Monthly Archives: June 2016

Book your dream holiday for you

Now imagine being able to stop the action, ask your smart TV for the location, then have it work out how to get there, including flight and accommodation details.

It may sound far-fetched, but this kind of “joined-up” travel tech is closer than you think.

It’s all part of an effort by airlines and other transport providers to broaden their appeal and compete with the new app-based travel companies, such as Airbnb and Booking.com.

They want to give us the tools to turn our wanderlust into reality.

And travel inspiration can come from anywhere – even episodes of the seminal TV series, Sex and the City.

Madrid-based travel technology company Amadeus noticed that during one episode in which the lead characters went to Jamaica for the weekend, there was “an interesting spike in search activity for destination during the programme’s ad break”, says Rob Sinclair Barnes, strategic marketing director for the firm’s IT Group.

“This started us thinking about how we could implement the technology to build on it.”

Amadeus was then approached by US carrier United Airlines to develop a product that could exploit emerging technology from the likes of Apple TV and others.

The prototype makes use of GPS location tracking embedded in the filming process. By integrating airline data into the coding, the viewer can be given information on the best flight options and travel deals.

This level of personalisation may not be mainstream reality yet, but it’s an indication of where we’re heading. And with the data analytics and machine learning capabilities we have these days, we may soon find ourselves booking holidays to destinations we didn’t even realise we wanted to go to.

“Personalised technology will become so sophisticated that travellers will be offered what they want, when they want it, before they even need to ask,” says Mr Sinclair Barnes.

“We’re seeing massive growth and spending in this area over and above others and that’s healthy for the travel industry as a whole as it will stimulate continual technology advancements and improve the experiences for everyone.”

‘Worst case scenario’

In another example, German airline Lufthansa has opened up its huge passenger and flight status databases to about 400 third-party app developers, allowing them to access the data through an open API (application programming interface) and integrate it into a new range of travel apps.

This is a first for the airline industry.

Lufthansa’s Reinhard Lanegger says that these days for an airline to be known only for operating passenger planes is “the very worst case scenario”.

“We looked at how Amazon uses its data and it really made us think about how we interact with start-ups. You can fence yourself off from them or become an active partner to achieve the level of customer service that is now expected,” he says.

Planning a trip is not just about getting from A to B. There are recommendations to read on social media and travel review sites; bookings to be made, often for multiple forms of transport and different types of accommodation; routes and itineraries to be planned; insurance to be bought; pets to be fed and walked when you’re away.

All these elements are coming closer to being integrated to create a near-seamless travel experience.

Mr Lanegger envisages apps that “heat up your house based on the estimated time of arrival” or “alert your car to rebook the flight when you are too far away to reach the airport in time”.

He says such services will enable the airline “to transform our offering and better reach the younger demographic that now lives online”.

Mums and dads more paranoid

A growing number of tech entrepreneurs believe they have an answer.

But does using more technology offer time-starved parents valuable new ways to interact with their kids or simply make them more paranoid?

Molawa Adesuyi is co-founder and chief executive of Mytoddlr, an app that gives you updates on what your little one is up to at nursery or creche. He is in no doubt about the usefulness of such tech.

“Most working parents drop off their children in day nurseries as early as 8 or 9am, and can’t pick them up till 5 or 6pm,” he says.

“And in this time, they have absolutely no way of keeping in touch or staying abreast of their children’s welfare all through the day. This is a major, major problem.”

With the Mytoddlr app and website, nurseries input data about the child’s routine and behaviour throughout the day – from potty breaks to naps – and parents receive these updates in real time on their phones or computers.

 

“The nursery is happy, parents are happy, it’s a win-win for everyone really,” says Mr Adesuyi.

But isn’t this an extra administrative burden for nursery staff?

Mr Adesuyi claims not, as it can actually reduce paperwork and provide an easier, faster way of communicating with parents, he says.

“There are such great apps out there now for parents… solutions to real problems parents have. It’s just nice to see technology change parenting,” he concludes.

Launched in 2015, Mytoddlr is being used by 2,000 parents in Lagos, Nigeria, and is currently being trialled by some nurseries in London.

Paranoid parenting?

Harsh Songra, 19-year-old founder and chief executive of smartphone app My Child, was inspired to launch his child development monitoring app after having dyspraxia when growing up.

This developmental disorder affecting co-ordination and movement can be difficult to diagnose if parents don’t know what to look out for.

“I have known the struggle of a family where the child has a disorder,” he says. “It took my parents over nine years to figure out the specific problem, and I still go through some health issues,” says Mr Songra.

The My Child app helps parents monitor the development of a child up to 24 months old, asking questions, aggregating relevant content, and identifying local experts.

Launched in early 2015, the app has been downloaded more than 11,000 times in over 140 countries, and is particularly popular in the US, India, Singapore and the UK.

Mr Songra believes technology is a useful parenting tool, but concedes that it may sometimes interfere with the work of professionals.

“At times it does affect their relations with doctors, because parents become paranoid about their child because of what they searched on Google,” he says.

“The problem is that we tend to believe the content of one link over 100 others, and then take actions based on that knowledge.

“But we believe all this will surely change with time, as there is going to be more awareness about these issues in the future.”

