed me.

My friend Sree has some great advice on how to best use technology to prepare for emergencies. I would add one thing to Sree’s list: scan important documents and have them available online. I keep scans of the data page of my passport, contact lens prescription and other key information in my email account. You can also use an online file storage service.

Update: The Pioneer Press has story about Twin Cities residents using blogs, Flickr and Twitter to communicate during the crisis.

July 23, 2007

Crying babies and cell phones

Filed under: fun, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:05 pm

Among the top complaints among restaurant customers are screaming babies and cell phones. Now you can combine the two.

My friend Jonathan mentioned that he wanted to capture the dulcet sounds of his five month old for posterity. I suggested that he make it into a ringtone for his Nokia N95. (Unlike most American cell phones, this European phone lets you use your own custom ringtones.)

Hear the resulting ringtone on his baby blog.

I just hope he doesn’t make it into a ringback tone.

June 30, 2007

The iPhone extravaganza

Filed under: apple, consumer electronics, iphone, mobile, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 2:21 pm

iPhone launchI made my visit to the Temple of Jobs yesterday, reaching the Apple store on Stockton Street about 9:30 p.m. The live van for the local NBC affiliate was parked outside waiting for the 11 p.m. newscast.

Inside, the store was relatively empty except for the big crowd around the iPhone display.

What was sparking the crowd? There were working iPhones set out on the counter.

Unlike most wireless carriers that put out dummy, nonfunctional phones, these were real. They were loaded with music, so you could test out the iPod features. You could use the Web browser. Watch videos on YouTube. You could even – gasp – make phone calls!

People were calling their friends — “Guess what, I’m calling you from the iPhone?” They waited patiently as the person in front of them explored the nuances. Every once in a while, someone would walk by proudly holding an iPhone bag.

Wireless carriers can learn a lot from Apple about launching products. Sure, most product launches won’t ever get the wall-to-wall media coverage that iPhone did. (Including a countdown the day before on CNBC ticking away the minutes until the iPhone launch.) But it’s a lot easier for people to get excited about a product when they can interact with it rather than have to imagine what it’s like.

Looking at my Facebook account today, there at least three people who reference having an iPhone, including one who “is worried her boyfriend loves his iPhone more than her.”

June 18, 2007

Kill time anywhere with YouTube mobile

Filed under: google, mobile, video, wireless, wireless data, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:53 pm

YouTube mobileNewTeeVee reports on the launch of YouTube mobile.

Now you can kill time watching YouTube videos anywhere, assuming you have a phone that can display streaming video. You should also have an unlimited data plan, lest you have to hold up a Brinks truck to pay your cell phone bill. Just go to (The link also works from a Web browser.)

YouTube previously had an exclusive deal with Verizon Wireless.

The current version of the service is limited to selected videos. You can’t log into your account and show strangers videos of your kids or access your playlists. According to the FAQ, “We have a selected library of videos on the mobile website. We try to make the best videos from the website available on mobile, and we are working hard to add more content.”

The videos were intelligible on my Samsung A900, though noticeably worse than the same videos on the Web. The quality will suffice for killing a few minutes before a flight.

June 7, 2007

Getting Google Street View in your pocket

Filed under: google, gps, maps, satellite navigation, street view, where, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:09 am

WHERE Street View imageWHERE has released a clever hack that lets you pull up Google Street View pictures on your cell phone. Just find a business and if it’s in Street View coverage, you’ll see a link to view the picture. Google’s own Mobile Maps application doesn’t do this.

It’s fun, and in theory, you’d be able to see where you’re headed. In reality, that’s not often the case.

Maps have a Last Block Problem — the locations provided by today’s mapping systems are approximations based on how street numbering systems typically work; no one has gone down the street and plotted where every address is.

In ordinary cases, locations can be a few hundred feet off. That’s not a huge problem for driving directions, but if you’re expecting to see a specific business there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed.

I’ll talk about an idea for solving the Last Block Problem later.

via O’Reilly Radar

More on: WHERE, google, maps, Street View, location-based services, wireless

Hunting for free WiFi

Filed under: wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 5:59 am

Starbucks in GeorgetownI’m not a coffee drinker, so the Starbucks brand means exactly one thing: no free WiFi.

I was walking through Georgetown yesterday and grumbled (and shot this picture) as I walked past the Starbucks on M Street in my quest for a place to work. Starbucks WiFi is provided by T-Mobile for $9.99 a day or $39.99 a month.

I can’t think of a national chain that means “free WiFi” the same way that Starbucks means “pay for WiFi.” In this region, the Cosi chain has free WiFi.

A few blocks further, I found a cozy patio at Cafe Tu-O-Tu (a play on DC’s area code). Not only did they have free WiFi, the space was much nicer.

A great place to work

June 5, 2007

WHERE gets personal with easy-to-create custom widgets

Filed under: google, gps, lbs, maps, mobile, mobile search, where, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:01 pm

My WHEREI’ve written before about the WHERE platform, a location-based service platform that allows developers to create custom location applications. Now just about anyone can do it, with very little technical knowledge.

You go to Google’s My Maps, plot your points and then go through a simple process to create your widget. (Behind the scenes, WHERE is using KML, which is becoming the de facto standard for identifying locations.)

I was easily able to create widgets that allow you to find the nearest Metro station in the D.C. area, the restaurants reviewed in Tom Sietsema’s 2006 Dining Guide, my own guide to my neighborhood and a list of restaurants I want to try. You can see my custom widgets in the phone at right. (The links take you to the Google My Map; if you’re a WHERE user and want a link to the widget, email me. Unfortunately, there’s not yet an easy way to publish them.)

Clarendon BallroomThe widgets even include photos. If you come across Clarendon Ballroom in my guide to Clarendon, you could pull up a picture of it on your phone, along with my review.

WHERE also supports a CSV import, so groups or people that have existing databases of content they want to use can just upload the data instead of first plotting it on a Google Map.

Right now the widgets aren’t live. For example, if I add or change information in my Clarendon guide, I have to recreate the widget. Even though that process is simple, it shouldn’t be necessary.

More on: maps, gps, Google

Catch the train with Google Maps expanded public transit data

Filed under: google, maps, mobile, mobile search, transit, wireless, wireless data — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:36 am

Google announced that they’ve added more public transit information, including schedules in select markets.

Google points to a map of Zurich to illustrate schedule information. Click on one of the tram icons. In some cases, you must then click on the “View upcoming departures” link. It’s unclear whether this is just schedule information or real-time data; it looks like it might just be schedule. This also works in Portland, Ore. (I really wish generating a URL with the “Link to this page” button would preserve the state of the info balloons.)

I still want to see Google incorporate real-time information, similar to what is available from the WMATA for the DC Metro system.

Google train lines NYC

Throughout the country, Google has added the lines served to transit stations.

You can also search an area for a station. For example, here’s a search for “Metro Center station”. That alone is nice, but it gets better. I often go in to DC to have lunch with friends who work near the McPherson Square station. Here’s a map of restaurants near McPherson Square.

NextBus sign in Vail, Colo.Of the online map providers, Google has done the best job of making maps about more than just driving. Some public transit agencies and companies like NextBus have been offering information on their Web sites, on the phone and on the platforms. But its the distribution power of Google that’s going to bring this to the masses.

Unfortunately, the transit information isn’t yet available on Google Maps Mobile. The killer app for transit information is really on mobile devices.

More on: Google, maps, transit

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