Passive Profits? A Discussion with Grabio and Others Leading the Way

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Generally as a people we seem to be passive. Heck, even the active are now seeking out passive feedback.

This is not a blanket criticism but an observation of avid tech consumers as well as of myself. Computers were developed in part to complete tasks we humans could not or did not want to do. Cell phones picked up where they left off, and began to advance the art of passivity beyond desktop email with voicemail, texts that could be ignored until later and a variety of alerts pushed to the phone requiring where they wait obediently for attention.

With the dawn of smartphones and geo-fences (a virtual radius that can be used to alert devices when they breach the invisible border) passive mobile computing can be taken to a higher level. Take groceries for instance. Or reminders. Or self-stalking. Or anything thanks to the under-pinners. And this is not lost on Apple, among others. Not satisfied to allow apps developers to lead the way, Apple went ahead with iOS5 and the iPhone 4S with a somewhat passive friend locator, but more importantly launched what could be (for the next few months anyway) a ground-breaker for passive people everywhere: Siri. I needn’t go into it here as Apple has wallpapered your TV with its benefits. Let’s just say now all you have to do to remember to pick up the milk is, well, talk to your phone.

But Apple has certainly not vacuumed up all of the innovation. Look at Grabio’s latest for instance. Key to the newest release (in my passive opinion) is geo-alert Wish Lists, something others have previously attempted like Goshi’s “Wish Lists”

What Grabio is going after is no less than the Craigslist market, attempting to improve on the old-timey service with a better mobile experience, realtime sensibility and possibly the “need it now” economy. This is an area mobile service plays in as well, allowing service providers and consumers to lazily have solutions and jobs come to them.* And Zaarly has cast a very wide net here, fishing for any and all needs based on location.

Grabio is available everywhere, according to chief Horatiu Boeriu, ” but we first focused on major cities, like New York City, San Francisco and Chicago. We certainly encourage our users to create listings wherever they are.”

And what are we talking about in terms of stuff that’s available?

“There are cities where we have seen thousands of items for sale in the past few months,” Boeriu said. “Someone recently told us: ‘I wish I had Grabio when I was moving out of my house and no one from Craigslist wanted to drive this far for a couch that weighs 300 lbs,’ ” he said. “Others found Grabio useful during Hurricane Irene when they have exchanged batteries, books and other necessities that were not available for sale at the time.”

Another story of the triumph of passivity comes from the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York where many people managed to buy tickets through Grabio. They simply launched the app right at Ashe Stadium and connected with sellers. “A far easier process than walking around with a piece of paper asking for tickets,” Boeriu said.

As for “Wish Lists” Boeriu explained things this way:  “We believe there are two type of users — those who have lots of apps on their phones and are constantly making use of them throughout the day, and others that simply would like to see these apps ‘communicate’ with them based on their needs. So we created a ‘Wish List’ where the user can enter their most desired items.”

For example?

“A Yankee fan would always like to go see the games, so they are constantly looking for tickets. Go to your Wish List, type in ‘Yankees’, then go on with your day, drive around the city, go to work, and Grabio will send you a push notification as soon as we find these tickets at your current location. Grabio uses a real-time search technology that knows when your location has significantly changed and makes your wishes come true.”

We’re only a one step from today’s reality — where apps help us decide where to go and what to do — to a future where services tell us where to go and what to do before we realize we want to.

So what does this all say about consumer behaviors and their desires? According to Boeriu it shows that some of us would like to be able to filter through the noise and receive only data that is relevant to one’s needs or behavior. “Think about Apple and its Siri … We took this concept a bit further and have our own ‘personal assistant’ work for you at all time until we fulfill your request. With so many devices being location-aware, we, as developers, need to push the envelope to create applications that will make the process of buying and selling things not a chore, but rather an enjoyable experience, speedier and safer as well.”

I wondered how other players in the passive-gratification (my words) business thought hyperlocal business might be affected in future by ever-smarter apps allowing consumers to do less in order to accomplish more. Jack Eisenberg, co-founder at Goshi, thinks the limitations of hanheld devices have forced developers to create new benefits — constriction, once again, breeds creativity.

“Because the mobile user experience is limited to a small screen, it is unrealistic to expect consumers to be in an application for extended periods of time. The most powerful thing a mobile app can do is have a user download it and approve push notifications because this allows for asynchronous behavior,”  Eisenberg said. “Users are inundated with apps, and view them in short, unpredictable snippets. They shouldn’t have to be in an application to receive its value. Where this will be particularly disruptive from a business perspective, I think, is in the realm of advertising. Using data from social networks about personal interests, and marrying that to location and push notifications, I can expect to see increasingly targeted forms of SMS and push advertising coming to mobile. Instead of users receiving a mass-spam text about something unrelated to personal habits, I’ll receive a timely notification about something specific to my tastes when it is right down the street.”

Grabio uses a real-time search technology that knows when your location has significantly changed and makes your wishes come true

The terrific Footprints app that allows users to quietly track their every move is also preparing to launch a geo-fence feature which, as the company points out, will allow parents to set virtual boundaries around their kids (e.g., school, playground) and receive notifications if the child crosses out of the fence. Ah, passive parenting. It will also let friends (or spouses) set a motion notification, so they know when their loved ones are on the move.  “My wife puts on dinner when Footprints sends her a notification that I left the office,” said one company lead.

“Natural, organic, serendipity is being replaced by assisted, manufactured, serendipity,” posited Lenny Rachitsky of Localmind. “We’re relying on apps to tell us where to go and what to do, which cuts down on old-school serendipitous experiences, but it is being replaced with much more frequent and relevant experiences.

“These services know what we like, where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. They’ll soon know more about what we want (and need) than we will. Steve Jobs taught us that it isn’t the consumer’s job to know what they want, and that is even more pertinent when thinking about the dozens of of experiences and opportunities we miss every day. We’re only a one step from today’s reality — where apps help us decide where to go and what to do — to a future where services tell us where to go and what to do before we realize we want to.”

Anticipatory delivery has long been the stuff of dreams for advertisers and more recently online content producers. Could it be the ultimate in passive presentation? If the message is the right one, and under the appropriate circumstances, then there’s little argument as to why not.

Brad Weisberg, founder and President of BodyShopBids, (where busy people can upload pictures of damage to their cars and nearby shops bid for the business) said, “… As more and more apps incorporate built-in technology like GPS location, consumers stand to benefit because they’re primarily worried about the world immediately around them. Whether it’s finding the closest coffee shop or bidding auto repair to local businesses, apps that have an immediate, local impact are the ones that will be ingrained into users’ daily lives and will thus earn repeat users.”

And if the app can do it while I’m sleeping — or at least not paying attention — all the better.

*I am involved in advising

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight. Follow him @Loclly