Mapping Apps

Mapping Apps

I have become fascinated in recent weeks with the ubiquitous mobile handheld devices and how they may affect the economy, including shipping.

There is no doubt Blackberrys, iPhones and other devices now are part of the fabric of our culture, what with the ease of snapping and sending photos, obtaining driving directions, viewing news and, of course, the basics of sending e-mail on the go. For those in high school and college, mobile devices are particularly embedded in daily life, rolling up television, movies, classroom chatter, family life and the entire array of daily existence into the palm of the hand.

They change the flow of conversation because with a handheld a vast store of knowledge is available at the tip of a finger. On a Blackberry, you can layer Wikipedia notes on top of a GPS locator map to identify things you walk or drive by (well, don’t do this while driving). But is there an impact on the economy beyond simply driving sales of iPhones and other handhelds and the applications that make them tick? That is another question.

One iPhone app developer recently told me about how new iPhone apps, assuming you opt in, know where you are and do things like flash you a coupon for your favorite double latte when you walk by a Starbucks. My own experience grew with an experiment at The Journal of Commerce’s Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference this month where we sent poll questions to attendees’ handhelds. My interest grew even more the following week when I used a tech-savvy friend’s iPhone and his extensive collection of apps.

To poll TPM attendees on their views of the economy, supply and demand and other issues, my JOC colleague Matt DeNapoli deployed a simple software-on-demand service to e-mail poll questions to attendees. The guess was that many would be tethered to their Blackberry or other devices during the event, and that was largely true. Approximately 20 percent of attendees answered the questions sent to them (you can see the results at www.joc.com).

Although there were roughly 140,000 iPhone apps as of January, the impact of these and non-iPhone apps is just beginning to be felt. Much of what you can do on an iPhone today is cute or convenient, but not game changing. In Taipei in January, my colleague Gavin Carter whipped out his iPhone to record an interview and then e-mailed me the recording — thank you, Gavin. Similarly, with one touch you can dictate an e-mail that converts to text.

But it can get even more interesting for a business. Say you are walking down the street and spot an item at a store you like, but are not sure whether you can afford it. Using an iPhone app, you take a picture of the bar code and get a list of the prices offered by competing vendors. In cases where the item may be behind a glass window or otherwise inaccessible, Amazon has an app that allows you to take a picture of the item and the company will try to identify it, let you know what it is and offer it to you.

The idea of allowing offers to be flashed to your handheld based on your location is tantalizing — it might make you an offer on milk as you walk down a supermarket aisle. To me, that takes marketing to a new level and further empowers the consumer to find the lowest price. And in the U.S., where incomes are stagnating, bargain hunting is a way of life.

Reaching back into the supply chain, you can see no letup in companies being as aggressive as ever in driving down transportation costs.

The economy will see profound impact in other ways, too. I believe service is beginning to improve, whether at hotels, restaurants or car services, because of the rapid feedback service companies receive.

When booking a car to pick me up at Newark airport last week, I went on the Internet, saw a slew of negative comments about one provider and went with someone else.

After a visit last year to a newly opened section of the Grand Canyon that seemed to me a total rip-off, it felt good to be able to report it on Trip Advisor.

Although bandwidth remains an issue with most handhelds, especially iPhones that use AT&T, that will eventually be solved, so limitations on access to information via handhelds will all but disappear. That is when big changes will start to occur.

Peter Tirschwell is senior vice president for strategy at UBM Global Trade. He can contacted at ptirschwell@joc.com.