Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tech Shopping with Mom

My Mom, like most moms, is not very tech savvy. A few months ago she mentioned to me that she wanted a new laptop. I live hundreds of miles away, so the best I could do was send her a few links based on what features she told me were important to her. A month or so later she mentioned that she bought a new Dell XPS Laptop from QVC. If you're a tech person or a deal hunter you can imagine my surprise when I found out she bought a laptop from a home shopping channel. However, I quickly realized that QVC was the easiest, least threatening purchasing choice for her. Unfortunately, when the laptop showed up she was unhappy with the weight and the glossy screen.

She returned her laptop to QVC and asked me to help her pick a new one out when she came to visit San Francisco. After some obligatory sightseeing we went over to Best Buy to pick out a new laptop. Upon arriving in Best Buy we proceeded to check out the numerous laptop and netbook brands they carry, including Dell, Apple, HP, Acer, and Sony. We quickly discovered that almost all of the laptops today have high gloss screens. These are great for watching movies but not so good for working in bright sunlight. Further, older individuals like my Mom have an especially hard time with the screen glare. We asked the friendly sales associate if they carried anti-glare screen covers that we could sample. He kindly referred us to Office Max.

With our choice severely limited, we decided to evaluate the Macs more closely. Their screens were still glossy but not nearly as pronounced as some of the other brands. She quickly became enamored with the MacBook Air which offered everything she wanted. Notable selling points included the built-in webcam, lack of viruses, light weight, backlit keys, and general ease of use. Although her previous laptop ran XP, she was facing the challenge of learning a new OS on both Mac or PC (Vista).

After settling on a MacBook Air we headed over to the GPS and digital camera sections where our frustrations were repeated. These products, like almost all tech products, are not designed for simplicity or use by older people. For example, the leading digital cameras either have microscopic buttons or touch screens with complex menus. They pack in features while increasing complexity. The cameras with simple menus or large buttons are all low-end models with poor picture quality.

Finally, we went home empty handed to continue our research online and look for the best deals on the models we liked. With my assistance she was able to get some great deals online at Newegg and the Apple store. Her MacBook Air came refurbished from Apple for $999 and her Fuji FinePix came with an accessory bundle from Newegg.com.

Our experience was stressful, typical, and somewhat enlightening. Once again, I realized that there is a vest unaddressed market for user-friendly technology products. The Baby Boomer generation may not have grown up in a high tech world but they have disposable income and a desire to stay connected to their children and grandchildren. Technology companies, software companies and retailers need do a better job of designing and marketing their products to this audience. If you need a tech gift for Mom (or Dad) check out my approved list below.

Tech Products for Older Folks
Digital Camera: FUJIFILM FinePix - large rubbery buttons, a sliding lens cover, and bright colors make this camera a great choice.
Computer: MacBook Air - Light and easy to use with a built in webcam and iChat to remotely trouble shoot for mom.
GPS: TomTom 340 - Simple menus and large icons for easy use.
Computer Service/Training: Apple One to One - Get going on your new Mac for $99.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Best of SF New Tech 6/17

For the last few months I've been a regular attendee at numerous Bay Area tech events. SF New Tech is hands down one of the best events for the companies featured, the format, and the networking. With so many great companies presenting I've decided to highlight the best companies each month.

The June 17th New Tech, "Widgets up the Wazoo," included Clearspring, Gigya, Sprout, Sellit, Adgregrate Markets, Toobla, & Transpond. All of these companies had interesting technologies but the two that impressed me most were Transpond (B2B) and Toobla (B2C).

Toobla is esentially a rich media version of Delicious. The site lets you bookmark any content from the web and organize it into folders that can be embeded on other sites. The visual nature of the bookmarks makes them perfect for sharing through social media or on your blog. Toobla also makes it much easier to share things like video playlists or sets of documents from sites like Slideshare, VisualCV, and Sribd. The company did a nice demo at New Tech but unfortunately since they are still in private beta I haven't had a chance to really test their site out. They will be slowly opening up the site over the next few weeks so sign up with your email or check back regularly.

The most impressive B2B company of the night was Transpond (formerly iWidget). The company provides a platform that facilitates the easy creation & publication of applications. They integrate with social media sites like Facebook, MySpace, Yahoo Connected TV as well as moible platforms including the Palm Pre. Their new platform update is drop dead simple and their flat rate pricing will keep your budget happy.

