Email yesterday from Plazes (Nokia, now), announcing they’re shutting down the service, one of the pioneers in the geomobile check-in arena. Just another example of a big company trying to buy into a new market, and screwing it up. Of course, the Plazes guys really stalled the company’s trajectory in 2007 with a terrible redesign, but — like Dopplr — a bunch of interesting ideas and smart designers were scooped up by Nokia, who failed to do anything with them at all.
Perhaps it’s just coincidence that this Jemima Kiss piece about Dopplr was published on the same day that Stephen Elop assumes his new role of Nokia CEO. But the disastrous course of events at Dopplr since they were acquired by the telecom giant does not inspire confidence that the firm is a hotbed of innovation:
Jemima Kiss, The slow death of Dopplr
Founded in Finland early in 2007, Dopplr was the great white, beautiful hope of the UK startup scene; a well-respected design and development team, and a service that imaginatively and stylishly captured the zeitgeist of business, travel and location services.
It published annual travel summaries for users and included their carbon output. It boosted the profile of money-spinning conferences. And – of most interest to potential investors – it attracted a wealthy, technophile and evangelical base of “upscale” business users. Backers included Esther Dyson, Tyler Brule, Joshua Schachter, Lars Hinrichs and Reid Hoffman. So what could go wrong?
In a word: Nokia.
The Finnish mobile manufacturer, which sells more phones than any other company, paid a rumoured $20m (give or take a few million) for the service almost exactly a year ago, with a deal that closed on 28 September, 2009.
Since then, Dopplr has fallen completely out of the web’s view. Its blog has not been updated since two days after the acquisition. While Dopplr was too young to have grown a large user base, the Nokia acquisition could, with some imagination, have given it scale. Instead, comScore shows its monthly unique user numbers falling from 39,000 in September 2009 to 29,000 in July this year.
While the Guardian has been told that Dopplr’s back-end system is still being maintained, its front-of-house appears woefully neglected, with no sign of the much-admired annual travel reports. Even if this was purely a talent acquisition, with the company bought for its staff, why allow the site to wither on the vine?
Dopplr’s design chief Matt Jones had already left, joining Schulze & Webb (reincarnated as Berg) but still tied to Dopplr one day a month as a design advisor. Jones already had close to ties with Nokia as a former director of UX design there. Not only that, chief executive Marko Ahtisaari became senior vice president for design at Nokia, chief tech officer Matt Biddulph and developer Tom Insam both moved to Nokia’s base in Berlin as strategist and developer respectively and are still there, working out lock-in periods.
At the time of the acquisition, people only saw possibility. “I’m guardedly optimistic that Nokia is smart enough to know not screw up a truly elegant service,” wrote Dopplr user Chad in response to the news. Duncan Semple added: “I just hope the service won’t get neglected or changed too much to fit with Nokia’s other services.” Trickles of comments this year have variously asked if anyone is still listening — and, echoing in an empty blog, talked of transferring to rival service TripIt.
Despite numerous requests over a number of weeks for comment about its plans for Dopplr, Nokia has not responded.
I think Dopplr had done a bunch of things right, but had made some serious gaffes as well, both in design and business orientation.
Talking to Marco Artisaari a few years ago, long before the Nokia acquisition, I wondered why the company wasn’t getting into managing travel related information — like hotel reservations and airplane travel, frequent flyer accounts, and the like — which TripIt has done so well, now. But he wanted to remain focused on the social interaction side of things.
But, as I pointed out, Dopplr wouldn’t let me even stipulate the time that I was planning to arrive in, say, Paris on 23 September, or what airline I was on. So that means I couldn’t use the service to alert a friend who was planning to pick me up at the airport.
And worse: what’s the most obvious social activity when visiting a place where you know you have friends? Setting up a get-together. Dopplr provided next to no good ways to do the obvious: inviting friends to get together, pick a place, set a time, etc.
Instead, Dopplr just dropped innovating. Yes, they added partnerships with various travel services — like Mr & Mrs Smith and Tablet Hotels — but they dropped the ball on the social context surrounding the app.
