Monday, November 24, 2008

Mobile Barcodes and the Longtail

In mobile web content (probably web content in general) the "Long Tail" refers to the millions of places and experiences that are interesting and valuable to someone, perhaps extremely so, but may not get visited all that often. A problem is to figure out how to get to that content quickly and easily without too much trouble. Search is a pretty good solution in some cases. In some cases users rely on "favorites" to get back to a previously visited, but obscure, web or wap site. But in some cases these methods fall short.

I believe that mobile barcodes can enable the long tail in a significant way. Consider a favorite example of mine, the bus stop. Companies like Nextbus ( have GPS-enabled buses, and have built algorithms that allow them to predict when the bus will actually be at a particular bus stop. One problem with the Nextbus solution is that in some cases--I would argue the most important cases--the excellent information the compan provides is not available to help a rider make a decision.

Here is where Nextbus is already really great:

  • I want to leave my flat or office at the right time before I start my commute so I look on the Nextbus site.

  • I am at a stop where I frequently travel and I have bookmarked the wireless web content for that particular route and stop on my mobile.

Wonderful, but what if I am at a particular bus stop in a town I've never been before, it's freezing out, I don't know if the once-an-hour bus has come already or not, and there is an alternative route I could commit to around the corner? You would want to access that long-tail content quickly and conveniently, wouldn't you?

I say conveniently because you can almost always access long-tail content from the web or mobile if you have time and patience, but there is a tipping point for most things where you make the decision whether it is worth it to start the discovery process.

So, how about posting mobile barcodes at every transit stop, for every route that passes through, that tell riders when the next bus is actually going to come (not, by contrast, when it is scheduled to come). I just now happen to have navigated the NextBus wireless website to Inbound Judah Street and Funston Ave on the mobile for San Francisco's "Muni" streetcar service. I chose this stop because I think there is a lot of traffic there a lot of the time (though I'm not certain whether it runs 24 hours--sorry!). The app requires quite a few layers of navigation to get to the right information, and if I knew what I was doing I would eventually get there on my mobile.

Think about it, though: Since I'm at a particular stop and want to go on a particular bus, It's predictable that I don't care much at all about the overall transit system: I just care about the particular bus and stop that will get ME where I want to go right now. The rest is useless to me at this moment. I'd like to go to the exact place to get the information I want. Fortunately, what information required in that situation is quite predictable, and is highly correlated with the place I'm standing at the particular moment. The code is a VERY convenient conduit into the precise information I want. Without the code I probably wouldn't even try to get the answer, and wouldn't even start the search process until I was good and frustrated.
Scan the code above to see how simple it is to get the precise bus-stop information I want:

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