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Understanding the possibilities: a key for strategic positioning

Ten years ago I wrote an article titled Understanding the Possibilities: A Key for Strategic Visioning. (The article is behind an expensive paywall if you’re not in academia, but if you’re really interested contact me and I’ll send you the text.)

2002 represented the ten-year mark in my career. I’m now at the twenty-year mark of my professional life, having transferred from managing library technology in a higher education environment to working with Internet-based startups.

That article reflected on the formation of my career as a librarian. My exposure to the early Internet before the Web existed, the days when a young technophile got excited by command-line tools such as Telnet & FTP that offered access to, what seemed at the time, like an amazing set of databases and documents.

I want to quote a couple of paragraphs from that article:

“Catching my attention one summer day in 1991 was a message that came across PACS-L titled “Strategic Visions White Paper: Librarianship, the Profession — Prelude to its Future”. Reading this message that summer while in library school helped me decide what type of librarian to become: one who embraced the challenges of leveraging technology that held the promise of developing new ways of accessing information resources and offering new services that matched the evolving needs of students and faculty. This focus became so ingrained in my thinking that it has defined my outlook on the profession.

“From this point everything I did as a librarian became a manner of understanding the possibilities. Innovative uses of technology come about when people see new ways of using the tools. These insights usually are made only once one understands the possibilities of the technology. An important role for librarians is to help others understand how technology can be used to enhance the spread of scholarship. But librarianship is not about technology. The academic librarian of today and the future can help faculty develop digital resources that offer students new means of utilizing information. Understanding the possibilities of being a librarian requires taking risks, trying something different, exhibiting the courage to fail, and learning from shortcomings in order to improve efforts for the next initiative.”

Though I’m no longer a librarian these thoughts still drive many of my efforts in thinking how digital publishing. Ultimately, my work is never about the technology but the story being told.

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The years ahead: 2013 – 2030

Tomorrow, on the second day of the year, my daughter turns two. Like most parents my life is consumed by caring for her, preparing her for life, & thinking of her future. I’m fascinated by the type of world she’s going to encounter, the aspects that won’t change very much, and those that will shift dramatically. Technology, due to its very nature, will be very different seventeen years from now when she’s in college (if colleges, as we know them, still exist then…I have my doubts about higher education). Fundamental to my own professional interests–as a former librarian, as a software developer, as a writer, as a reader–is understanding how we tell and read stories (particularly non-fiction) in digital media. The future trajectory of my daughter’s life is the lens through which I view the changing shape of creativity, learning, and leisure in the early twenty-first century. And that’s the very reason I care deeply about the topic.

Here at the beginning of 2013 is a good point to re-read two posts I wrote in years past. These are guide points for me that I come back to again and again:

In re-reading those posts again I find my professional passion expressed in those words. For 2013 I must dedicate myself to further examining what I described as the real burden upon all of us: ensuring that “tomorrow’s writers & editors understand the elements of style required for creating the publications that will dominate the mid-century“.

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The photos we keep

I received an urgent message from my sister on the morning of November 2. I called her immediately and learned that our mother had died from a sudden heart attack.

During the next few nights and after the funeral I stayed alone in my mother’s apartment sorting through the accumulation of materials that are left behind after such times. We had to empty out the apartment, so that meant deciding what to keep, what to give away, and what to toss in the trash.

Going through the family photos I made digital copies with my iPhone, not the best means of digitizing but time & available technology was limited. At least I came away with copies of all the family photos. Of course, I took a fair share of the originals, particularly most of those that included me. The rest were divided among my sister and brother.

However, many, many photos were not in albums but stored in those envelopes that you receive after developing film. Many of these were snapshots taken by my mother, or myself as a young teen, on vacation. They were of nothing special…landscapes, buildings, sunsets and the like. And there were no particular quality to those images. A few older photos captured an aspect of my hometown: a building that no longer stands, a street corner that has changed considerably. Those photos I set aside for preserving. Generally, though, I only kept the photos of people in my family.

