Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Great App-pectations: When Innovation Leapfrogs Phone Capabilities

As comic Louis C.K. would say about technology: Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.

Nowhere is that more true than in the world of smartphone applications, as app developers push the possibilities of how to use our smartphones’ location awareness and reach well beyond what our mobile data plans and battery lives seem to be able to support, especially in densely populated spaces.

It’s kind of sad, because for a while the release of new devices has set off rushes of creativity, with developers using touchscreens and accelerometers and other sensors in ways that seemed to make science fiction real.

With every available power outlet in use, a popular FedEx promotion brought a "human charging station" to the street. Thankfully it didn't enlist homeless people.

We see great stuff like phone cameras being used for everything from detecting heart rates to translating paper menus from one language to another. We watch serendipitous location-sharing tools go from typing in an address five years ago (Dodgeball), to linking with a crowdsourced database three years ago (Foursquare), to ambient awareness this year (Highlight).

The disconnect between app dreams and phone reality was particularly evident at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin this past week, where official attendance hit nearly 25,000, up 27 percent from last year. Combined with everyone else in the hip Texas town, including many SXSW partiers without passes, that made for phone network overload.

And when our phones are constantly searching for a signal or tracking our locations, their battery life tends to suck. Literally.

As most did, I had a hard time getting mobile data during all five days I was in Austin, with ongoing weak 3G service on my iPhone 4 on the AT&T network. AT&T wouldn’t give me a comment on its SXSW performance beyond a map of its event service plan, including 220 Wi-Fi hotspots and a couple of “COW” (cellular on wheels) trucks.

Other outlets also reported that bad data access at SXSW 2012 was a problem for many people. (Although not everyone and not every device had issues: Walt Mossberg was pulling down 18 Mbps back in his hotel room on his new Verizon LTE iPad that he was testing.)

Here’s the problem: SXSW has become a place where app developers come in the hopes that they can persuade a dense, social audience of early adopters to try their shiny new way to find what’s going on and where. Hundreds of start-ups lust after the idea of “winning SXSW,” following past examples of Twitter and Foursquare, and, to a lesser extent, GroupMe.

There was much debate, egged on by tech bloggers, about who would be crowned the SXSW winner this year. I think the consensus was that nobody won, although Mophie battery packs for the iPhone and sponsors who brought charging stations should get an honorable mention.

But I’d argue that one of the reasons it was impossible to “win” in 2012 was that these location and communication apps were hindered by poor service and battery life impact.

Foiled again! My repeated attempts to check in on Foursquare distracted me from yet another scintillating panel.

Also, as aged as they are in comparison to the newborn location vampires, Foursquare and Twitter still dominate SXSW. There were 755,373 total tweets with the keyword or hashtag “SXSW” during the Interactive portion of the festival, according to PeopleBrowsr. At one point, I had the 3,702nd concurrent Foursquare check-in at the Austin Convention Center.

“Foursquare’s part of the fabric of SXSW,” said Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley in an onstage interview at the event. I think he’s right.

But then Crowley took it a step further: “Foursquare in Austin at SXSW is like Foursquare of the future. It’s going to be everywhere.”

If that’s the case — and I’m not sure it is — I don’t think the future sounds so great. Because using Foursquare at SXSW was actually a total chafe. It often took four tries to send my Foursquare check-ins to the server. The error messages were constant.

More daring apps like the new Highlightwhich constantly tracks users and pings them when they are near people with common friends and interests — had even more problems. One morning when I loaded up Highlight, the app told me that I had been in close proximity to 10 people the night before between 1 am and 2:30 am, over on the other side of the river from where I was staying.

Boring as I am, I was home in bed by then.

When I asked Highlight co-founder Paul Davison why the app messed up, he said Highlight had been experimenting with using mobile cell towers to locate users, because GPS has such an impact on their batteries. The cell tower had apparently retained my location while I was sleeping across town, not having opened the app and sent it an updated location.

(Although, to be honest, I don’t really want to share where I am while I’m sleeping — which is a very different concern.)

Thus, I found that a good SXSW icebreaker question was: “So, have you uninstalled Highlight yet?” In an unscientific but anecdotally significant number of cases, the answer was yes. Why? Almost always: Battery drain.

Davison said Highlight — which only launched in January — is working to improve accuracy and decrease battery impact. He added that he’s hopeful people will overlook these issues.

“For many, the ability to see profiles of the people standing nearby is so new and exciting that they want to try it out now, even if the location precision and battery life is not yet where they’d want it to be,” Davison said.

Foursquare’s response was similarly optimistic. As far as service goes, “things have gotten much better [at SXSW] in the last couple of years and are continuing to improve,” said a spokeswoman. “And battery life should be much better next year with the iPhone 5, iPad HD and new Android handsets launching.”

Everything might be exciting, but if your phone’s dead, you’re not using it. That makes me and many others unhappy.

Because while I’m sure better and more expensive services and devices will be on the market next year, I’m also sure SXSW 2013 will be even more jam-packed.

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— Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, in their farewell D post