Tagged: apps

Amazon doesn’t need bricks and mortar, it just needs a better app

If you’ve never heard of the word “showrooming,” you might not be aware of one of the most fundamental shifts in retail. Heck, you might even have showroomed and not even known you were doing it.

Here’s how to tell: If you’ve ever been in a store and pulled out your smartphone to see if another retailer or online store has the product you’re looking at for a better price, you’re a showroomer. It’s a growing trend and it has retailers rightfully worried.

The biggest benefactor of showrooming is Amazon.com. eBay, Kijiji and Craigslist pick up a lot of business this way too, but the sheer size of Amazon’s catalog paired with a high degree of customer loyalty means they win.

You’d think that the company would be doing whatever it could to facilitate showrooming. The most obvious way to do so would be to create iOS and Android apps that let you scan the UPC barcode of the product in question, to trigger a quick lookup on Amazon’s website. What could be easier? Companies like CNET have had this functionality built-in to their apps for years.

And yet, rumour has it that Amazon has bricks and mortar ambitions of their own.

Now while I have tremendous respect for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his team, this strategy – if indeed real – seems out of sync with the company’s strengths. Considering that the company only makes a single product line – their highly successful Kindle readers and tablets – they aren’t in the same game as Apple, Microsoft or even Google who arguably have strong reasons to give consumers a physical place to experience their products.

Would these rumoured stores be a new take on the book-seller? That also seems odd. Let’s face it, if they simply added a barcode scanner to their Kindle app, every single bookstore on the planet would become an Amazon bookstore. Prefer e-reading? Buy the book immediately and have it delivered to your chosen device before you can pass by the physical cash register on your way out. Want a physical copy? You’ll probably get a better price on that too.

The current belief is that these stores will sell high-end devices like laptops and tablets in addition to Amazon’s own Kindle line.

If this is true, Amazon might need to watch their backs…. Showrooming could just as easily turn the tables on them too.

Update, Feb 21: Well lookee here… Amazon.ca announces new shopping apps for iPhone, iPad, Android and Windows Phone. I guess that dollar store crystal ball I bought might be working better than I thought ;-)

Image credit: LuxuryLuke via Flickr.com

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BlackBerry Balance is the PlayBook's killer app

RIM’s PlayBook is without a doubt, one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated devices ever launched.

From its poorly planned debut and lacklustre feature set, to the dearth of available apps (compared to other platforms) and a lack of cellular data at launch, the PlayBook has had a rough ride.

But RIM isn’t giving up on the PlayBook –  as evidenced by the newest 4G/LTE version – and neither should folks who want to use their tablet for work and play.

Despite its shortcomings, which incidentally are fewer and fewer as time goes by, the BlackBerry PlayBook possesses two features that make it unique in the tablet landscape. One of those features is the ability to tether your BlackBerry smartphone to the PlayBook, giving you full access to your BlackBerry’s features but on a much bigger screen.

BlackBerry Balance locked on a RIM PlayBook

Using BlackBerry Balance you can lock your work apps while maintaining access to all of the other PlayBook functions. Click for larger image.

The second is BlackBerry Balance. Balance lets you create a complete separation between work and personal tasks on the PlayBook, a truly outstanding feature that neither Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android platforms have been able to deliver.

Sure, you can enable parental controls on these devices, but these restrictions disable apps completely instead of creating a virtual wall between work and personal apps. It’s the baby-sitter or nanny approach to control.

With BlackBerry Balance, once you’ve indicated that you want to create a “work” container, you can lock the Messages, Contacts, Calendar and Work Browser with a single password. Once locked, these applications are no longer accessible, but the rest of the tablet’s apps remain available – even a secondary instance of the web browser for personal browsing.

This ability to put all of your sensitive work-related info behind a locked door is a boon to families and anyone else who finds that their tablet ends up being passed from one person to another. RIM’s realization that our tablets – even more than our phones –  are becoming shared devices, is a brilliant insight.

BlackBerry Balance running on a PlayBook

When BlackBerry Balance is locked, you can still see that work apps are running, but you need to unlock them in order to see their full screens. Click for larger image.

It’s not without flaws, however. The first being that in order to use BlackBerry Balance, you need to connect your PlayBook to an enterprise email account which is running RIM’s proprietary software on the back-end. If you just use a blackberry.net email address, or a POP email account like the one give to you by your ISP, the feature isn’t available to you.

Balance also plays somewhat heavy-handedly with your locked apps. For instance, if you have a work account and a personal account set up in the Messages app, once locked, you can’t access either. RIM needs to (and claims to have plans to) find a way to only lock that which is work-related, leaving all personal data accessible.

These limitations notwithstanding, BlackBerry Balance is easily the most compelling and unique feature on the PlayBook. I doubt it will be long before Google and Apple catch up, but in the meantime, RIM has a killer app on their hands.

At a time when the company is holding its breath for the next 4-5 months until it can release the promised line of BlackBerry 10 devices, it needs all of the help it can get.

CES: Panasonic's Smart Viera TVs play games too

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We’ve all heard too much plenty about the 3D revolution taking place in our homes thanks to the new generation of HDTVs and Blu-ray players, but more needs to be said about how another TV technology is going to have a much more profound impact on our living rooms.