Seldom in my life have I wanted photos made of me. Camera shy and before the onset of digital cameras resulted in an explosion of everyday photos of ourselves, there exists only a small number of photographs of myself from the 1980s and 1990s. Many more from the ’70s when I was a boy since my mother often took photos of me. Previously I never understood why people took photos of others or themselves in front of this spot or that place. But now I do. At the end of life those are the photos we cherish. Those are the photos that bring back memories. 

graceland

This is not the best photo of my mother but it raises a vivid memory of an all night drive back from Louisiana to our home in middle Tennessee in 1989. In the middle of the night, around 3am, we passed through Memphis. My mom was driving and I was barely awake. Always a huge Elvis fan she saw a sign for Graceland from the highway and decided to take a detour despite the early morning hour. We had even visited Graceland about seven years earlier…done the whole tour..jungle room, museum, gravesite. But this middle of the night stop was more meaningful.

A few other devoted fans had the same idea, and they mingled in front of the gate. My mom and I got out of the car and wandered along the stone fence while reading the thoughts people had written on the wall surrounding Graceland.

That particular trip to Louisiana was not very good, a painful period in our lives. But there existed a few moments outside Graceland that brought a smile to my mother’s face as I took that photograph of her. And a sweet feeling emerges within me as I view photos of her from my youth. That’s the way I shall always remember her.

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Defining a startup around Google’s Project Glass

Scoble has another one of his excellent interviews online. This one is with two managing directors of Menlo Ventures. Lots of insights for entrepreneurs. View the video on YouTube.

At just past the 11 minute mark Scoble asks, “Is it too early to pitch a company just for these wearable computers, Google’s Project Glass?”

Considering that the Glass product might now ship till 2014 Shawn Carolan responds, “Here’s what you don’t want to count on: is if the only place to make any money and build intellectual property is once the glasses start to ship. That’s a way’s off. However, you start to think there’s a lot of apps that very clearly can find some market in mobile and then the market will explode when you get to the glasses. You’ll be interacting with it 24/7 rather than when just open up your phone.”

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Startup profile: Foto Ruta

This is the first in a series of profiles about startups.

Foto Ruta is an energetic, young company that offers creative ways for travelers to explore a city while becoming better photographers. Get a taste of their flagship tour by reading about my experience from last weekend. In addition to the weekly tour that covers a different neighborhood each Saturday, Foto Ruta offers a set of creative photography options in Buenos Aires: half day and full day street photography excursions, a half day iPhoneography tour and workshop, a full day post-production workshop on learning Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, as well as custom excursions.

Foto Ruta photography tours Buenos Aires

Founded by Joss Mandryk and Becky Hayes, two expats living in Buenos Aires, this company is much more than the typical expat starts a walking tour business that you see everywhere. Foto Ruta is prepping to go international with franchises in New York and Santiago, Chile in the works. Plus, they planning an iPhone app.

The founders’ backgrounds are visible in the success of the company. Joss is a graphic designer and photographer, and Becky comes from a career as a Marketing and PR Director. That combination is evident in their extremely well design marketing materials:

Foto Ruta marketing materials

To gain a better sense of what drives Foto Ruta, I talked with co-founder Becky Hayes.

What was the spark that gave you the incentive to start this specific company?

We’re both expats living in Buenos Aires and started off as tourists. We fell in love with Buenos Aires but found that tourists who were here for only a few days often missed out on what was great about the city. People who’d heard so much about the city, arrived, spent a few days visiting the main tourist sites and then went away bemused as to why Buenos Aires got such rave reviews from travellers. In other words, it’s a city that requires a bit of time to really appreciate.

We wanted to offer a way to show tourists the greatness of Buenos Aires, such as the crumbling architecture, secret restaurants, passage ways, street art, quirky street life. As photographers we are both aware of the way photography can be a great way of seeing a place and hunting out the unexpected. And so we came up with a concept that would fuse the two…tourism and photography!

Foto Ruta has a solid momentum going, which is hard to achieve in a young company. What was a challenge that you had to overcome to get the company on course?

I’d say as with most start-ups the biggest challenges were financial. We started Foto Ruta with a miniscule pot of money with the hope of growing organically, so we had to work really hard to prioritise expenditure. With our combination of skills we were able to launch the company without having to make huge investments in design/programming and marketing. Foto Ruta managed to get a momentum going fairly quickly towards the end of 2011, which was great but it meant that we grew quite quickly, and what we planned was originally going to be a part time set up, became a full time job (while we were both still having to juggle other full time jobs!). The balance between growing a new company and making it profitable whilst also earning a living is a tough one to manage.

