Lyft—where reality meets the road

I had, by this time, commandeered the phone. If my mother had seen the screen she would have spent the next 30 minutes in the Dunkin’ parking lot, refusing to agree to the cancellation fee and trying to figure out how she could call directly Lyft and give them hell.

Living in a high-tech urban area like Seattle is living in a bubble. Turns out there’s nothing like trying to use a ride service in Southwestern Florida to get you out of your cultural cocoon.

My 100-year-old mother, who lives in Southwestern Florida, still drives. People are always nagging me to “take away her keys.” These are people who have never met my mother. I’d rather try to take away a fresh antelope from a hungry lioness.

Since my mom (wisely) does not drive at night, I thought a proactive way to wean her away from driving would be introduce her to a ride service like Lyft — pointing out that it would make it possible for her to attend evening events in town. My mom is fiercely independent and would not ask anyone for a ride (and, since many of her friends are nearly as old as she is, most of them don’t drive at night, either — or shouldn’t).

Why is there a picture of a monster truck on this blog post? Read on and you’ll find out.

Given that back story, you’ll understand why I was delighted when my mother agreed to install the Lyft app on her iPhone and give it a try, with me along to coach her. We decided to test the system with a non-critical, non-time-dependent errand: coffee and donuts at the local Dunkin’, a mere three miles from her building.

I’m still shaking my head over what ensued.

At 2:30 p.m. we went out to the shaded portico in front of her condo building and my mom tapped her way through the process of summoning a Lyft driver. She is somewhat impatient, and it was difficult to get her to stop pushing buttons while we waited for Lyft to assign the driver — a fellow with the rather fantastical name “Neotis.”

I will have to wonder what Neotis was like, because we never actually met the fellow. He arrived at the far back entrance of her condominium complex and parked. I (having seized the phone) set about trying to explain to him how to get to the large, clearly marked, high-rise front entrance. I texted him three times, while Lyft sent me a series of threatening messages that he was leaving. Finally, I called Neotis.

“No English,” Neotis grunted.

“Come…to…the…FRONT,” I tried.

“No English.

The accent was Russian, but, figuring “this is Florida,” I tried my weak Spanish. “Conducir al frente.”

“No English.”

All this while my mother was asking me what on Earth was going on.

I cancelled the ride, for which Lyft assessed my mom $5, and put in a new request. It was now 3 p.m. The next driver, Jose, arrived and off we went to Dunkin’. He told us this was his second day driving for Lyft. I could understand him only because I speak a little Spanish. My mother, who does not speak Spanish and is slightly deaf, had no idea what he was saying.

After our coffee, my mother pulled out her phone and gamely put in the request for the ride home. She was getting the hang of it! And the driver was just two minutes away! We dashed out of the Dunkin’ and Georgio pulled up — in a white Silverado. My mother, who is five feet tall, went over to the car, opened the door, and stared. The floor of the Silverado truck was at her waist level.

“How am I supposed to get in?” she asked.

Georgio looked embarrassed. “I guess I need to get steps,” he said.

He told us to cancel the ride and call another driver. Again, Lyft required that we accept a $5 cancellation fee. I had, by this time, commandeered the phone. If my mother had seen the screen she would have spent the next 30 minutes in the Dunkin’ parking lot, refusing to agree to the cancellation fee and trying to figure out how she could dial Lyft directly and give them hell about the Silverado.

I paid, cancelled, and then we called another driver, who showed up in a normal sized-SUV. We were able to get in and get home. This driver, with a year of local Lyft driving experience, was actually familiar with the location of my mother’s building.

My mom, who is a former data systems analyst with a decent grip on user interface design, somehow came away from our ordeal with a good impression of Lyft. “All they need to do,” she said, “is just let me put on my account profile that I need a regular car and not a truck and that I’d like a driver who understands English.”

Well, wouldn’t that be nice.

I don’t have the heart to tell her that Lyft has no way to let you customize your profile for these, or any other, needs. And for that reason, it’s a complete disaster in terms of meeting the requirements of the elderly (and, gee, they do seem to have a few of those in Southwestern Florida). It’s also problem for anyone not tall or athletic enough to vault into a monster truck.

