Business 2.0, Design, Software & web applications

API opportunity

The other day I rocked up to Greater Union on George street with some friends to catch a movie. Forgetting it was “tight-ass Tuesday” there was a long line, so I thought “I’ll jump into OneTap Movies and see if I can buy tickets” – then I could jump the queue using their pre-purchased tickets line.

OneTap Movies is an iPhone application that uses GPS to find the nearest cinema, and then allows you to browse the movies and times for that cinema. You can even preview some movies and see ratings.

It’s a great little app, but it’s missing the killer feature: you can’t buy tickets – as I found out that night. (Certainly this is the case for my local cinemas.)

So I thought “I have a fully working browser on my phone, I’ll have a crack at the Greater Union site”. I quietly hoped they had taken the initiative to develop an iPhone specific interface, but I wasn’t banking on it.

I got to the Greater Union site and waited for the ~500k worth of media to slooooowwwly stream down (the home page rates an F using YSlow). The site also uses tables, which meant that the key interface component didn’t display until the entire page had downloaded.

I then started to use their JavaScript enabled interface, only to find that it failed at the first step – choosing a cinema.

So we waited in line, and by the time we got to the desk the session we were after had sold out.

A couple of things struck me in considering this short, but sad, tale:

  1. If the Greater Union site used web standards more efficiently I probably would have been able to complete my purchase in a fraction of the time.
  2. Buying movie tickets is the ideal application for an iPhone or mobile specific site. Greater Union, and other cinema chains, should be seriously considering a more tightly focused mobile-oriented site for this purpose, ideally targeting devices like the iPhone (but not restricting it to only work on the iPhone).
  3. If Greater Union had a web-services API for purchasing tickets (with a revenue sharing model for extra incentive for third-party integrators), then I suspect OneTap would have full purchasing capabilities built-in. This would mean referral revenue for Greater Union from applications they don’t have to build, as well as a better user experience.

Such an approach fulfils a couple of the key principles I outlined in my recent CPA presentation:

  • Leveraging the network: OneTap Movies includes user-generated ratings – but the personal utility (finding what’s on) is the primary focus of the app.
  • APIs: providing an API would potentially expand Greater Union’s market significantly through third-party applications. (This also relates to the “because” effect.)
  • Clip of sale: by revenue sharing Greater Union make more money, through increased referrals, while encouraging third-party developers to leverage the API.
  • Embraces mobile and geo-targeting: two concepts I mentioned as playing a significant role in future online apps.
  • User-centered, contextual design: mobile access to decide on movie attendance and purchasing tickets fits strongly with user motivations and wants.

So how about it Greater Union?

Standards

Designing for the device

I just attended the Web Standards Group Sydney meetup and saw another set of great presentations. The two on mobile development were of particular interest, though – a) because I’m presenting at Web Directions South in the same session time as Tim and Pete’s ‘Developing for the iPhone’ presentation (of which tonight’s was a preview); and b) because I’m interested in developing for the new breed of browsers coming on the market.

Ever since the iPhone was released my interest has focused around how the change in context will impact behaviour and usage of such a device (Tim and Pete’s presentation had some interesting stats on this front – tease). The iPhone is not just a phone – and it’s the context of use of having a usable, internet enabled device with a well designed and innovative interface (the multi-touch screen) that I’m really keen to both experience and design/develop for.

Tim, Pete and the team at news.com.au have done a great job with the iPhone specific UI for News Limited – I really appreciate the iterative approach they outlined and how that has resulted in quite a nice interpretation.

During both mobile related presentations tonight the idea of developing a UI for a specific device was raised as both essential – to leverage the capabilities native to the device, such as the multi-touch screen and click to call in the iPhone’s case – and problematic – from the standpoint of standards-based development and the overhead of developing for multiple platforms.

I think that the news.com.au experience demonstrates that standards will still play an important role – peeking under the hood of the iPhone version still shows an awful lot of standards-savvy markup, and from the sound of things it should be possible to “port” the iPhone version to other enhanced mobile browsers in due course.

But I suspect it will be some time before mobile-oriented development will standardise to the point of traditional web browsers. With a PC/Mac/Linux etc. there’s a core, dominant interaction paradigm in place – a mouse, a window, a browser, common UI elements. With mobile devices, that completely changes. The interaction paradigms are quite different between platforms – using a joystick vs. buttons vs. a numeric keypad vs. a QWERTY keyboard vs. a touch-screen etc.

Some level of customisation will be required to make the user experience a positive one on different classes of devices. Hopefully, though, these different classes will start to consolidate fairly quickly, so we can target groups of devices – i.e. multi-touch (see the Nokia iPhone for example) vs. QWERTY vs. tradition – rather than having to support each individual device from each manufacturer.