It’s been a few weeks since my last post – apologies to loyal readers. Almost all of that time was spent on vacation abroad, in Tel Aviv and Berlin, where I used some common apps in uncommon ways (read: in offline mode) and some apps for the first time. Looking back on my vacation, this is what caught my attention from the mobile/product perspective:
Localization, not in a good way. I’ve been on Twitter for over 8 years and have tweeted over 9 thousand tweets in English, yet the moment opened the app after landing in Germany, my Twitter ads were in German, for German products. Surely with all the information Twitter has collected about me over the years it can do better than ads I cannot even read? The same thing happened in Israel as well. Google was just as bad and switched me over to Google.co.il the moment I landed in Israel, even though I searched in English. Google’s interface also switched to Hebrew. Why? I happen to know Hebrew but if I hadn’t, like many a tourist, it would have been a real nuisance.
- Offline mode: getting better. Not having a data plan really proved just how reliant I was on mobile services (you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.) That said, Tel Aviv has abundant free WiFi – from cafes to a municipal network covering almost all major streets. Berlin was not so generous, with no municipal network and only a few cafes offering free WiFi. However, the lack of connectivity served to show that Google Maps has greatly improved its offline functionality. Pre-downloading maps allow offline search, navigation, and zooming into street names was a great help. Sadly, walking directions were not available in offline mode, a drawback in both cities.
Citymapper was another offline mode star. Even though connectivity is necessary to find a route, it’s easy to save a route while connected and then access it from the app’s home page when needed. While it’s not as spontaneous as using Citymapper when fully connected, it allows travelers to use the app if they plan ahead. What I like about this feature is that it’s an acknowledgment of a less-than-ideal usage scenario and a solution that is a good compromise when the app cannot provide full functionality in offline mode.
- Messaging, specifically, how WhatsApp has taken over the world. What’s remarkable about it is even though the app functionally good (I especially liked the group features and the sent-received-read message indicators) that’s not its top selling point. Rather, the fact that *everyone* in Israel has a WhatsApp account enables various groups to be created, from classrooms to youth movements, huge extended families to smaller selections,and large groups of friends to event-specific groups. And those groups find it easier to communicate on WhatsApp versus an email chain or unthreaded text messages.
- Copycats are everywhere. Being a tourist didn’t allow me to sample many local services but I did notice, especially in Berlin, that there were local competitors to established US-based services. One example was Foodora, a food delivery service whose pink containers I saw on bikes and scooters all over Berlin. Another was ZipJet, a laundry on-demand service with ads everywhere. I suppose the lesson for US-based startups, especially those with easily-replicable business models and technology, is to develop an international strategy sooner rather than later. (Interestingly, today Uber conceded the ride-sharing business in China to Didi.)
So, four mostly unrelated observations about my mobile experiences abroad, nothing really extraordinary. The only thing that really surprised me was just how ubiquitous WhatsApp is. It shouldn’t have been such a surprise seeing as my friends abroad have been pestering me to try it for years now. What drove the point home for me was a friend, usually a hesitant adopter of social media and has no other accounts aside from an outdated LinkedIn page, complained that he was trying to coordinate a relay race with a group of people where one runner still didn’t have a WhatsApp account. Moving the entire conversation to email, he said, was just too inefficient. Couldn’t have said it better myself.