The iPhone, Location, and Product Pricing

A few years ago I had an idea for a website that would help its users to see which stores had a particular item in stock. I was tired of phone shopping for popular items, and I was even more tired of driving to a store only to find that they don’t have the one thing I’m looking for. It seemed simple: I want Item X for a reasonable price. I am located at these GPS coordinates. List the retailers that have Item X in order of ascending distance from me. However, it was pointed out that this idea would require the cooperation of each store’s inventory system, and it was likely that I wouldn’t ever get such deep cooperation from the biggest, most popular stores. So I ditched the idea.

When the software for what Apple calls iPhone 2.0 was introduced on March 6th, Apple spoke of a framework they were adding to the device called Core Location (optionally see the Core Location documentation on Apple’s Developer Center, registration required). The framework, according to Apple’s documentation, “lets you determine the current latitude and longitude of a device.” That data can then be used in applications on that device. (It is my strong opinion that locational awareness will be the defining feature of killer iPhone applications, just as connectedness and participation were the defining features of all killer desktop computer applications of the last 15 years, just as cheap desktop publishing was the defining feature of the 15 years of computing before that.)

Let me tell you about the iPhone application idea I had in the evening on March 6th. I’ve kept it under wraps until now, but I know now it’s pointless to stay silent for personal reasons I’ll go into later.

Let’s say you’re at the store. You’re going to buy a product. But you want to know if there is a better deal on that product at another nearby store, or somewhere else in town. So you get your iPhone out, open this application, and point the camera at the product’s barcode. It scans the barcode, talks to “the cloud” to see what the product is, and talks to Core Location to figure out approximately where the user is currently standing. If there is more than one store in the reasonable proximity of the user, it asks them which store in the list they are at, and asks them to either enter or confirm the price (if someone else has already entered it) of that particular product at that particular store. The user can then see other stores in the area (perhaps within a preferentially-set distance radius) and the prices they are charging for that product, with a quick click over to Google Maps to call the store and check to see if it’s still in stock, and to get driving directions to the store. The application would pay for itself after a few smart uses, and in this economy, I’d rather be selling aspirin software than vitamin software. This application is definitely an aspirin.

I think stores would start to scan their own stuff, or talk with the owner of the aforementioned “cloud” database for a way to quickly upload their entire inventory with up-to-date prices every so many hours. Users would initially power the system, and eventually help to fill in the gaps. (Don’t tell me relying on users to provide useful information doesn’t work. Look at Wikipedia.) The application has a great sense of participation and anti-“The Man” that I think people would really get into. Another boon: the search and matching algorithms could be updated to match products that are very similar to the one scanned (say, if they scan something purely functional and commoditized like bread or windshield cleanser) so that users wouldn’t have to make extra effort to search outside the brand they’re currently scanning. Perhaps it would eventually expand to items that were difficult to scan, like gasoline prices, and encompass everything a person would buy.

In late March I informally pitched this idea to Wil Shipley for reasons that will be obvious to users of Delicious Library. He liked the idea, but passed on the offer to take almost all of the profits from it if he developed it. I don’t blame him; ideas these days are a dime a dozen, but makers are hard to find. Moreover, talented makers are extremely rare and valuable. That’s why after thinking it through, I decided not to try to pitch the idea to more people on the hopes that I could make a profit from it without doing any work. That’s cheap. I know I can’t create this alone because I’m a “web guy” and I just don’t have the 40+ hours per week of free time this would require of me if the application was going to come out in 2008. I’d have APIs to learn. My Obj-C is extremely rusty. I’ve never really used Xcode seriously. All these things start to sound like cheap excuses though, don’t they? Maybe that’s what they are. I can’t tell.

So, if I want to use this application badly enough, I’ll round up a group of people and we’ll make it happen. Maybe it’ll be open-source and free. I don’t know how one would go about wisely leading such an effort, so if anyone would like to lend me a hand or give me advice, I’m wide open and willing to listen. All that I ask is that I be able to steer this idea from a very high level, and have a lot of input on the user interface and feature list. I think that’s where I could add the most value. I feel like I’ve already used this application I’ve thought about it so much. The only thing I don’t have is a name. I’ve heard many; they all suck. (Sorry, peeps who made suggestions.) Price Finder is too obvious (and probably too taken), and please kill me if I call it “Scannr.”

On a personal note, one of my defining struggles in life over the last few years has been to become the kind of person who would rather make than consume. To be a creator of culture rather than a consumer of it. To be a shaper of the world rather than allowing the world to shape me. I’m far from that goal, but I intend to continue pursuing it. Maybe by the time I’m 50 or 60 I’ll be there. That’s plenty of time to learn about more than just web development.

14 thoughts on “The iPhone, Location, and Product Pricing

  1. The app you speak of is already in development in a fairly large Mac software company. Right now the issue is the iPhone’s camera not being high-enough quality to read bar code scans with. It’s simply too blurry. We’re trying to find a workaround, but hopefully, Apple will introduce a higher-quality camera in the 3G iPhone.

  2. I hope that’s true, Michael! Still, I wonder if they’ll really get it right. We shall see.

    Can you tell us more about which company this is, or how you know about this?

  3. “I’m far from that goal, but I intend to continue pursuing it. Maybe by the time I’m 50 or 60 I’ll be there.”

    What are you doing now to get closer to that goal? I’m of the same maker ilk and I find it hard to make baby steps when the goal seems so far away.