You have a good mix of products that are well defined at varying price points.  Do you have any suggestions for other entrepreneurs on creating a slate of products that offer value to different customer segments, AKA product market fit?

It’s definitely been a bit of a process of trial and error. We began with our lead product Foto Ruta Weekly, a clue based tour that explores a different neighborhood each week. It was this product that we felt had a real unique selling proposition. It was totally unique to us, and, as it’s a tour that supports large groups. We rely on volume, so we can offer it at a very low price. This means it appeals to every type of traveller, and we find due to its uniqueness, it appeals to pretty much every customer segment from budget traveller through to the top end of the market. We also find due to the low price and the explorative/fun nature of the events, it appeals to photographers and non-photographers alike.

Customers meeting before a tour

As Foto Ruta Weekly began to grow we were getting to know our customers and their needs more and more, and realised there was genuine demand for longer, more intense photo experiences. So we launched the full day Academia tour. The idea behind that tour was to take Foto Ruta to the next level by focusing more on technical and practical aspects of photography and showing people some amazing places in Buenos Aires that otherwise they would never get to see. The price point was higher which made the product more niche, i.e. for people who were either photography enthusiasts, or those for whatever reason, were willing to pay a bit more for their experience.

As time has gone on, we’ve realised there is also a middle ground in between those products, so we created the 1/2 day Academia as a more mass market version of the full day. In addition to creating products to fit market, we’ve also created products we feel are relevant and push the boundaries creatively and professionally. e.g. Labs (Photoshop Lightroom course) and iPhoneography.

I can only offer advice to service providing entrepreneurs..and my advice would be:

Know your market and stay nimble. As long as you know your market and have a good solid product, you can tweak everything to adapt to the market as you go. Nimbleness and constant awareness of your market is crucial as its a continuously evolving beast.

Did you always plan to expand beyond Buenos Aires? Or at some point did Joss & you say, “Oh, we’re on to something.” Or did expansion simply come about through opportunity with someone proposing to work together in a different city?

Joss and myself are both quite ambitious and passionate about what we do. As soon as Foto Ruta took off we knew it was always going to be more than just a hobby business. Since the start, we’ve had participants coming us to say ‘oh you must do a Foto Ruta Philippines’ or ‘FR Istambul!’ so we’ve definitely had international ambitions and a ‘hit-list’ of cities we’d love to run Foto Ruta in. New York City was the first overseas pop up we’ve done, it seemed the logical next step because we have contacts over there who were keen to get involved and help us set it up. We’re now also in the process of planning to launch Foto Ruta in Santiago very soon.

Participant in a Foto Ruta workshop

What’s the vision for the company?  How do you envision Foto Ruta growing over the next few years?

Our vision is to continue growing our Foto Ruta roots in Buenos Aires, whilst gradually expanding into new territories and seeing how they go. Our challenges will most likely be, managing the financial unstable environment that exists in Argentina and in terms of expansion, dealing with the huge physical distance between territories!

What’s the business model for expanding internationally?

We’re considering a number of options for expansion. The first being licensing to partners in new territories and the second, franchising the product to franchisees in new territories. We favor the first option initially as we’re keen to maintain control of our product and brand in the early stages of growth.  One of our key strengths is service. We pride ourselves on offering a personal, friendly service and a great customer experience. So at this stage it’s really important we have a tight hold of the reins. However, in order to achieve our future expansion goals, we will look to use the franchise model, and look forward to getting that off the ground within the next year.

Reviewing photos after a Foto Ruta tour

What’s one tip you would give to entrepreneurs who do not have a marketing background?

The most important thing is to know your customer, get into their mindset. For example for a tourist product like ours, I’d ask the following questions: Where are they coming from? What are they reading? Who is influencing their holiday activity decisions? What are their deciding factors for them when booking a tour? Where are they drinking coffee/eating? 

It’s all about maximising opportunities to reach them in their environment.

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Will iOS apps for children need to support iPad 1st generation?