So, Artisaari sold the company to Nokia, where he had worked before, and he took the job of SVP of Design. I am sure he’s doing good things, like the X3 phone:
But Dopplr has fallen into the strange gravity well of Nokia, like Plazes, Cellity, Plum and other acquisitions.
We’ll have to see if Artisaari and Elop can change things within the behemoth to really innovate in software, like these many companies had been doing before their acquisitions.
In principle, a company like Air France might figure out an interesting angle in the social travel space, competing with Dopplr and TripIt. Consider the value that Sabre has provided to American Airlines. However, they make a big toestub that suggests they just don’t get it.
Here’s the screen for adding a trip to the new social travel site that Air France and KLM have developed, called Bluenity. One small problem: the only input for travel is importing from the Air France frequent traveler site, which means travel is limited to Air France and KLM.
Their come on was good: suggesting that it would be nice to hook up with friends that might be traveling where I am, which is the core ‘coincidensity’ notion behind Dopplr. But they get paraochial and screw it up.
Anyway, it would make sense for some aspiring American Airlines of this century to see the handwriting on the wall — namely, than more (and soon, all) travel will be arranged through social commerce — and to set up a platform on which all the airlines could play, in a simple way.
Not this one though.
If I were Virgin, I would buy Dopplr, and push in that direction as fast as possible, though.
The Dopplr guys have listened to the users, again:
What we are showing are what we call ‘Cluster Cities’ which is the basis of some new functionality you might have already noticed if you’re a Dopplr user that’s been studying their journal feeds/emails closely.
Rewind to Reboot, Copenhagen at the end of May 2007.
We’re sitting on the grass in the sunshine with a bunch of early Dopplr users, including Stowe Boyd and Stephanie Booth - when Stephanie is the first to voice something we’ve heard a lot from Dopplr users since: “make my trips more ‘fuzzy’”.
By which, she and others meant that they would like to see coincidences in the surrounding area of ‘social spacetime’ to their trip - i.e. “show me if there are going to be people I know nearby the stated destination of my trip when I’m going to be there, as I’d probably like to change my plans a little to see them.”
This is a cornerstone of our goal to help optimise travel for Dopplr users - surfacing information about such near coincidences to let them judge whether to alter their plans to make their trip more worthwhile.
We’re going to be releasing a lot of functionality to exploit fuzzy, social spacetime through the early part of 2008, but the first part of it has leaked out into the journal.
Dopplr has started to add some of the more obvious additional features, some of which I posed at the Building Social Applications workshop at the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin.
As one great example, the coincidence area of a trip’s expanded page, now includes the opportunity to email friends that overlap with a trip, so you can suggest getting together.
At the recent Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin I presented a revamped version of the Building Social Applications workshop that I had previously given at Lift in Geneva and the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco. I have touched on parts of the workshop in other posts (here and here), but this post focusses specifically on the case study and group exercise.
[I guess I have been flapping my mouth too much in Europe… starting to be strange when I am used as the example of what a conference is not going to be:
[from European Tech Tour: Web and Communities Event in Montreux by Fred Destin]
ETT is not meant to be leWeb3. Or LIFT. You won’t meet Stowe Boyd doing a podcast about lifestreaming :-). It is a venture focused conference designed to put venture capitalists and local entrepreneurs in touch, and it did that extremely well.
The Case Study
So, the case study walks through Dopplr, a social travel web application. Dopplr is the perfect sort of beast for this kind of dissection, because it doesn’t do very much — at least not yet. It’s like a microbe with only 27 genes.
We walked through the entire app, and then — applying the tools that we discussed earlier in the workshop (see Theory And Practice Of Conceptual Design) — we broke into groups, acting more or less like design consultants, and formulating recommendations for Dopplr.
I love the pixelated picture that Dopplr uses when someone who doesn’t have access to your info (or hasn’t logged in) looks at your Dopplr page.
Once you login to Dopplr, you see your ‘trips’ page. This is shown in the figure below in the right hand side. Because the page has so much on it, I have zoomed in on just the top part in this slide.
Note that the page doesn’t have a title on it, so it is possible get fall into a ‘where am I?’ mode in the app once you wander around a bit. There is no obvious navigational cue that you are even on the ‘trips’ page.