Picture perfect

Parenting apps – from webcam baby monitors to location-tracking services, interactive games to health checkers – are definitely on the rise, as busy parents integrate the latest tech into their lives.

One woman in Australia even used Siri, Apple’s voice-activated iPhone assistant, to call an ambulance when her toddler daughter stopped breathing.

But for New Jersey-based entrepreneur Amit Murumkar, the motivation for creating an app was purely practical.

“My daughter was three… and would bring a piece of art back daily from her Montessori school, but there is only so much you can put on a refrigerator door,” he says.

“I also was a good artist as a kid, and when I became a parent I thought, ‘If only I could show the art I did to my own kids.'”

So he built a smartphone app called Canvsly, that allows parents to capture these works of art on the app, organise them into albums, and invite grandparents or other family members to see and comment on them.

The artwork can also be printed through the app and used to create gifts. As long as you trust the app’s cloud storage provider, you could then ditch the originals.

“Parents can go guilt-free and clutter-free,” Mr Murumkar says, adding that the app has been downloaded in more than 100 countries.

Anesu Charamba, a tech analyst at research consultancy Frost & Sullivan, believes such apps are helping parents raise and interact with their children in “new and exciting ways”.

Shopping website to load

Apparently, nearly half of us won’t wait even three seconds.

If a shopping website doesn’t load its content within that time, many of us are so impatient we’ll immediately jump ship.

And that means a lot of lost business for the online slowcoaches.

According to research from digital performance measurement firm Dynatrace, just a half second difference in page load times can make a 10% difference in sales for an online retailer.

Yet retail websites around the world have actually been getting slower over the last year, not faster, says Dynatrace, despite the general increase in connectivity speeds.

Why?

“It’s mainly because of all the third-party connections to Google, Facebook and Twitter,” says Dave Anderson, the tech firm’s vice president of marketing. “These, and chat functionality, are slowing things down, particularly for Australian sites.”

This is because data travelling between the US and Australia have to cover huge distances, causing a delay, or latency.

Australian retail websites have seen average load times increase from 5.4 seconds in 2015 to 8.2 seconds in 2016, says the tech firm – a debilitating time-lag for impatient shoppers.

In the US, the very home of e-commerce, average homepage response times have increased by half a second over the last year, from 3.4 to 3.9 seconds.

And globally, the average page load time has gone up by 7% compared to last year – from 4.2 to 4.5 seconds.

So, ironically, retailers who have been trying to offer a more interactive, personalised multimedia online experience for their customers have been shooting themselves in the foot.

All these add-ons have got in the way of the main aim – to sell stuff. Fast.

“With consumers used to lightning-fast speeds through the use of tools such as Google search, expectations are higher than ever, meaning even the slightest glitch or delay can leave them feeling disgruntled,” says John Rakowski, director of technology strategy at AppDynamics, a performance monitoring firm.

“The level of choice at the fingertips of today’s consumers means they will simply go to a competitor to complete the transaction, causing the sale to be lost forever. And convincing them to come back for another purchase will be an uphill struggle.”

Split second

But can fractions of a second really make that much of a difference?

In a word, yes. North American fashion retailer Nordstrom saw online sales fall 11% when its website response time slowed by just half a second, says Gopal Brugalette, who was the retailer’s senior applied architect in performance engineering at the time.

When you have total annual sales in the region of $14bn (£10.6bn) across 121 stores in the US and Canada, that’s tens of millions being lost.

The bigger the size of a digital file, the longer it will take to load on the page.

An innovative online “dressing room” seemed like a great way to impress customers, he says, but it didn’t work because it slowed the website down too much and sales dropped.

Page load times will vary depending on the type of products customers are looking at, the speed of the networks and devices they’re using, and how far they are from the retailer’s web servers, says Mr Brugalette.

“There’s a lot we can’t control. No two customers will have the same web experience at the same time, because an image of a multi-coloured dress will take longer to load than a plain one,” he explains.

Nordstrom believes a page load time of 2.5 seconds or below strikes the right balance between functionality and speed.

But the bottom line is that “if our site goes slow, our sales will drop, which is why we monitor our performance 24/7”.

Conversely, the faster you make your website or app, the more likely it is you’ll make more sales. Office stationery retailer Staples, for example, saw its online sales increase 10% after speeding up its website by a second.

Balancing act

Retailers face the almost impossible task of offering a fast, stable, easy-to-use website or app that is also visually rich and integrated with social media.

“Personalisation requires the use of scripts, images and integrations with other applications and systems, and this can take its toll on performance, especially during busy retail periods such as Black Friday or the Christmas season,” says Mr Rakowski.

To make things more difficult for them, many don’t even know that their sites are running slowly because their IT teams are concentrating more on keeping the service up and running than on speed and performance, says Mr Brugalette.

But website architects are now getting very clever at fooling customers into thinking pages are loading faster than they really are, he says.

“Say you Google search for ‘brown shoes’ then click on a link. If brown shoes are the first thing you see on the page you feel that the page has loaded fast, so it’s important to make sure the page loads in a particular sequence.”

So online shoppers want speed, simplicity, and reliability all wrapped up in a fun, multimedia experience. Retailers that can offer all this – however technically difficult – will be on to a winner.