The first generation iPad does not support iOS 6. As operating systems evolve it’s not surprising that older hardware is obsoleted. AppAdvice on the matter: Get over it. But is that so easy for a publisher of apps made for children? Developers would prefer to deal only with the latest version of an iOS release. However, if you publish apps for children there’s probably a very high percentage of children who have the first generation iPad. As mom and dad upgrade to a newer iPad then that older model gets handed down.

My 1st generation iPad runs 5.1.1. It’s pretty slow at times, especially when there’s a lot of books in iBooks. Movies run great. No problem there. Some apps are slow to start and some are sluggish. But, still, overall it’s a decent device. And for a young kid it’s a great device.

If children are a significant customer segment for your apps, then you’re likely to be supporting iOS 5.x for a long time. With the hardware limitations of the 1st generation iPad Apple probably didn’t have a choice in leaving it out with iOS 6. But for those selling apps in the children’s market it’s not such an easy decision to abandon that model.

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Boredom is a criss

Why do so many people use [insert name of favorite local discovery app]? People are looking for things to do. Yet, (I almost said, “Yelp”), these local discovery apps are like the Yellow Pages. Since when did browsing the phone directory become a fun thing to do?

Does a small dash of social networking and a pinch of game mechanics make an app fun? We need more fun when it comes to figuring out what to do when we’re out and about. Because at the end of the day, when the drinks are in our hands, we just want to be entertained.

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Jobs to be done analysis: taking a tour

In the post City touring for those who don’t use tour guides I alluded to the concept that people hire a guide for a walking tour for reasons other than just learning about a particular place.

That sounds entirely counterintuitive. How else could there be any reason to hire a tour guide other than to learn about the points of interest on the walk? (Many of these also apply to bus tours as well as walking tours.)

Gaining knowledge of place is certainly one job for which people hire a tour guide. But if one only wants to gain knowledge of a particular place then one could read a book, Wikipedia, or even take advantage of the new breed of apps that provide contextual information based on your location.

What are some other jobs to be done, and are there reasons that may be even more important than gaining knowledge?

It’s a thing to do. When I actively wrote my blog on Buenos Aires I was astonished that the #1 search phrase was “things to do in Buenos Aires”. The number of searches for that expression (and its variations) numbered in the thousands every month. When people travel they want to know what to do. A walking tour is a thing to do. The people who hire a tour guide for this purpose don’t necessarily even care about the quality of the tour. They may be entirely indifferent to what the tour guide is saying. They’re simply looking for a way to fill a morning or afternoon. To the dismay of tour guides this may very well be the largest segment. However, this customer segment is also price conscious: a $10 tour is just as good as a $100 tour. Tour companies that cater to volume seek out this customer.

Walking tour as entertainment: a tour guide friend of mine often described his role on each tour as an actor giving a performance. Indeed, mystery tours often are given as performances with the tour guide in character and period costume. This segment builds on the things-to-do segment and also is price sensitive. Competing tour operators differentiate themselves by providing ever more entertaining tours. Or is it even better to characterize this type of tour as a show? Is the factual quality or historical accuracy of the tour important? Those factors likely take a backseat to the entertainment quality. Some tour guides will scoff at that notion.

The tour as entertainment is a job to be done that has potential for disruption by technology. Entertainment is a basic human need that is more powerful than the need for knowledge or (for some) the need for companionship. Tour as entertainment deserves more analysis in a separate post.

Hesitancy about the unfamiliar: travelers to a new destination, particular in a foreign country, are often reluctant to get out and explore neighborhoods on their own. This fear of the unfamiliar is not abnormal. We’ve all experienced it to some degree. For many the walking tour is a safe way to explore a large city. This customer segment always will be wanting to hire a person to take them around. Often this type of customer is willing to be carted around in a van or bus filled with a dozen other tourists. For some this is merely a way to get a quick orientation and then they’ll explore more on their own or with a hired guide. For others it’s the only way to travel.

Afraid of missing out: nurtured by the guidebook industry to believe that there’s a list of must-see sites we’re afraid of missing that special place that supposedly will make our trip. People hire a tour to make sure they see those spots, even if for a few seconds as the bus rolls on by or the walking tour guide gently pushes you along to the next spot on the schedule. Guidebooks (print and digital) supplant the physical guide for this customer segment.