The top of the page has a number of major navigational titles, which we will return to. Then there is a list of upcoming trips in the ‘Where Next?’ section, which has an ‘add a trip’ controller. Just below that is a search area, that displays its purpose only by the “Type the name of a city or a traveller” text.
Below these areas is the profile area, with photo, home city, and other information. My feeling is that this information would be more senibly displayed at the top of the page, above the ‘Where Next?’ and search box.
This region of the page seems a bit confused:
The middle section of the ‘trips’ page has the actual list of upcoming trips, displayed in list (here) or map (not shown). The various trips can be edited or deleted. Adding a new trip is (strangely) buried at the bottom of the list, and this is also a duplicate of the ‘add a trip’ functionality of the “Where’s Next’ list at the top. On reflection the ‘Where’s Next?’ and the trips list are actually two views on the same thing, which is perhaps how they should be set up, instead of two things on the same page that do the same thing.
There is a ‘subscribe to your trips in iCal’ lurking at the bottom of the bottom of the list, too.
At the bottom of the ‘trips’ page they is a mosaic with the avatars of all my friends. This should be on the ‘trips’ page? There is a ‘Where Next for them?’ (badly capitalized) controller with associated RSS feed: note that there is no corresponding RSS feed for the ‘Where Next?’ capability.
The bottom of the page also has a number of navigators to various Dopplr related pages, like FAQ, Terms of Service, and About.
When you add a trip, the ‘add a trip’ window opens. Pretty straightforward, although the ‘add a note’ falls short of writing blog entries. And it’s not at all evident, here, that the notes are accessible through the ‘journal’ tab. Shouldn’t it be ‘add a journal entry’?
When you click on a trip, you see the controllers at the upper right that allow you to ‘edit this trip’ and ‘delete trip’ [shouldn’t it be ‘delete this trip’ to be symmetrical?]
What you quickly realize is that a ‘trip’ is actually a pastiche of your trip and the city where you are going. You see who else will be there (Berlin, in this case, during the Web 2.0 Expo a few weeks ago). I love the term ‘coincidences’ to represnt who you overlap with. And the little seismograph that indicates ‘coincidensity’ — a term that Matt Biddulph of Dopplr coined.
At the top under the name of the city you see the ‘notes’ that you have associated with the trip. Are they linked to the trip or the city? Both, I guess, but it still seems a bit confusing.
There is a place where — if you set it up — pictures you take and post (to Flickr and other sites) will be pulled automatically, which is cool. But they are not part of the journal entries?
The socialistic ‘fellow travelers’ tab opens the travels (if any) of your various friends.
One of the fuzzy areas in Dopplr is that travels do not have hard start or end times, so you don’t know if your buddy will be available for lunch on his first day in town, or if she is leaving too early to get a last breakfast.
I find the map view useless, because (I think) it shows where they live, not where they are, which is contrary to the whole point of Dopplr.
Here’s a ‘note’ (better would be ‘entry’) in my journal. A lot of areas for improvement here.
If you click on the ‘Your Account’ navigator at the top of the page, you get this page which lists all sorts of things you can do. Let’s touch on some of them.
I dislike the notion that you can only have one home city. I have two. This is just like the same stupid restriction in Facebook, where you can only belong to one local network.
There are a number of notification options.
Adding trips by text message? Maybe, especially if you are on the run. Haven’t used it myself. Might be better to set it up to get notified when new coincidences occur, like a friend decided to come to town today.
There is a way to associate an OpenID with your account. Haven’t tried it.
Managing the visibility within Dopplr is interesting. There is an interesting asymmetry allowed. If I let you see my trips, that does not necessarily mean that I get access to your trips. You could decide to reciprocate, or not. This asymmetry is just like that we find in streaming applications like Twitter, where you could be followed by many more than those you follow. There is an upstream and downstream asymmetry. However, with the exception of RSS, iCal, and various email and SMS notifications there isn’t anything that feels like a stream in Dopplr.
Here we see the list of travelers whose trips I can see. The title might be a bit misleading, because you don’t really have control on the visibility of individual trips, as the tab might suggest.
There is a corresponding ‘who can see your trips’.
