Make money by solving these problems with your phone

by Carl Natale on July 16, 2010

I don’t know how much the New York Times is paying David Pogue, but it’s not enough. He’s an incredibly talented writer who has a knack for explaining what we need to know. And he’s a pioneer as a multimedia journalist. He sets the bar high for all of us.

OK, maybe the NYT compensates him fairly for that. But his latest column takes it to a new level. He asked his Twitter followers for ideas on mobile phone apps they would like to see. Then he wrote a column about the best or most intriguing ideas.

Journalistically, it’s an update of an old tactic that asks readers to contact a reporter if they want to be interviewed for a story. Yeah, Twitter can be reporter queries on steroids.

Marketing wise, Pogue just conducted a valuable piece of research for anyone who wants to create mobile apps or services. If you’re wondering what people want to do with their phones, read his column.

It’s a problem

Let’s go back to basics for a moment. Every business is in the business of solving consumers’ problems. The key to success is to figuring out what is the problem and delivering an elegant solution.

Pogue just found out the first half. All those ideas reflect problems that people are having. The column suggests the solutions can be found in yet to be programmed apps.

Here are the problems and possible solutions:

Where can you hear me now?

It’s easy to beat up AT&T for its network coverage. So there is a cool idea for fixing the problem of coverage gaps:

Apple recently admitted that the iPhone’s signal-strength indicator has been misleading for years. So @PoorDadTech described “An app that tells you that you have 4 bars. But only when you have 4 bars.” (Again with the jokes.)

But seriously, what about “an app that tracks dropped calls in background automatically, so AT&T can know where to fix towers” (@ale_guzman1 again)? Yes, AT&T already offers a free app called Mark the Spot that lets you report dead spots manually. But an automatic background app would be much better. (“Except AT&T won’t be able to get the data,” snarks @WhoisCalvin, “because you won’t have coverage!”)

Yeah that would help AT&T but what about the rest of us? Take that same background app and send the data to a heat map. Four-bar coverage would be red. One-bar zones would be light blue. So when I’m in a one-bar zone, I can see where the signal is better. I also could use the maps to see if I’m going to have access where I’m going. This would be very useful in Maine.

This can be developed for all the cellular networks. But let’s not track individuals. There are huge privacy concerns. So don’t track anyone. Maybe you can store some stats about types of phones and networks in an area that would be useful demographic info you can sell without violating privacy.

When users check the maps, they would see location based ads – like specials at the nearest McDonalds.

There’s no place to park

Parking was a hot topic, too. “Alternate side parking app. You don’t have to open it; the icon just says YES or NO.” (That’s from @harryhassell, who obviously lives in Manhattan, where you’re required to move your parked car to the other side of the street on certain days.) Likewise, @2jase dreams of “an app that tells me the correct parking rules for the spot where I’m currently standing.”

But @danfrakes responded, “I think I’d rather see an app that teaches people how to park — and sends them a notification when they do it wrong.”

Android already has an app that helps you find open parking spots. But you really need to do more to be helpful.

I used to joke that we needed a parking intern when I worked at the Portland Press Herald. The building was surrounded by metered parking and eager parking patrol officers. To make it fun, there was a handful of absolutely free, unlimited spots. We needed someone to keep track of when our meters were running out and when a free spot opened.

Maybe some sort of neighborhood based service can help parkers find open spots and know when to move their cars. A subscription could ensure that your meter is fed.

This could be a valuable service for a well thought FourSquare campaign. More on that in a couple paragraphs down.

Foe Square!

Social apps were popular, like the “reverse Foursquare” suggested by @churlala: “Register all your exes, so no awkward run-ins around town.”

Exes, rivals, boring people, missionaries. There are all kinds of people to avoid.

Come buy here

The following three ideas are very closely tied together and show an opportunity for retail:

Along the same lines, @mikedemowrites: “Here is the killer app: Mall/Department store GPS. Say goodbye to mall directory maps.”

And when you’ve done enough shopping, you might agree with @alimomen, who thinks the world needs an app to tell you “where the nearest and cleanest public bathroom is.”

@JoseSPiano, meanwhile, proposes “a GPS-triggered sightseeing tourist guide. Not only indicates nearby landmarks, but also has text and audio descriptions.”

This is an opportunity for shopping centers, downtown associations, buy local campaigns and visitors bureaus. Shoppers want more information about the places they visit. Retailers can aggregate their resources to hire someone who can use existing services – Foursquare, Yelp, Twitter – to show visitors where to find products, services, restrooms and parking.

Maybe it would be more elegant to create a lightweight social network that is accessible from a single app. But there is an opportunity to use the technology to be a guide.

The Mall of Carl

Let’s pretend I own a shopping mall. About 80 stores and restaurants in one building and surrounding parking lot. Of course I have that has a printable map and directory of stores. Maybe it includes a blog about store openings and specials.

But I want to take it a step further. I register a Foursquare account for the mall (or should I partner with Foursquare?) and make sure all my tenants have registered their businesses in all the location based networks.

As MallofCarl, I file tips for every tenant. I put signs at all entrances to promote the account. Friends get a discount somewhere. Give a prize to anyone who checks in at a lot of places. I wander around myself, checking in and promoting tenants.

You can apply this strategy to any downtown or shopping district. Any small area with a critical mass of businesses could reap the benefits of having a common location-based marketer.

Thank you David

There is a lot of good stuff here. These ideas are simple ideas for anyone to use to create a lucrative business.

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