Posts Tagged ‘consumer’

Is a consumer smartphone GPS good enough?

When I presented at OSCON  (O’Reilly’s Open Source Conference) in Portland, Oregon this last week on native Android GPS and Geolocation, I was repeatedly asked the question “is the GPS in smartphones good enough?” In general the answer is “yes”. But, I should back this statement up by looking at several everyday types of scenarios to help illustrate my answer.

What does accuracy mean? First lets briefly look at what accuracy means. Accuracy, in a technical sense, means you get a latitude, longitude and accuracy number from the GPS. Then you can draw a circle using the accuracy number as radius around the latitude/longitude point. It’s highly likely that your actual location is somewhere within that circle. It’s unfortunate that consumer GPS devices don’t also come with a probability factor that would indicate how much to trust the accuracy number. As it is, we will have to take it on a certain amount of faith that our real location is, in fact, somewhere within the accuracy circle.

Under absolutely perfect conditions your typical smartphone GPS chip will deliver around 3 meters (~10 ft) in accuracy for several minutes at a time.  Standing on the highest mountaintop in the Rocky Mountains with no clouds in the sky might come close to being a perfect condition. Under what I’ll call “average” conditions, which reflect everyday in-city usage patterns, you can expect accuracy from 3 – 150 meters (10 ft – 500 ft) or greater and the accuracy number typically fluctuates quite a bit over a period of minutes or hours. GPS signals are affected by anything that interferes with your smartphone receiving the weak transmissions from GPS satellites circling above us. Nearby trees, cars, buildings, big weather storms can all reduce accuracy, and so can being inside a building or underneath trees.

Getting the weather. Now back to the everyday scenarios I mentioned. I bet that most people who own smartphones use them to check the weather at least once per day. Furthermore, weather is typically affecting a large geographic area so the vast majority of forecasts cover cities, counties, States, regions or even entire countries.

I’m going to argue that for this scenario a GPS accuracy of 1000 to 2000 meters, or 0.6 to 1.24 miles is good enough to get started with a finding places app. Values in this accuracy range can be easily and quickly retrieved by a typical smartphone.

Finding places around me. Almost everyone that owns a smartphone has used an app to search for food, gas, groceries etc that are nearby.  There’s no hard written rule, but I think most people would agree that users who are looking for places around them tend to be less concerned about high levels of accuracy. Some applications let you choose target levels of accuracy such as 1 mile, 10 miles or even up to 100 miles for the search radius.

I’m going to argue that for this scenario, as well, that a GPS accuracy of 1000 to 2000 meters will also work perfectly fine.

Real-time driving directions. There are only a handful of applications that do this on smartphones, and even fewer apps do it really well. There’s a lot of hidden math involved in making everything look smooth to the user. These apps wipe away all of the complexity: simply give it a starting point and an endpoint and then away you go.  We’ve all used these types of applications so we know they work well the majority of the time even with the occasional navigational glitch, hardware lockup or low battery.

Social Media location. Hundreds of millions of people use location-aware social media apps every day. Some of these apps provide you with discounts, give-aways and coupons for retail locations that are around you.  For a typical big box store, it’s easy for an app to place you in the parking lot of a Target, Walmart, or a large supermarket and promotions can be based on your location, time of day or day of the week. It’s more challenging for stores with smaller storefronts to use targeted advertising unless someone is simply “in the vicinity”.  For example, tiny stores, kiosks and shops trying to compete in high traffic tourist areas have to compete with many other vendors. In a crowded marketplace area, even with 3 meter accuracy you could be standing next to four or more different storefronts.

A final few words

Hopefully these short examples have successfully illustrated the point that for typical consumer-focused applications smartphone GPS is simply good enough. Certainly there are many, many more scenarios that could be examined so I tried to pick the most common ones. Because of the lower accuracy requirements you can get less accurate results faster from a GPS. Speedy results can mean everything for today’s consumers who have high levels of intolerance for application delays.

The opposite is also true, the greater the accuracy requirements the longer it can take to get a more precise GPS measurement. As I’ve mentioned in my others posts on this subject, it’s takes time for a GPS device to get a fix and then it will try its best to hold onto it as you move around. I suspect that most consumers are significantly less demanding about accuracy as compared to commercial and government users. If consumers were more demanding then there would be a greater uproar about GPS accuracy.

To better understand how to make the most of location data check out the other posts I’ve written in the reference section below.

References:

Six most common use cases for Android GPS

How accurate is Android GPS? Part 1 – Understanding location data.

