Many places lay claim to being the beating digital heart of Europe. The UK’s “silicon roundabout” in the Old Street area of London has asserted its right to the title – with significant government backing – as has Berlin and several cities in Scandinavia. But, for one week in December, there is absolutely no question about where the digital heart of Europe can be found – it’s in a run-down suburb, just at the fringes of central Paris. That’s where, in a series of hanger-like buildings, Le Web happens every year.
Over the past six years, Le Web has become the predominant European conference for the start-up web and mobile industry. Born out of the Les Blogs conferences that preceded it, organisers Geraldine and Loïc Le Meur have broadened the scope and vision of the event beyond the world of blogs and it now attracts speakers and attendees from all over the world, not just its European base. It’s fair to say that this is a conference of breadth and scope for the modern age.
Erik Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, was a speaker at the December 2011 event, as was designer Karl Lagerfeld. (Lagerfeld, incidentally, came to speak of his love for the Apple iPad. He demonstrated how he uses it both as a “mood board” for inspiration, and as a sketching tool for his designs.) The overriding trend addressed at the conference was the convergence of social, local and mobile, otherwise known as “SoLoMo”.
Defining so much of today’s technological culture, SoLoMo is where the cutting edge of innovation is happening right now. For instance, all the start-ups that presented at the conference were building their products as mobile apps, but only constructing supporting websites as an after-thought at best. In many cases the website never happens at all.
The whole gamut of apps was on display: games, retailing and news, and information services. But perhaps the most interesting breed were those that seek to turn the mobile phone into an assistant and, specifically interesting to the airline passenger experience business, into a traveller’s companion.
Let’s take one example that was prominent both on stage and in its role finding rides for the Le Web speakers and other VIPs on Paris’s rather difficult streets – Uber.
Uber’s goal is simple: make the process of grabbing a taxi easier than ever. You create an account, and then can request a taxi pick-up direct from your Apple iPhone or Android smart phone. You store your credit card details within the app, and the fare for your ride – including the tip – is charged direct to the card.
The service isn’t widely available yet; Paris is the only European city covered, though Toronto, Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington DC are already on line. But Uber’s potential to make the regular traveller’s life easier is obvious.
That’s the aim of many mobile services – to make an existing process easier and faster, otherwise known in buzz terms as making it more “frictionless”. The goal is to look at the devices that people carry – connected, location aware, powerful – and use them to smooth the way through the whole air travel experience.
The airline industry has not been entirely negligent in this area. Some carriers already offer both check-in and boarding cards through their mobile apps. Personally, I’ve had excellent experiences with the British Airways app, which allows passengers to sail through security and the gate without a paper boarding pass in sight. But the sorts of services that startups like Uber offer suggest that this should only be the first step in making everything more seamless for travellers.
Meanwhile, the rapid rise of the touch-screen device as the norm for interacting with small digital systems is shaping peoples’ expectations of what is an acceptable user interface.
The automotive industry is keenly aware of this transformation in perception. Renault, the French car manufacturer, hosted a grand reception the night before Le Web kicked off at L’Atelier Renault on the Avenue des Champs Élysées. The showpiece of the event was a new dashboard “tablet”, that’s being incorporated into their Clio and Zoe lines initially. To suggest that the so-called Rlink system is an actual tablet is, perhaps, a stretch and a rather obvious attempt to leap on one of the technology bandwagons du jour. Rlink is still an integrated part of the dashboard – not something you can take out and carry around with you – although it does connect to your smart phone.
But what Rlink does do is run a version of Google’s Android operating system – which powers an increasing number of smart phones and tablets – to create a familiar touch screen experience that customers will know from their phones.
Inflight entertainment (IFE) manufacturers have also received the memo, and are now focused on offering the Android operating system and capacitive touch screens going forward. But it will take some time before this transition occurs on a grand scale in flight.
On a recent long-haul flight to the Caribbean, I watched with some amusement as my wife repeatedly stabbed at the screen on her seat-back system with growing frustration. “I think it’s broken,” she growled, before finally twigging that she had to use the remote in the armrest to control it.
Perhaps more importantly from the perspective of airlines, the embedded IFE industry’s move to Android creates a platform on which developers can build apps that add to the appeal of the system – and in turn improve the passenger experience – over time.
The word “platform”, as described in this context, is the idea that the company is not just providing a complete product, but a base from which it can build its product, and one which allows other companies to build products on too.
This is a common concept in the technology world right now – iOS is both the platform on which the iPhone and iPad are built, but also the platform on which hundreds of thousands of apps have been created. There are multiple benefits to this – the more people that build on your platform, the more attractive it becomes. You can have a commercial relationship. And you can get additional data from the partner companies.
Let’s take one example that was also on stage at Le Web: Foursquare. This mobile location-based service is a current darling of the SoLoMo movement because it hits all three parts of SoLoMo and has successfully eclipsed several major competitors. It’s social because you can use it to see where your friends are. It’s local because it allows you to “check in” to individual places, be it a shop, bar, office or departure gate. And it’s all done on mobile phones.
Foursquare is also a platform because other apps use it to identify where you are. The popular photo-sharing app Instagram calls on Foursquare to identify where you took a photo, for example. Evernote Food – a new app launched at Le Web – uses Foursquare to identify which restaurant you’re in (and uses its own platform to store the details of the food you were eating, including a photo). Evernote is itself an example of a platform – one for storing notes – on which the company has built multiple products.
NEXT GENERATION IFE
Having adopted Android for their next generation audio/video on demand (AVOD) systems, IFE manufacturers have also started treating their systems as platforms that other developers can build against. This is something of a conceptual shift from the idea of the plane-hosted screen as an entertainment device to one that’s as much a productivity tool. While a holidaymaker might want to sit back and relax during a flight, the frequent business traveller appreciates the opportunity to get things done, and a system that facilitates such activity presents an opportunity for airlines to meet their high-value customers’ expectations.
Imagine if a service like Uber was installed on an IFE system and “connected” with inflight connectivity. The passenger could select and book a cab on the system, and that same information would be pushed to the passenger’s mobile phone so that he or she could quickly and efficiently find the taxi after landing.
Equally, installing something like foodie.fm – an app that allows you to find recipes, choose the ones you want and have them delivered direct from a supermarket – installed on the system would allow travellers returning home to spend a few minutes sorting our their groceries for the week ahead while still on board. Or, perhaps they could use an equivalent app to book a restaurant for their destination.
Of course, there are several pre-requisites to make this happen: in-flight connectivity, a willingness of tech companies to deal with more traditional businesses and a reduction in inflight data roaming charges.
But these are far from insurmountable barriers, and as mobile devices grow ever more powerful – and the developers building for them grow ever more inventive – there are two choices: keep up and find ways of integrating with them, or be left behind and fade into irrelevance.