  4. I actually just purchased a domain name last weekend to help me move forward towards this goal. I think as long as a person is able to really focus on what they want, and say “no” to all but the very best one or two ideas, they’ll make progress. Then, once you’ve selected an idea, it’s just a matter of purposefully carving out regular time to pursue that idea. That last part is the hardest part for me.

  5. Ah, this was your idea, Michael, and you won a contest with it three weeks ago. I was wondering why you were so hasty to try to quell the momentum of a random, independent project. That makes sense. Shoot, and I could’ve won an iPod Touch if I had just submitted the idea when I had it. Oh well.

    Now, if I could just figure out how you found my blog entry so quickly. Twitter?

    I don’t want to insult St. Clair Software, but I’m not 100% convinced they’ll be able to pull this off. They may be able to, but this is a very difficult, very big idea. Quite a lot bigger than Default Folder X, in my opinion. Certainly they’d be able to have something shipping before I ever could, but their version won’t be free, and it won’t be as good as I and all the people I know can probably make it. Then again, it’s entirely possible no one will join me to create it, so I’m just blowing smoke. If I had to pick who made it, Apple themselves is one of the few companies I can think of that could do this correctly. Panic would probably be the other I’d put faith in, though they’re fairly small. Their skills and attitude are right for this kind of project.

    Whatever happens, it’ll be wonderful if someone creates this and does it really well. I just want to use it.

  6. Haha, I didn’t mean to “quell the momentum”, but I was a little restless as I’ve been reading blog post after blog post with this idea in mind. Whoever actually makes the product doesn’t matter to me — the more competition the better.

    St. Clair Software made it sound, to me at least, that they had partnered with another development company for the infrastructure for an app like this. I’m not sure who will actually be the ones to pull this off first, as it seems to be in very high demand.

    Oh, and yes, I found the post through twitter. @definetheline to be exact. 😛

  7. I would expect the monetization to come from the online retailers, not the consumer. I would not pay money just to make it easier to comparison shop! Anyway, reason for my comment is fun names: Compariak.

  8. Apart from a fancier UI, what’s going to set you apart from something like

    The user-generated price data is a nice concept in theory, but are enough people shopping for the same things often enough to keep the data relevant in both quantity and timeliness? How about retailers corrupting the data to get people in the store? For small purchases, is it worth the extra time and effort to save $.25 on a loaf of bread?

    Now, ignore everything I’ve said. One thing I’ve learned about building things is that there will *always* be naysayers with a 1000 “what ifs” and potential stumbling blocks. If you’re really convinced that you’re on to something, ignore them. Start building and see what comes of it. You’ll probably stumble onto an even better idea along the way.

  9. I’m not so sure about retailers wanting to upload their inventory. It seems every time someone does something involving cameras or videos in a store they get shut down not because of what they’re doing but because of a blanket policy against it (for which the stated reason seems to be to prevent price comparison). I haven’t seen anything in probably a year so it’s possible some of that attitude is changing, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that it has either.

  10. @Jeremy, I think retailers would start to fall in line when they noticed that stores allowing the system were getting more business, and their business was proportionally dropping. Trying to keep prices private and secret is something that cannot last when any person can walk off the street, walk right up to the shelf, and see what the price of any item is. They can put rules in place, but eventually fences are pushed over, or get holes cut in them. The only logical thing to do is to build the sidewalk where people are already walking and find some other reason for people to come to your store besides raw price. And in the case of cut-throat price wars, location will generally keep them in business just because people don’t want to drive 5 miles farther for something that is 5 cents cheaper.

    Besides, can you imagine store personnel frisking every person who walks through the door for an iPhone? I mean, just wait until the employee walks around the corner to take your phone out. It’s not hard.

    Also, when you attach this entire system to bar codes, you’re attaching the system to one of the most necessary items in their process. They can’t check items out without barcodes. It’s too slow to force the cashers to type in a special numerical code on the back of every item, and customers would start to leave that store for stores that gave them a faster checkout experience.

  11. I agree that it’s likely that eventually stores will want to enter things. I also doubt they’ll ever check things at the door, but some stores have a lot of cameras. Places like Walmart sending an employee to ask a customer to leave whenever they see someone taking photos or writing in a notebook (unless they’ve changed that policy) will be a relatively high barrier initially. Especially since it seems to be the discount places using those tactics, so if people know the lowest prices aren’t in the database… It’s unlikely they’ll stop someone getting a single or even a few items. But the initial entry of all the items in a row will take a few minutes. You’ll also need to deal with them wanting their prices removed if they find them (I think it’s been reasonably established they don’t have a case anymore, but that won’t stop intimidation tactics).

    On the location thing, some people already drive ridiculous distances to save pennies on gas – unfortunately people often aren’t logical about things like that.

    Not to say the idea isn’t good (I’d use it, provided it was available non-iPhone, maybe just a web interface). I just want to point out at least one thing that needs to be addressed (in technical or non-technical ways). For example you could use the UPC lookups for the online stores (Amazon’s in AWS for example) to give base data where local isn’t yet available.

  12. One other thing to consider, or maybe this is an extrapolation of some of the discussion already posted, does price always matter? How is it that a Target and a Walmart can both survive quite nicely right next door to each other or department stores at the mall? There are so many little mental equations that go into a purchasing decision that I am not sure how much this would add to the final decision to buy or not to buy. Heck, if all you really care about is price, go to amazon or ebay and you will probably find it cheaper; I know this is true on most of the stuff I by but still, I visit the brick and mortar store for the experience that the web can not, and likely will never, match. that’s my 2 cents anyway.

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