How accurate is Android GPS? Part 2 – Consuming real-time locations

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Posted in Android, Open Source | Comments Off

Most smartphones users I know ditch apps pretty quickly if they don’t work or end up being clunky. So, if your company is considering offering mobile apps to your customers you should be aware of a few things.

Buy a Smartphone. If you don’t already have a smartphone then you should go out and buy one. Then download a number of apps that interest you and try them out and see what you like and what you don’t like. For example, if you do the shopping for your family you might consider trying out a bar code scanner app that lets you compare pricing. Some scanner apps may work faster than others. If you don’t own a smartphone then you won’t be able to understand what a good app is.

Likes and Dislikes. Pay close attention to what you like and don’t like about a particular app. Here are a few questions to take note of:

  • Was it easy to use?
  • Did it hang and/or crash?
  • Did it perform its tasks gracefully?
  • Did it do what you expected?
  • Was it visually appealing?

Become Tech Savvy. Become a bit more tech savvy about things that the phone is doing behind the scene. There are apps that do this for both Android and iPhone that help you monitor what’s going one. Things to look out for:

  • Apps that keep running even after you think you shut them off. These will run the battery down faster.
  • Apps that consume more and more memory over time. Using more memory equals more battery usage and shorter time between charges.
  • Apps that seem to slow your phone down when they run. These apps may be using more CPU than necessary resulting in greater battery usage.
  • Apps that connect to the internet frequently costing you extra data charges. There are apps that let you monitor how much data your phone uses and some apps can help pinpoint which apps use the most data.

Which Phones to Support? Understand what devices to support. If you are building an application for internal use, then you have an easier decision since you hopefully have some control over which devices are being used and how often their software gets updated. If you work in retail, your users may have Androids, Blackberries, iPhones, iPads, Kindle’s, Nook’s and possibly other tablets that get updated whenever and however the customer dictates. My advice is do some research and pick one that is used the most and work on that first.

Release Early and Iterate Often. Technology changes so quickly these days that if your app takes more than 3 – 6 months to build, then the technology will change underneath you. In other words, you might be releasing an application that doesn’t work perfectly with the latest phone operating systems or browsers that your customers are using. When that happens, it will cost you even more time and money to fix the problem and the problem will repeat itself. Be sure to take into account the speed at which technology will change once you begin your software development process.

Go Native, Go Web Browser, or Both? Last, it’s important to understand that there are two common types of mobile applications. Native apps are downloaded from an app store and installed directly on the phone, the other is a web app that runs in the phones web browser. My advice is to research and understand your target market. What do your competitors use? What do your customers prefer? What are the trends in your industry?

If you go with native apps, you’ll need to understand which phones to support and how often you will be updating the app. If you choose web apps you’ll need to know which browsers to support. Also take into consideration which skill sets your development team has and understand if they can tackle the project or if you need outside help.

Update, Update, Update. No matter what you decide, you can’t just deploy an app and think you’re done. If you want to keep your customers happy, you’re going to have to keep updating the app until the product line is discontinued or replaced. And, you have to update it often enough to stay on top of the latest technologies. New smartphone models are being released all the time and they all may have different screen sizes and screen resolutions. An app that looks good at one screen size may look horrible on a tablet or iPad. These things have to be accounted for. And, the smartphones operating system software may be updated three or more times per year offering new functionality and fixing bugs. If your customers download a broken app, or if they see the app that hasn’t been updated in a while and something stops working they may not be your customers for much longer. This is especially true for retail apps where customers make split second decisions whether to stay or walk away and try something else.

Conclusion. I hope you find this list useful and at least give you some ideas to think about before you dive head first into bringing a new mobile application into the world. It can be fun, be there is a lot of hard work involved. But, if you plan it right you’ll be successful and learn alot in the process!

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Posted in Android, Internet, iPhone, Mobile | 1 Comment »

Over the next two years I see consumer browser usage decreasing and people will increasingly spend more time using native mobile applications. This has a number of interesting implications.

The facts. As a web application developer I pay close attention to browser and browser-related technology usage statistics and trends. Like most people, I judge statistics based on my own experience and the experience of my co-workers, family and peers.  Here are some trends which I’ve been keeping an eye on:

  • Smartphones are rapidly replacing non-smart phones around the world.
  • The number of specialized smartphone applications is continuing to expand.*
  • The number of games for smartphones continues to grow rapidly.**
  • The amount of time people spend on their smartphone, whether it’s playing games or using specialized applications, is increasing.