New people are joining Dopplr all the time, and you might know them (or the friend that invited them), so the ‘New travellers’ tab displayes them, so you can hook up.
I really like the ‘Who you might know’ tab, which guessed correctly that I might know Jyri Engestrom, Dave Sifry, Tim O’Reilly and Catarina Fake.
I can invite people to join Dopplr; in fact, I have infinite invitations.
Dopplr has a pretty neat integration with Facebook. This shows the main canvas there.
This shows the Friends canvas. Basically these allow me to access all the most critical info from Dopplr without leaving Facebook.
I subscribe to my Dopplr in iCal on my Mac. I had already been using a single iCal (and Google) calendar for the cities I was going to be in, so now I just enter that info in Dopplr, once, and subscribe to it in iCal. (I use Spanning Sync to sync between Google Calendar and iCal.) At any rate, as long as I am willing to open Dopplr to create and edit trips, all works in a reasonable fashion, although it would be nice to be able to make changes in iCal and sync back to Dopplr.
RSS sort of works, although the dates aren’t shown, which makes it useless. Why don’t they order by date? Shouldn’t the ‘notes’ be included?
Here’s the interface to get pictures from Flickr pulled into trips.
And a recent trip — Tel Aviv — with some photos from Flickr.
[At that point, I broke the group into something like 8 or 10 groups, and suggested that they try to use some of the techniques we discussed in the earlier part of the workshop (see Theory And Practice Of Conceptual Design), and try to apply those ideas to the next hypothetical version of Dopplr. It was interesting that approximately 30% of group just opted to read email, surf the web, or wander out of the room. A cultural difference?
Each of the groups dubbed someone to be the spokesperson, and to make recommendations. There were a lot of good ones.]
My first observations are based on making Dopplr a preeminent place to get high quality advice and recommendations form heavy-duty travelers. To this they need to beef up and rethink the entire ‘notes’ and ‘journal’ angle. In particular it should be more like a blog, and probably should supplant what is currently being displayed on each person’s profile. They also need to incorporate tagging, and perhaps some sort of karma system, so that people can determine whose advice is worth taking.
Given a real focus here, there is a path to money: advice and recommendations on restaurants, hotels, and so on would lead to possible revenue from reservations and/or advertising. Remember, the whole point is to have an application that makes money.
The nest observation has to do with the basic purpose of Dopplr: hooking up with friends once you are in the same place. Except that Doppl does not actually allow you to invite people to have dinner: in fact, there is no messaging in the system at all. No events.
The thrust here would be to compete (or integrate) with existing invitation/event services. My suggestion would be to implement something very basic, which might be sufficient to accelerate interest in Dopplr, and then see if Yahoo or Google wants to buy.
The traveler is traveling, and needs to get acommodations. Air travel, train, hotels. Integration or competition with existing services is an obvious need and/or direction.
Where’s the streams? I would like to see more of a streaming model, where I would be getting updates on my fellow travelers, their notes, their recommendations, and so on.
I have mentioned the notion of a common service for applications — a shared stream architecture — and perhaps Dopplr could get together with folks like Twitter and Facebook on that?
I would really like to see a finer grained geography in Dopplr. I am not just staying in London, I am in Shoreditch; I am not in San Francisco, I am in SOMA.
Also, when I am visiting Geneva, I am interested who is in Lausanne, with is only 30 minutes away by train. So, larger and finer grained notions of ‘locale’ are needed.
One of the most direct competitors to Dopplr is TripIt (see TripIt), which does a great job of importing email itineraries from the various airlines and travel services, and automatically generating travel portfolios. Dopplr could at least allow me to capture the time of my flights.
I have already mentioned the need for finer grained notions of time: what time someone is landing at Heathrow or Oakland, for example.
There is also the need for larger grained notions of time relative to travel: when I plan a trip to Europe, for example, I might visit three or four cities. In my mind, it’s all one big trip, with various segments.
Dopplr has a lot of potential, and many potential paths. It’s obvious that they can’t stay where they are: they have to do something that makes money, and they need to stay away from services that will become commodities in the near term.
I don’t think they have exploited all the touch points surround people’s interactions around travel. In particular, the coordination of travel — what days are good, based on the schedules of the people you are trying to visit — is a thorny, fuzzy area. At the very least, exploring the many unexplored touchpoints, like inviting people to dinner, would be smart, and most likely necessary for long-term success.