For more coverage on the night check out today's WSJ article. SF New Tech broadcasts live on Justin.tv so if you can't make it to the next event you can always tune in online.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

An iPhone App for the Unemployed

We all know that unemployment is at its highest level in decades. For many people this means cutting back on unnecessary expenses like eating out, that deluxe cable package, or new tech toys. But what about that $80+ iPhone bill? There isn't too much you can do about that, right? You've got to take that hour long phone interview, call in to an audio conference, or network with former colleagues. If your cell phone is your only phone, job hunting can quickly drive up your bill. Although you may be stuck with your iPhone (for better or worse), there are a few ways to keep your bill in check.

This week I've been using an iPhone app called talkfree (iTunes), which goes through your phone address book and identifies all your contacts who are also on AT&T. This is great because now you know who you can call without burning through your daytime minutes. The app adds (in) next to the contact name, making it easy to surf your address book and figure out who to call next.

Obviously, talkfree will be useful for many people, and at $0.99 you can't beat the price. However, for people that are currently unemployed talkfree will give you the piece of mind you need to waste the day catching up with friends (or networking with former coleagues).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

So Many San Francisco Tech Events

Things have been busy lately- very busy. Since moving from Boston in August, I've been immersing myself in the SF tech community. Although Boston has some great events (like Mobile Monday), it seems like SF has about 10 times the number of events. Over the last few weeks I've been to SF New Tech, Web 2.0 Expo, and Startup Weekend. In addition, there are are another half dozen events that made it on to my schedule. Whether you're job hunting or just looking to get involved in the tech community, here are my best of San Francisco tech events.

SF New Tech
This is consistently one of the best tech events in the Bay Area. From the venue, to the format, to the attendees, everything about this event is great. It is usually held once a month at Mighty in Potrero Hill. Presentations are 5 minutes with an additional 5 minutes of questions, and plenty of time for networking before and after. Even if you're not in the area you can watch the live stream through the website. The last SF New Tech featured Twittfilter, AdCause, and Pixelpipe among others.

Startup Weekend
This international event brings together developers, business people, and "cooks" who want to pitch their ideas, build a team, and work on a project over the course of a weekend. At the recent Startup Weekend SF over 150 people show up and worked on 23 different projects (including my own cheap parking mobile app). About 80% of the teams had a product to demo by the end of the weekend and many of them are currently moving forward with their projects. For a great recap of the weekend check out this blog post.

Plug and Play Tech Center
PnP is a tech incubator that has three locations around the Bay Area. The events they hold at the Sunnyvale location are a great place to meet people working on early stage startups. The guys who run PnP have their pulse on the VC community and help tech entrepreneurs understand how to found and grow their companies. Check out their monthly event calendar here.

If you're interested in keeping up to date on t the latest events check out this great newsletter. Also, feel free to let me know what interesting events I've left off.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Women Over 55 Discover Facebook

The other day I came across an interesting article highlighting the explosive growth of Facebook users over 35. This trend is especially interesting in the 55+ demographic and it mirrors my recent experience.

To my surprise, about a month ago my Mother-In-Law began talking about getting on Facebook. Now that all of her children and grandchildren were on Facebook, she felt left out. Why hadn't she hadn't seen that great picture her family was talking about? Why was she the last to know about a fun day of sledding?

The situation got me thinking about how under served this demographic is on the internet and with technology in general. A few companies have tried to cater to them, but nobody seems to have hit the winning formula. Examples that come to mind include Eons, Web TV, and Jitter Bug.

Now that the network effects of Facebook (and other technologies) are so strong, older users are ready to sign up as well. There is an opportunity to modify these existing sites & technologies to better cater to this group. For example, why not a scaled down Facebook with larger text specifically for older people? My Mother-In-Law doesn't care about 95% of the applications and isn't tech savvy enough to sort through them. However, she does want to see family pictures, maybe get status updates, or remember everyone's birthdays. How about streaming Facebook photo albums to her digital picture frame?

One of the more interesting stories I've heard about older Americans on the web was from a digital entertainment conference at the MIT Media Lab. The presenter, who worked at an MMO gaming company, described how older players (55+) were joining the game as priest characters. They weren't really interested in the fighting aspect of the game but they enjoyed interacting in the virtual world. This was especially true for retired people or people with limited mobility.