Rent-a-knowledgeable-companion.  If you are a walking tour guide then this is the customer segment you want to target. These customers are willing to pay a hundred dollars or more for a personal guide that fulfills several jobs: knowledge of place, thing to do, entertainment, becoming familiar with the unfamiliar, and not missing out on important sites.

Many of these jobs-to-be-done for tours are based more on human connectedness and that’s why the real-world job of a tour guide is not totally replaceable with technology (whether it’s print or digital). Yet, the customers that fall into these jobs-to-be done might only represent an overall small slice of travelers.

If you’re planning a digital product in this space, then take a much closer look at the things to do and tour as entertainment jobs to be done.

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Notes from a failed startup. Or was it a hobby?

Perhaps we learn more when things go wrong….this post also could be titled, How to keep your startup from turning into a hobby.

I learned a tremendous amount in 2010 – 2011  about iOS development, but I learned even more about what to avoid the next time I form a startup. Towards the beginning of 2010 a friend and I formed the idea for a startup around a topic we both really enjoyed and know a lot about: travel. Specifically, we wanted to create in-depth guides that enriched the experience of travel beyond the checklist of tourist sites listed in most guidebooks. Our slogan: destinations in context.

My business partner was a domain expert: a highly experienced tour guide who had extensive contact over the years with customers. I had a deep background in technology and management experience in a non-profit environment. We made mistakes by not understanding the unique nature of a startup.

None of this is a list of regrets or complaints. This is not a lament, “If we had only done that, then…” No, this is all about learning for next time.

I do believe that my business partner and I shared a vision of our products and what the  company could accomplish. We were very excited and motivated by that. But I realized too late that we did not share an understanding of the process to grow the business.

There’s a wonderful description of a startup by Steve Blank: “a startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

We had a vague idea of our business model but didn’t put the effort into really thinking through the elements that comprise a business model.

Too much initial attention to branding. We placed enormous effort in devising a brand name. Months (!) of conversations across two continents resulted in brainstorming of nearly a hundred domain names. Finally, I simply gave in and agreed to one of my partner’s suggestions. I didn’t love the name but it worked fine. (So would have about a dozen others that were discarded, but that’s my view.) Somewhere there’s a classic statement, “Your brand is not your logo.” (Or something like that.) Your domain name is also not your brand. It’s an important element but there are so many more things that need deep thought when creating a startup.

Too narrow of a niche requires scaling to many destinations. The problem with travel content is that once you acquire a loyal customer then that customer is not likely to travel again for another year. And then they’re most likely to go to a different destination and probably not to the one other city we were writing about. See a post I wrote, “leisures travelers don’t scale“. We knew we needed to cover other destinations but we both didn’t grasp that the only way to sustain the business was by generating a significant number of guides to many different cities. That simply cannot be done with one or two people writing content, especially if the content is well researched and extensive. We did not understand the need to scale and the resources required. Mainly, we ignored scalability. Of course our startup failed.

Thought we knew the customer. We created a product that we ourselves wanted as travelers and assumed that there would be plenty of others like us that would want the same. I don’t think the product concept is bad even today, but we didn’t explore the product market fit adequately. This also links back to the narrow niche, the urgency to scale, and resources for doing so. We should have examined the possible customer segments and identified if there were products more easily scalable to a broader segment. “But that’s not what we want to do”, is a common phrase when a business is very focused on its product idea and not willing to see whether it really fits the market in a way that can work for the business.

In other words, we were not willing to pivot in our search for a business model. 

Perfecting & perfecting a 1.0 release. Our first product, an iPhone app that provided a guided tour of a prominent historic & cultural attraction in a major city, took almost a year to produce. As the actual developer of that app I can testify that it could have been completed in less than 2 months. I wanted to get a good enough app out on the market and improve it with incremental development while we continued pushing out other products. This was not the kind of app that was going to sell thousands or hundreds of copies in the first few months. Instead, we tweaked the design, the content, and functionality for months. My business partner, who was supposed to be focused on content, couldn’t restrain himself from adjusting every aspect of the design even though we had a professional graphic designer working with us. I ended up having to mediate conflicts with the designer (who was also my spouse). There was a need to create the perfect app, perhaps even the best iPhone travel app ever designed. Really, did we need to do that? In a bootstrapped startup did we need to spend all our resources in this manner?  We were too focused on perfecting the launch release rather than getting it out into the hands of customers, listening to customers and evolving the business strategy. The argument for the extensive 1.0 release ran like this, “If it’s not great, then people won’t buy anything else from us. I wouldn’t.” How did we come to that conclusion? Potential customers didn’t tell us that. It was an assumption without validation.