My guess is that the notion of premium intelligence from the business travel elite is a winning plan, and could lead to a clear and defendable niche, supported by advertising and perhaps various premium (for fee) services.
We’ll have to see.
I enjoyed the workshop. Now that I have written it up, though, I guess I will have to use a different guinea pig the next time I do it.
A beautifully spare summation of Reboot by Trine-Marie Kristensen:
Post reboot / / / people are streams (Tor) and connections are about flow (Stowe) and products are people too (Webb) .
Tor Nørretranders opening presentation was one of the standouts of Reboot, for me. The line “Sex is the origin of all that is noble” rang like a bell in my head for hours later, and since he kicked off in the main hall on Thursday, it was a perfect bookend for my presentation Friday first thing on the same stage. I am bad at note taking these days, but my friend Lars Plougmann created a mindmap of Tor’s presentation:
Stephanie Booth took some notes of my talk (although she disagrees with some of my arguments), here. I will try to create a longish post around my slides tomorrow. (Today it is sunny in Copenhagen, and I intend to go rambling.)
Lars Plougmann also did a mind map of my talk:
Like Trine-Marie, I also thought Matt Webb’s talk was great: we need to think about products — not just AI-inspired software, but all sorts of things in the world — like people if we want to design things better. The way we interact with them should be increasingly like a conversation, not just our fingers jabbing at buttons. His examples were inspired, as usual. And the perfect touch of not being too serious: he consulted the I Ching when he was stumped about how to complete the talk, a few days prior to the conference, so he included the guidance of the Oracle in his talk!
I also enjoyed Leisa Reichelt, Alexander Kjerulf, Stephanie Booth, Håkon Wium Lie, Robert Paterson, Kars Affrink, Marius Watz, and Marko Ahtisaari. The micro presentations were really fun, although the conversion from Powerpoint to Keynote screwed up my fonts. Still, people liked my “Entrepreneurialitis" micropresentation.
The life outside the talks is what makes Reboot so great, and I can’t even begin to try to characterize that, except the Dopplr Users meeting, which was a little more formal.
[from /Message: Pairup]
There is more to Pairup than finding old friends: the service is geared to helping business travelers meet new people as well, such as people attending the same event you are traveling to, or locals with similar interests. I wonder if by trying to do so much, however, the designers have moved too far away from a simple premise, and move into conflict with larger professional social networks? On the other hand, I could make the argument that my “ships in the night” service is really just a feature than a solution like Upcoming.org or Google Calendar could offer.
I am not really in the market to meet new people who happen to be traveling to the same city as me, a capability that Pairup seems geared toward. There is some coolness in trying to learn something about people that are attending a conference with me, but sites like the vastly interesting Reboot.dk website demonstrate what a socially architected conference website can aspire to. So I think that Pairup is smooshing a bunch of features together that are unnatural, which Dopplr — although missing some fine-grained controls that I want, such as the time of day when someone will actually arrive and depart a specific city — focuses on just doing one thing right. This is another case of too many features detracting from a clear focus, I think, so I favor Dopplr over Pairup.
Matt Biddulph is turning his part-time passion into full-time obsession:
For the last couple of months I’ve been working on a new project in my spare time. Dopplr is a social network for frequent travellers, designed to increase the amount of serendipity in the world. It lets you share your travel plans with your trusted fellow travellers, and uses them to find the coincidences, near-misses and surprises. Maps, mobile, timelines, feeds, calendars: you can have the information pretty much any way you want it.
Dopplr’s still invite only, but there’s a good chance you know someone with an account by now. We’ll be issuing new invite tokens from time to time, so keep an eye out. There are some screenshots on Flickr and alpha travellers Stowe Boyd and Roo Reynolds have written some illuminating reviews.
Because I’m having so much fun and I want Dopplr to be as good as it can possibly be, I’ve taken the decision to suspend my freelancing and work on it full time. It seems they’ll let anyone be a CTO these days.