As soon as we got into her condo, my mother handed me her iPhone. “Put on the Uber app, too,” she said. “This is an adventure.”

You can’t tell a person without the book cover

How, indeed, can you tell if the ebook someone is reading on their Kindle or iPhone is Chaucer…or chick lit?

James Wolcott’s amusing article “What’s a Culture Snob to Do?” in Vanity Fair bemoans the impending loss of the book cover as a way to assess fellow travelers. How, indeed, can you tell if the ebook someone is reading on a Kindle or iPhone is Chaucer…or chick lit?

Wolcott goes on to predict the demise of the bookcase, and even the end of the coffee table book. But, speaking as someone with more than 30 bookcases overwhelming the house, I’d happily lose those and have more wall space available for art.

(Thanks you to The Culinary Curator for pointing out the Vanity Fair piece.)

Worth checking out

• Charlie Hamilton’s post at Web Worker Daily on the new Palm Pre, and why he hasn’t bought one…yet.
• Fahim Farook‘s new children’s game for the iPhone, Hoot Dunnit? Learn about animals and the sounds they make. (Note: Farook’s cat is better behaved than mine are.)
• This Cardiac Science post on automated external defibrillators and why you want to make sure there’s a AED in your school or workplace.

A peek into the world of iPhone app development

Affirmations from NPC Unlimited
Affirmations from NPC Unlimited

Just about everyone I know who’s been around an iPhone flashes on a great idea for an iPhone app.

But only a few of those folks go on to actually create an app and get it sold on Apple’s App Store.

One of those folks is Hasan Edain of NPC Ulimited. A long-time game developer for the Mac platform (Germ Patrol), Hasan has started creating some affordable apps for the iPhone and iPod touch. While the Bouncy Ball app (now with soccer and basketball options) is a diversion, Confidence and Affirmations move into the growing field of “lifestyle” apps. recently interviewed Hasan about his approach to iApp development.

As a new and rapidly growing field, iPhone apps present intriguing marketing opportunities. I’m currently working on some marketing projects with Hasan’s team and finding it fascinating.

Speed, transparency, and the long tail

Tomorrow I’ll be talking about PR and social media to another communications class at the University of Washington. This time, it’s an undergraduate class. I’m going to hit many of the points I did in my earlier presentation to students already in the business world, but this time I’m going to attempt to give more context.

So much has changed in the PR world in the past 10 years, it’s hard to know where to begin!

The model of PR in which corporate communicators developed carefully reviewed press releases and distributed them to known contacts in print and broadcast media by mail or fax, is over. Five minutes after a company announces a new product, it’s been Twitter and blogged about. (Example — Amazon released Kindle software for the iPhone last night, and that rocketed to a top spot on Twitter in about two hours. Interestingly, it was being discussed on Twitter even before it had registered on Google News searches.)

Any hope PR folks once had of controlling public perception of the announcement — via their carefully chosen words, or via the sedate reviewing of a friendly news reporter — is a quaint delusion. People are raving and ranting about it on blogs — or pointedly ignoring it — within 24 hours. And good luck to the PR person who tries to spin or puff a product. Her or she risks being reviled right along with the product itself.

Clearly, old-school PR doesn’t work in the current online environment. As anyone who follows Twitter has seen, a new school of PR is emerging to meet the new challenges. It can be successful, if it’s mindful of three characteristics of the social media world:

Speed. If PR wants to be part of the discussion, it needs to get out there, fast. A good PR operation, representing an organization that genuinely has something to contribute to the conversation, can make a splash. That may mean twittering about the city’s inept response to the snowstorm at 4 a.m. (Does your PR person work at 4 a.m.? Let’s hope so.)

Transparency. Successful PR folks have to come to grips with the transparency created by online social media. Many companies tried to hop on the social media bandwagon by making community commenting, or video contests, a part of their marketing campaigns. Often they forgot that they could no longer control the distribution of the resulting comments or videos. In 2006, General Motors’ attempt to harness “viral marketing” for their Chevy Tahoe SUV inspired hundreds of people critical of SUVs to create and then post anti-Tahoe videos. To its credit, General Motors remained cool and the flap eventually died down.