Also based on my personal experience are the following additional observations that further tilt the balance in favor of native applications:

  • Performance. Native smartphone applications, when built correctly, almost always outperform web applications: I’m referring to actions such as page refresh, general drawing capabilities and to a lesser degree but still a factor is the look-and-feel. This is a general fact of application technology: compiled applications perform faster than interpreted applications. For the most part, once I’ve used a native application, such as Southwest Airlines check-in app, I loathe having to use their web page. It just seems so clunky and slow in comparison.
  • Games. Ah yes, we can’t forget game performance as well as their look-and-feel. Why would I want a mobile browser-based game? What’s the point of building a high-performance, beautiful user interface game in a browser? See my previous bullet’s comment about compiled application performance. Yes, yes, yes I know that HTML 5 is making big strides, but we are talking mobile applications and the technology as it exist today. You can’t tell your customers that they’ll have to wait another year for better game performance, because by then your favorite browser will have such and such HTML 5 functionality figured out. Your competitors would jump right in, tweak their native app and leave you in the dust!

A Corollary. If you generally agree with my bullets above, the perhaps you’ll agree that the corollary is this trend:

  • Consumers are spending less time on desktop and laptop machines “browsing the web” and more time using their smart phones.

In addition to the reasons I already listed, there are many reasons for this. I suspect the top reasons are because it’s so easy to use your smartphone, and it’s right by your side all the time even when you aren’t home. You most likely have seen people with their heads down playing with their smartphones during business meetings, while eating, while standing in line, while watching TV and even during sports events.

What about the Browser Vendors? These trends have interesting implications for browser vendors. They have to be aware of what’s going on. It’s possible that this is one of the many factors behind their massive push to add HTML 5 capabilities in an attempt to stave off what I’m going to call “user erosion”, as consumers spend less time using web browsers.

But, there are some facts to consider related to building applications that run in the browser:

  • Still functionality problems between different browsers. While the latest generation of browsers are the closest they have ever been to parity, in terms of JavaScript and HTML functionality, web developers are still hacking code to make certain things work equally across all browsers. These “hacks” cost extra time and money to code and maintain and the functionality differences between browsers cause customer frustration when things look different or don’t work as expected. This is especially true in large, retail-type consumer apps were you have little control over what browser your customers choose to use.
  • Faster but fast enough? Today’s browsers have the fastest parsers ever, but it’s a fact that they still aren’t as fast as native code, and they never will be. For the geeks reading this, browsers incur a CPU cost associated with parsing and then executing interpreted code. Smart engineers are going to continue to close the gap, but compiled code will always be faster and more powerful than code running in a browser. Period.
  • Memory usage. Browsers tend to be what we call “leaky”. The longer you use one without restarting it the more memory it will consume. I believe this is less of a problem in mobile browsers where windows get closed a lot more frequently than desktop/laptop browsers. However, it’s still an important consider this in mobile phones where more memory usage equals less battery life. Native apps can definitely leak memory, but they are also starting from a smaller initial footprint, and there are much better tools available for finding native app memory leaks. For browser apps, you also have the browser’s memory usage in addition to your application’s memory usage.
  • Security. Security is getting better for web browsers. But…it’s still easier to build a highly secure native app today than it is to build a secure web app. Also, for better or for worse, I suggest that many consumers perceive native apps to be more secure than web apps. Do you want to do your mobile banking over a web app or a native app? And whether a perception is right or wrong sometimes is irrelevant because it always strongly affects people’s behavior.

Concluding Remarks

Consumer-based companies are going to make important strategic choices based on information similar to what I’ve written above. My guess is that the most successful businesses will be the ones that adapt to what their customers want and if your customers are spending less time “on the web” then you should seriously consider adapting. Just to be clear, I’m definitely not saying that browsers are going away. No one has as crystal ball, and new technology is being created all the time. However, the momentum and sheer size of these trends, with hundreds of millions of people buying and using smart phones worldwide, makes it well worth studying its potential impact on your business.

References:

Mobile Apps Put the Web in Their Rear View Mirror
Mobile Apps vs. the Web – Which is Better For Business?
Gartner Report on Smart Phone Sales in 3rd Quarter 2011

* Companies are building specialized apps that essentially replace the need for customers to visit their web site. However, these apps offer much more control and typically provide a more consistent user experience that the web. Southwest Airlines, for example offers three types of mobile apps in addition to a mobile web site: http://www.southwest.com/html/air/products/mobile.html.

** Books and games, respectively have consistently been the top two categories for the most popular apps, for example: http://www.gottabemobile.com/2011/07/06/ipad-app-store-breakdown-top-apps-categories-chart/

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Posted in Android, Browsers, Internet, iPhone | Comments Off