The technology is generically known as “Connected TV” and each manufacturer has its own brand name for the feature. “SmartHUB”, “SmartTV”, “VIERAConnect”  – the list goes on. But they all pretty much offer the same thing: in conjunction with your existing home network (either wired or wireless) these TVs connect you to a host of internet content ranging from weather forecasts to Facebook and from general web-surfing to full-fledged video games.

In some cases – the Panasonic Viera shown in this video is a perfect example – these games are just as good as anything you can find in Apple’s App Store or in the Android Marketplace. And just like those other app services, many of the Connected TV apps are free.

Now I’m not saying that playing Asphalt 5 as an app on your TV is the same as playing GT5 on a PlayStation 3 – they aren’t even in the same universe – but for a whole range of casual gamers who aren’t interested in dropping $350 on a console and another $60 on a game, these inexpensive TV-based games might be just the ticket.

And because these games can be played with a variety of Bluetooth accessories, you’re not limited to the TV’s factory remote. That would be awful.

Sync readers, are you ready to ditch your console for this new breed of TV games?

Sync Up: What is a 'super phone?'

In this week’s Sync Up segment, we try to define what a “superphone” is and why you should care. We also review Pick & Zip, a new tool that lets you download entire photo albums from Facebook directly to your PC. Finally we discuss an app launching later this month called “SceneTap” that promises to give bar-goers the inside-track on which establishments have the male-to-female ratio that they’re looking for.

Sync Up: Options for data back-up and a baby monitor app

On this segment I talk about the need for a back-up solution whether online or offline. ioSafe’s Rugged Portable Harddrive is a solid choice if you’ve got the extra cash.

We also chat about Baby Monitor, a $4.99 App Store purchase for your iPhone or other iDevice. If you have an iPhone, it can place a call to any phone number you like so you can listen to what’s going on in the room. One thing to keep in mind though: You need to reset the app after every “call”.

Finally we describe Google’s social network ambitions with their just-released Google + product.

Apple stores get smarter

Last week, the buzz was significant. Rumours were flying around concerning what Apple was planning for the 10th anniversary of its first retail store. Some suspected Apple might suprise us with the next iPhone, while others guessed at a massive re-design of the stores themselves.

Today, if you had walked into any Apple store in Canada or the U.S. the world you would have seen the change right before your eyes. And yet, unless you were very familiar with Apple’s usual merchandising, you might have missed it completely.

The clean, wood-veneered tabletops which display the latest gear from Cupertino, now include something new to look at: The Smart Sign.

An Apple Store Smart Sign displaying the details of their 27-inch iMac. Note the 'Specialist' button at the bottom right of the screen.

In effect, the Smart Sign is nothing more than an iPad 2 encased in a lucite block, giving you access to the touch screen and the home button, but nothing else. On the iPad’s screen runs a single app. The app is programmed to give shoppers more information on the product they’re looking at, be it an iPhone, iPod or yes, even an iPad. The concept is bindingly simple, and not even original: select restaurants have been using iPads to enhance the meal and drink ordering routine almost since the device’s debut a year ago.

What makes Apple’s implementation of the Smart Sign different is the way the app is tied into the rest of the Apple Store systems. One of the buttons that is always available at the bottom of the app’s interface is labeled “Specialist.” Tapping this button gives you the option to immediately add yourself to a queue to speak face-to-face with one of the stores many associates. Think of it like that flight attendant button you used to see in every airplane. Except, in this case, when you press the flight attendant button, it tells you where in the queue you are.

Behind the scenes, the store’s system then behaves like taxi dispatch service, sending out a message to the store associates via their customized iPod Touches which dangle around their necks. Associates can then accept the call, at which point the system shows them where in the store the requested originated.

Once you see the whole system in action, you can’t help but wonder, is Apple merely using their own stores as a test-bed for new retails technology before rolling out a similar offering to other retailers, big and small? If you ask an Apple associate they’ll simply smile politely and tell you they have no knowledge of Apple’s plans for the future of Smart Signs. But you can tell they’ve been thinking the same thing. By the way, in case you were thinking you might just buy a bunch of iPads and download the Smart Sign app… sorry, it’s an Apple-only app… for now.

An Apple Store associate helps a customer setup his new iPhone 4 at the Personal Setup table

The Smart Sign wasn’t the only improvement Apple stores received this week. They’ve also added a new section – well actually two tabletops – dedicated to a service called “Personal Setup.” It isn’t much to look at. Just a table with a few MacBook Airs tethered to it. But this is where a store associate will take your brand new Apple purchase out of its box and get you up and running on it so you don’t have to spend your first minutes with your new device all alone. The tech-savvy amongst us might very well mock the need for such a service, but it’s really handy even if you do know exactly what you’re doing. It turns out I got a sneak preview of Personal Setup when I bought my iPad last year. When I left the store, my brand new tablet was already synced with my Apple account and I was able to surf, watch YouTube and anything else I wanted to do. Normally, I would have had to do this sync myself at home on my PC. For a device like an iPad or iPod, it’s not a huge time-saver, but imagine going home with an iMac that had already been configured for you by an expert. Now stop chuckling and imagine you’re someone who has hardly ever used a computer, let alone a Mac running OS X. Ah, now you get it :-)

So while neither the Smart Sign nor the Personal Setup are nearly as exciting as say a new iPhone or a brand new addition to the Apple ecosystem, today’s Apple store enhancements might well prove to be yet another way in which Apple has set a standard to which others will one day hold themselves.