The Long Tail. The days when nearly everyone read the newspaper and families gathered around the TV after dinner to watch the network news are long, long over. Instead, household members are more likely to be getting information individually, from a variety of sources (such as watching a NetFlix video, playing World of Warcraft, reading their favorite blogs, or talking to friends on Facebook). To be successful, PR campaigns will need to focus on these narrower audiences, often with savvier members.

The professor of the class asked me to emphasize the continuing need for strong writing skills in PR. That will be no problem. Sure, you see sloppy writing all over the web. But you don’t see it on highly ranked blogs. If PR people want to draw traffic to their blogs and followers to their Tweets, clear, polished writing is a must.

Macworld 2008: Tech notes

Back from Macworld!

I’d thought Twitter would revolutionize the Macworld social experience, but I was wrong. I’d failed to take into account two factors:

1. The Twitter network slowed to a crawl during Steve’s keynote.

2. The AT&T E network couldn’t penetrate Moscone South, the underground hall that’s the site of the main Expo, so you couldn’t keep up with Tweets using an AT&T mobile phone. The wifi option was no help, as wifi networks in Moscone kept going down (including the one at the Bloggers Lounge).

Nevertheless, I did manage to post my best Tweet ever, announcing that I’d just spotted Barak Obama getting out of a limo and entering the side door of the Westi Hotel at Union Square Thursday a bit after noon.

It’s hard to believe that a year ago (even seven months ago!) there were no iPhones. They are pretty much standard fare around San Francisco now. I usually take a 12″ laptop to Macworld and lug it around, but this year I left the laptop in my hotel room and handled just about everything, including short emails, notes, photos for an article, and even some posts to a photo blog, using the iPhone. I left longer emails for when I got back to my room (again, a place with molasses-like wifi). My back certainly appreciated it…I was able to enjoy Macworld carrying just my regular messenger bag-style purse. My only regret was lack of zoom and flash for photos; next year I’ll take along a little Canon Digital Elph.

Cameras of all sizes were much in evidence, with many people snapping photos of products instead of taking brochures. My strategy was to take a shot of an interesting product and then a shot of the booth’s signage, so I could identify the item by the adjacent signage shot after I’d uploaded the pictures to iPhoto.

The other technology item that was ubiquitous in San Francisco this year was GPS. All the airport shuttle vans had it, and thank god. The driver from the Oakland airport acted as if he’d never ventured into downtown San Francisco before.

My friend Doug Plummer recently rented a car with GPS while on a photo shoot in Boston, a city where the roadways usually confound him. “This time I had an authoritative female voice directing me,” Doug writes in his blog.

I’ve just submitted an article about some noteworthy Macworld products; it’s scheduled for online publication later this week and I’ll be sure to link to it then.

iPhone report

Got the iPhone — and, after this post, I’ll return to writing about writing.

The wait was 12 hours at an AT&T store at a mall north of Seattle, and mildly amusing. The folks in line were geeky, but gadget freaks rather than Mac aficionados. Everyone had friends and relatives coming and going during the day for entertainment and to hold their places in line, which made for a congenial atmosphere. There were two security guys (one in a black suit, with sunglasses and a crewcut!) assigned to keep an eye on us and pretty soon a sort of “reverse Stockholm Syndrome” took hold, with much sharing of snacks and talk about the local club scene. The AT&T store staff were really revved up; they got a briefing on the phones from an Apple rep at 4:30, and at 5:30 came out to let us play with some of the accessories (ear pieces, cases) that would be on sale with the phones. It wasn’t quite as posh as the scene at one California Apple Store, where the store staff treated those in line to coffee from a nearby Starbucks. We had to buy our own.

At 6 p.m. the doors opened and the AT&T store sold us the phones in sealed boxes in sealed bags. I brought mine home and activated it through iTunes in about three minutes. I’d had my landline forwarded to my old cell phone during the wait, and forgot to take off call forwarding, so my first clue that my mobile number from T-Mobile had shifted to the iPhone was when I started getting calls. The iPhone had synced my contacts from my iMac, so it recognized the callers and displayed their names.