Admittedly, during the year of developing this product I didn’t work on it full-time, but about 80% of the time. Had to pay the bills with freelance work, plus I had a newborn child. And one month I stopped work completely on the product in order to earn an additional income; that was when the product was 5 months behind schedule. My spouse encouraged me to abandon it completely, but I wanted to finish at least this initial app.

A 50/50 partnership leads to no clear decision-making. We needed a CEO to make decisions, but probably neither of us would have worked for the other. The company would have dissolved within a week. Maybe that would have been the real test of the partnership and how well we would have worked together. But someone needed to guide the business, make decisions, and keep things moving ahead. A startup with 50/50 decision making does not work.

Ultimately, the money ran out. We had made the decision early on to bootstrap this startup and not seek external funding. (No one would have given us funding anyway with this business model.) In the last few months I had prepared spreadsheets with financial projections that would be needed to sustain the business and estimated the volume of sales required to meet those finances. After our first product launched (with sales far under expectations) we immediately moved into developing the next product. We did recognize the need to get multiple products on the market but we just didn’t examine if we had the right product or not.

Just before the end I invited my business partner to discuss a new strategy for the business, a pivot (if you will, though I didn’t call it that). After more than a year and a half of devoting the majority of my time to this business I had no more money left to put in. For me to continue I needed funding. We needed a strategy to continue and that meant a serious rethinking of our business and how we moved forward, particularly how we continued to finance the operation. Rather than rethinking the business my partner suggested that I take a job, save money and come back to work with him once I had a savings. The next week I took another job.

I learned a lot from that experience. A lot was my fault in not assertively pursuing strategies that I knew would be better for the company, but would those have survived the 50/50 decision-making?  Unfortunately, this startup ruined a friendship. My former business partner is still hard at work pursuing the same business. Maybe it’s working for him, but in hindsight, it’s clear that the strategy we employed could only support one person with a very modest residual income. That isn’t a startup, it’s a hobby.

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City touring for those who don’t use tour guides

The ability of Google’s Field Trip app to let a person know what’s around them as they walk through a city has been a long desired feature for travel apps. Not everyone wants to employ a tour guide. But this type of ambient local discovery app is not going to present a major disruption to the walking tour business with a real guide. People hire tour guides for a different reason. (More on that in another post.)

This type of app will have a greater impact on travel publishing by further reducing the perceived need to purchase a guidebook. For a traveler comfortable wandering a city a Field Trip app is a great asset to have around. Personally, I find unplanned excursions to be a great way of exploring an area. In the copywriting on the companion site for the app Google re-enforces that theme repeatedly:

there is no path, only the one you make”

“Field Trip day is dedicated to the art of the wander, and discovery through exploration”

“There are no right choices, no wrong turns – but there are treasures to be uncovered just out of sight.”

“This is not a tour. There is no guide. It is discovery, pure & simple.

Odd it might seem then for a product that targets unplanned use is that Google sponsored organized Field Trip days when the app was launched. Perhaps that simply was as a means of gaining feedback via a public beta test (without calling it that).

Note that the positioning of this product is for the local explorer and not the traveler. People are more comfortable exploring the familiar but I can see the appeal of ambient local discovery apps to travelers with an adventurous spirit.

For a review of the Field Trip app see the article by Rachel Metz in Technology Review, and Metz points out that the app would be most useful on vacations when a person is more likely to have the time for random interruptions. As most of us go about our daily lives we really don’t have the time to be pestered by historical tidbits or the latest deal down the block. Fortunately, the ability to set notification levels and the type of data is built into the app.

I’m hoping we’ll see the capabilities of this app built into the future Project Glass. If so, then Google has a huge winner on their hands.

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