Matt is right: I am an Alpha Traveler. Check out my Dopplr map for the rest of April and the month of May. I haven’t added a trip to Tailinn, Estoni (Dopplr doesn’t recognize that town) or my return to the States after that post-Reboot trip.
It makes me remember something I wrote last year, on /Ambivalence:
[from Out In The Wilds]
Travel is starting to feel more like the natural order. For some time, I have felt that my greatest value for customers arises from face-to-face interaction. so it is logical that I would need to spend time visiting them, since I am the soloist and they are the orchestra.
However, my making peace with travel is more than accepting the inevitable consequences of my calling. There is a true attraction to getting out, living within the constraints of the knapsack, and having time alone out in front of everybody. At home, I have ample time alone: sitting in my tiny 9x6 foot office, hearing the endless whine of the leaf-blowers, and seeing the same trees, changing, always slowly changing, from my single east-facing window. Taking the walk from my house through the park to Lake Anne for Vietnamese soup at Cafe Montmartre, or a Jameson’s at the Tavern on the Lake. There is something strong that comes from doing the same things, again, and again. But I am clearly not intended for the monastic life, since after a week or two, that pull starts tugging.
In a period of a handful of days, this week, I will have as many as a dozen meetings, with savants and seekers, entrepreneurs and engineers, and companies large and small. I will see a never-seen-before product, learn about a company’s recent formation, and hear some juicy bit of gossip that would have passed me by at home. I will walk many miles, ride trains, cabs, and planes, and flit around within an unforgiving schedule like a nightingale in a silver cage. I will stay out late with new friends and old, laughing and learning, and I will work alone in coffeeshops, here, there, and everywhere.
I am a modern nomad, carrying the minimum of possessions in service to the maximum of obsessions. And it’s different sort of strength that comes from this wandering, from staying in different hotels instead of the same old bed, from seeing the sun rise from different windows, through different branches, reaching for the light.
They say that migrating birds can sense the magnetic fields of the Earth, and calibrate their flight with the arcs of the stars, swirling through the skies. What forces am I skating along, as I swing westward, like some 21st century hobo? I feel a humming in the blood, a deep murmuring in my meat: a call, some nearly intangible sensation of being pulled, going, like the birds stroking the air, like the stars sweeping westward.
In the airport, this morning, it felt like the Earth was speeding up, spinning faster beneath my feet, taking me out on the road, as a traveler, a nomad, an unsettled wanderer. Not some civilized villager, living in the sprawl surrounding an eastern metropolis. No. Something else than that, something wilder, something not bounded, something older and deeper, closer to the birds and the stars. A better way to live, a more alive way to be, out in the wilds.
The folks at Dopplr, who I have not spoken to directly, have apparently built the ‘ships passing in the night’ app that I have cried out for for years (see here, for example).
The premise is simple, plug in your travel schedule, and a bunch of traveling fools as your social network, and bingo: you will know who is going to be in some time (or your home town) when you are.
The interface is clean and simple.
Above you see a list of my trips. Note that I can’t seem to be able to access the RSS feed. Might be a polling interval issue. Dopplr supports iCal subscription from calendar apps.
Above you see my (tiny) set of pals. At the moment, only Petteri, from Jaiku. He invited me to Dopplr. And he’s boring, since he isn’t traveling in the near term, although I just met him, here in San Francisco, the other day.
If you click on a specific place, you see a page like this:
I didn’t add a note, yet.
Above you see a prospective map of my travels. And below, the same itineraries arrayed in a timeline view:
This last view shows one of the snags, I think. The app seems very day focused: I can’t seem to be able to state the time of day that I will arrive somewhere, and that is critical if you are planning to meet for lunch or dinner.
I love the feel of the app, but I will have to wait for a few dozen friends to get into the beta before I can get the feel of it’s actual social usage patterns.
And of course, I need the RSS feed to work. So, I am replacing my old timeline, built using 30boxes, with Dopplr, as soon as the RSS is up.
One last note. Dopplr creates a fuzzy version of your photo to display in a public page. Here’s the stoweboyd page:
It doesn’t look to me like the public page can be disabled at the moment, either.
There is an SMS interface to Dopplr, but you have to text a +44 number, and I decided to wait until they have a US SMS number set up.
More to follow.