Those of you who like Apple products will be delighted to hear that the iPhone takes user friendliness to astonishing new heights. Those of you who are sure the iPhone is an over-rated piece of crap wouldn’t believe a single thing I’d say about it, so I won’t bother. Really. This is a writing blog, not a technology blog.

From a writer’s perspective, the iPhone is not going to be a significant tool. The touchscreen keyboards (one for alphabet, one for numbers and punctuation) are fine for composing short text messages and adding info to a contact file. But you wouldn’t want to take notes or blog with them. The process is crystal clear, but the tapping is slower than with a traditional mini-keyboard.

From a business person’s perspective, an iPhone could become an essential. Today I found myself using the phone, the text messaging, Google Maps, and the web browsing capability as I headed off to brunch with Chris Barnes (another ex-Apple person) and then went in search of a store that sells Tom Bihn bags. It seems odd to call it a phone, because it feels more like having a computer in my purse.

Chris and I ran into Monica Guzman, who blogs about the Internet for the Seattle P-I, at brunch. We demo-ed our iPhones for her, and then Chris used the Apple website to locate nearby stores at which iPhones were still in stock. Monica’s off on vacation for a few weeks, but I’ll be watching her blog when she gets back to see if she’s iPhone-equipped!

Apple announces a new era

“Go to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” — Wayne Gretzky

Steve Jobs ended his keynote this morning with that quote, but I’ll start with it because it pretty much sums up the news from Apple.

Jobs announced a new phone, a new iPod, and a new internet device. They’re all the same product — the Apple iPhone.

Is it as revolutionary as he claims? In a word, yes. I’ll refer you to or one of the Mac news sites for more information.

In my favorite part of the demo, Jobs was listening to music on the iPhone in iPod mode (he also could have been watching a movie on the 3.5″ screen — which automatically switches between portrait and landscape mode depending on how you hold the device) when a phone call came in. The iPhone automatically turned off the music (faded it out tastefully, of course) and gave him a choice with on-screen touch buttons of declining or accepting the call.

He answered the call, and the caller asked him for a photo, which he located in the phone’s iPhoto (did I mention the phone is running OSX? Yeah, really) and then he emailed it to the caller using an address in his Contacts (synced from his address book). He typed the message with a Qwerty keyboard that appears when you need it for email, search, or chat. With the caller still on the line, Jobs moved into internet mode (Safari is part of the iPhone software), went to his Fandango bookmark, and looked up local movie offerings.

After relaying the information to the caller, he touched the pulsing button that indictates an active call and ended the conversation. When he hung up, the song (remember the song?) faded back up.

Jobs then used Google Maps (part of the iPhone software) to locate the nearest Starbucks. He called and ordered 4,000 lattes, to go. “Sorry, wrong number,” he said as he ended the call with an astonished Starbucks employee.

Four other mind-boggling iPhone features:

  • The screen covers the entire device, bringing up an on-screen keyboard only when you need it for email or text messaging (the text message interface has colored balloons, like iChat).
  • All scrolling is done with your finger. A pinching movement (also tapping in Safari) increases the size of the screen image.
  • iPhone (developed in conjunction with Cingular Wireless) offers controlled access to voicemail messages. You see a list of the messages showing numbers (and, if available) the names of the callers. This means you can go right to the message you want instead of listening to a lot of blather. (I have to say, for me, that’s the “killer app.”)
  • If you have two calls on the phone, the phone presents you with a merge button (looks like a traffic merge sign) you can tap to create a conference call. This simple solution to a perennial phone nightmare of conferencing got gasps and applause from the crowd.

“You know, I didn’t sleep a wink last night,” Jobs said, as he ended the demo. “I was so excited about today.”

Jobs had opened the presentation by saying the new product would rank with the 1984 intro of the Mac and the 2001 intro of the iPod. I have to say I agree. And, as a former member of the iTunes Music Store team, I feel truly retired now. The era of the iPod is over. The era of the iPhone has begun.