Friday, April 30, 2010

My Vision for Shopping with the iPad

An example of how tablets represent a window into the future, not just a better way to watch movies and play games.

I remember when the SyQuest 44Mb disk was going to change the future of computing, and it did. When I wanted to modify a Photoshop file and create the CMYK layers for printing, I could use 4 of them to send out for separations. At a cost of about $80 for the disks and $15 to the delivery driver (sorry to say the 3300-baud modem would have taken longer than if I had given the disks to a guy with a walker going the wrong direction) it was a small price to pay for the future! To use this example is to say that the future of computing has always been about processing speed and memory. While the newest tablet devices promise to be a mix between laptops and mobile computing there is one incredible difference. Memory is now being eradicated from the equation. For users of Gmail this is already a concept easy (or not so easy) to understand. None, and I mean none, of your emails are on your computer, they are all neatly stored somewhere inside a mountain or at the bottom of the ocean or, well, somewhere… This promises to be the future of tablet computing, where there are no files and the operating system is a very sophisticated web browser capable of running local “Apps” which (eventually) will be nothing more than speedy gateways to greater content. Applications like MS Office? Web Based. How about Media, like my ever-growing iTunes library? All web based.

There is a story about Google saying the first version of Gmail did not include a “delete” button. “Everyone will have unlimited memory, why would they want to delete something?” was said to be heard by a developer. Why indeed! Well, it turns out that the human psyche (or something like that) demands we need one, but that is another story. The developer was on to something, when you run out of memory on the web, simply apply for some more, don’t go out and upgrade your computer. What this really means is that new Tablets are the first generation of devices connected to ever growing content and memory and will be less dependent on faster processing speeds as bandwidth increases. Now what does that have to do with shopping? Well, you don’t see many (or any) people shopping with a laptop, but a Tablet has the potential to be more convenient and powerful at the same time.  It will not be long before you have your first glimpse of someone shopping with theirs and I am sure someone is working on a device to mount it to a cart as I write today.

Software and good ideas are always waiting for hardware it seems, like a patient man holding his wife’s purse outside of a dressing room. In this case the Tablet and “Tablet enabled shopping” has been waiting for two things, one, successful application development platform on mobile devices and, two, universal WiFi access. Sure there will be versions with built in cellular connectivity but the types and sizes of files we are talking about making the tablet ultimately useful need WiFi. Finally, both of these items are reality for the most part and the iPad is currently setting sales records across the country with Apple profits up 131%. Technology? Check.

People want their shopping to be many things; faster, easier, smarter and they want integration with coupons and loyalty cards to make sure they are getting the best deal. Over the past couple of years as Walmart has tested RFID chips to total your basket as you insert items, this enables the “faster” part, but it is a passive system and what shoppers want is a conversation.

Picture here a future shopping trip for my wife, 2 toddlers and myself. Let’s say we are heading over to our local SuperTarget for some groceries and household items. Using my iPad and a Target App I have been managing an ongoing list of items I need during the past week. During this “gathering” phase, the Target App also prompts me based on past purchasing behavior as to this week’s specials on products I have previously purchased as well as having a Tablet version of the newspaper insert.

Upon entering the SuperTarget of my choice, my pad device automatically connects to the store’s WiFi network and a number of things happen instantly. First, the items on my list are auto-updated with pricing info, aisle location and any manufacturer promotions or rebates available at the store. My family gets an automated greeting with local messages and store-specific promotions; there is even a “community bulletin board” access (gotta have those Girl Scout cookies). And, if I choose, social networking sites such as foursquare are notified of my arrival and updated, so I might even see my family’s name on a video screen or be entered into daily giveaways. So, I have a quicker way to shop, I am shopping “smart” and already have a good idea on what my basket total will be when I get to checkout.

Wow! Something has just caught my eye in the electronics section and my son is holding a new video I have never heard of. A quick check on the tablet shows me this TV is the highest-rated model Target carries with 12 positive customer reviews and that video content is not suitable for a 4-year-old. That TV still interests me, so I think I might want to price shop it at some other retailers after wrestling the video away from my son. A quick jump on the Web tells me it is $50 cheaper at Best Buy so I hit the “price match” button on My Target App and try to convince my wife we need yet another flat-screen.

We have now made it to the checkout with a reasonable amount of impulse-buys and are ready to pay. As I swipe my pre-registered credit card (or enter my email if I am paying by cash) my list and my cart come together and instantly update. The cashier is notified of any items on my list that I did not buy so she can ask if I was unable to find them or if the store was out and actually be of help. My receipt is automatically entered into my App, which tracks my lifetime purchases for planning and budgeting needs.

I still have to make it out to the car in the snow and wrestle with multiple car-seat belts but my shopping experience was actually better. And, ultimately, one of the best litmus tests for new technology is still “does this make my life better?” I think shopping with the tablet will be a definite “Yes.”

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