I once wrote two posts saying that people are mistaking the context (location) for the end game and that location is (also) a key context, but most people don’t know this. Two years or so after I wrote those posts, the concept of location based mobile services and location based apps shows no sign of dying off. I see lots of new location based apps and whilst they’re almost always nice and glossy, not that many of them really grab you as a neat and innovative idea. But every so often, one does come along which makes you slap your forehead, like the scientists in the 80’s ads for Tefal, and mutter under your breath … that’s so obvious, why didn’t I think of that?
These days I tend to work as much out of the office than I do in the office. My needs for this are relatively few; somewhere to plug my laptop in, free wifi and a half-way decent cup of espresso now and again. Using local location based search services I can find places near me that meet these needs but it’s a disjointed experience, using multiple apps to find free wifi, good espresso and so on. Maybe the recently launched Work+ can help me out here?
First impressions are good. I launch the app and connect it to my Foursquare account (the check-in feature within Work+ is a nice touch). Work+ also passes the first hurdle than many location based apps fail at; it actually works outside of the United States.
I install the app, tap on Work and then Go to launch the easy to use search interface. I need wifi … tap. I need a table to put my laptop on … tap. I need coffee … tap.
Ideally I’d also like to see a search setting that says “by coffee I mean decent espresso and no, I don’t mean Starbucks” but maybe I’m being overly picky here.
So I tap on Search and I get a list of places that are close by to me that meet my needs or I can view those places on (Apple’s new) map. This is great. What is there not to like?
But wait, do all of these places actually meet my needs? The search results seem good, there’s no duplicates or places that either don’t exist or have since closed; problems which can plague location based services and which are by no means simple to solve. The results are also pretty close to where I am. But …
- The two hits for Costa Coffee are pretty good; as the name implies they both sell (reasonably passable) coffee and have (free-ish but time limited) wifi. Score, 2/7.
- The same goes for Caffe Nero, another one of the big UK coffee chains. Score, 3/7.
- Caffe Toscana is my local neighbourhood cafe. Great food and coffee … but no wifi, at least not when I visited last week. Score, 3/7
- Astrora Coffee isn’t a cafe. They sell coffee in the raw, roasted beans and ground beans. No wifi and not really somewhere you can work; I’d imagine the staff getting somewhat bemused if someone turned up and tried to work there. Score, still 3/7.
- Diner’s Delight is as the name suggests, a local diner. No wifi here either. Score, 3/7 again.
- Finally, The Nearest Cafe is a cafe and they do sell pretty good coffee. But again, no wifi here.
The final score ends up as 3 hits that really meet my needs, out of a possible 7.
It would be easy to take what I’ve just written as an indictment of Work+ but nothing could be further from the truth. Local search is not an easy thing to do. Tightly focused local search across a wide range of attributes that you can assign to a place (wifi, coffee and so on) is insanely difficult to do. It’s true that Work+ doesn’t score as highly as I’d have hoped in what is admittedly a very subjective search on a very limited local area. But Work+ shows the direction that local search is headed in. It’s no longer enough to ask find me what’s around me, we need to be able to ask find me what’s around me that fits what I need to know now and more importantly get good answers to that question.
What makes the Work+ experience not quite as good as it could be isn’t down to the app, which makes local search a pain free and simple process. What lets Work+ down is the lack of a complete local data set which contains not just the accepted standard place attributes of name, address, location and category but also which adds in more detailed, almost ambient or fuzzy, attributes, such as wifi, capacity (can I fit a large group of people in here?), beverage types (coffee or tea?), noise level and ambience.
Make no mistake, Work+ is a precursor to the local search and location based experiences we can expect to see in the very near future; whether the back-end data with all of the rich attributes that people want to search on will keep up with demand remains to be seen.