Many older American's have the money and are more than willing to spend it to stay up to date with their family; However, the technology has not been modified or marketed to them. Why not market the iPhone to grandparents? They would love the ability to see the latest photos, use Loopt to keep track of grandchildren, or utilize the GPS to get directions. With a little help on the setup I'd say the iPhone is easier to use than most cell phones.

No doubt creating technology for older Americans can be a risky proposition. However, over the next few years I hope to see some websites that cater to my aging parents and make it easier for me to share my digital life with them.

Monday, February 2, 2009

iPhone Billing Problems

You should have seen my face on Christmas day when I unwrapped my new iPhone 3G. I spent the next couple weeks glued to the screen getting it set up just the way I wanted it. One such customization was to change the number that had been assigned to me to a new phone number. I made sure not to activate the default number and went to the At&t store on December 27th to get the new number set up.

After a month of blissful usage my problems began about a week ago. I got a bill from At&t for the number I had never used. When I called customer service the agent gave me a bit of a hard time until I pointed out there was no usage for the number so clearly it wasn't active. Then I got an SMS saying that I had racked up a big text bill. I called to straighten that out and the agent discovered that my request for the 200 text plan had never gone through. Today I logged in to my At&t account to find a bill for $1,269 which had auto charged to my credit card. Apparently, when they changed my number they didn't set it up on the iPhone data plan, which is odd because the agent didn't mention that when she added my text plan.

I think the interesting thing is that my iPhone bill was well over $1,000 for one month of data usage at $.01 per kb. When I was using the MediaNet plan for my old phone I didn't have a sense for how much heavy mobile internet usage would cost me so I just went with the unlimited plan. Of course, it is so much easier to use the iPhone data but I it just goes to show that At&t has decided to set up their pricing so that the unlimited plan (text and data) is really the only practical option.

After over 45 minutes of talking to customer service and a $1,200 credit card charge it would have been nice if they threw me a few extra minutes for free. All the agents were friendly enough but considering I'm accruing interest on my card it would have been nice to get a little compensation. A few years back when I was on T-Mobile they would always give some extra minutes if you had a major customer service issue.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

25 Years of Steve Jobs

Check out this great video from the archives. Classic Steve Jobs from 1984.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Boston Mobile Investment

Along with the list of Boston area mobile startups, Xconomy (a great site covering Boston and Seattle startups) also posted an analysis of the total mobile investment which has been steadily growing. Interestingly, the 2008 investments were fairly steady despite economic issues.

"MoMoBoston didn’t detect any dropoff in mobile investment as 2008 progressed: the total of $562 million was invested in fairly even chunks across the four quarters, with a slight spike in the second quarter...With over half of a billion dollars invested in 2008 and 180 very diverse companies operating locally, Boston has quietly developed into the worldwide hub of mobile and wireless.”

Boston Mobile Companies

Xconomy, with the help of Mobile Monday, just posted a list of all the mobile startups in the Boston area. It is pretty cool to see Boston gaining a reputation in the mobile community. Some of the more notable statups include Skyhook, uLocate, and JumpTap. Here is the full list.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mapping in the Web 2.0 World

As part of my MBA internship I had the opportunity to research mapping and location based technologies like wifi, GPS, UWB, and cell tower triangulation. Through the combination of these technologies there is an opportunity to guide people from the outdoors through an indoor environment to their destination.

My internship project work focused on thinking about how people navigate large indoor spaces like casinos or malls. It seems like almost everyone who has been to Las Vegas has spent a significant amount of time trying to find their way out of a casino or just trying to find what you're looking for in the casino. Although GPS is continuing to make headway as a location based technology outdoors, an indoor solution is still lacking (despite that fact that the technology exists). Further, most mapping / navigation applications continue to think of search in a 2D world rather than in the full context of the user's space, time, and situation. By combining customer information from a loyalty program (or other data source), time, and location there is an opportunity to drive behavior. I belive that this will be the future of search and location technologies.

I hope to post some of my location based services (LBS) research soon. Until then check out the video archive from the Web 2.0 Mapping and Social Networks meetup group. The group meets regularly in Mountain View, CA. Also, if you want to check out some cool ultra-wideband technology Ubisense has an interesting solution. It is a bit cost prohibitive right now but when used in conjunction with other lower cost technologies it has great potential.