Urbanspoon is Above The Level of a Single Device



 O’Reilly describes in his What Is Web 2.0 one of the most important patterns of Web 2.0, and a core competency of Web 2.0 companies, is to see software above the level of a single device. When O’Reilly wrote his famous article in 2005 he was just seeing the tip of the iceberg, “real-time traffic monitoring, flash mobs, and citizen journalism,” these are all everyday occurrences seven years later; commonplace and nothing out of the ordinary.

One Web 2.0 application has seen this message from O’Reilly and jumped at it, they are Urbanspoon, an application which assists in determining what restaurants you may wish to eat at based on type of food, cost, and user reviews. Urbanspoon had a thriving website but knew they needed to get mobile; these devices that are able to be connected to the internet – they can help facility other patterns of Web 2.0. Many people have these mobile devices and Urbanspoon can harness this collective intelligence by providing a mobile platform (or app). These devices that have in-built cameras that can take photos of food, of restaurants, of people enjoying (or not enjoying) their meals – that is useful data enhancing power which is valuable. They understood that they can congregate with other Web 2.0 applications already present on these mobile devices, they could open up their APIs for developers allowing innovation in assembly, allowing you to post your review to Facebook or Twitter. All of this available on a rich, fluid, application enabling a rich user experiencewith images, links, likes, comments, favourites, reviews. Urbanspoon jumped at this opportunity and the created the Urbanspoon app for iPhone.

Urbanspoon App

Urbanspoon App

Now we used to only access the internet via a PC – that’s changed. We all have mobile devices now, in fact according to the ICT Facts and Figures for 2011there are 5.9 billion mobile-cellular subscriptions, globally. That’s eighty-seven percent of the world’s population now have mobile internet connectivity. This is a huge leap forward in opportunity but also in challenges; limitations include data (availability, cost, bandwidth), screen resolutions that are much smaller than traditional CRT or LCD  screens, browser limitations being mobile and not having the development background the full desktop browsers have enjoyed. These are the challenges that Web 2.0 applications like Urbanspoon must surpass; they must offload their transactions (compute cycles) to the back-end servers rather than the mobile devices (to save battery life and speed processing times), they must cut down their applications to use only what is necessary within their screen real estate, and they must develop apps which are solid performers who don’t crash; all key qualities of the Urbanspoon app.

All of this data gathering that occurs is enabling the wave of pervasive computing; information gathered for one reason via a sensor or electronic device being used to enhance other information or create a more informed view or perspective on the original data as Aron writes of Quercia‘s work at the University of Cambridge. Smart phones and mobiles are the start but anything that is addressable (can be connected to) we can use; we can perform tweaks on, we can customise, gather the data and use elsewhere. With so many new devices connecting to the internet Urbanspoon have had to up their game and have released a new version of their iPhone app with a focus on “making connections, putting you in touch with great places to eat wherever you are.”

The user interface of the iPhone really was a game-changer; the technology was always there but it wasn’t developed to the point where a normal person could get value from a device. Now smart phones are abundant, tablets are on every coffee table, the netbook is rampant amongst all schools, and we are connected. Using devices and social platforms like Facebook that use our locations (geotagging/location services), know how fast we are going (accelerometers), and all manner of other information.This data is useful that is created from the sensors on these mobile devices and we don’t really know what all of thee benefits are currently but they will present themselves. Urbanspoon have dived into the geotagging/location services as they can tell as soon as you open the iPhone app where you are and recommend a ‘hot’ restaurant nearby based on other user’s reviews.

So what’s the next stage? QR codes on restaurant menus so you can scan with your smart phone and see what dishes are getting the most love from other customers in the week that has gone? Who knows? That is where we are now where any consumer device can be networked and the data it generates used in other more useful applications. Of course there are issues of privacy (especially with geotagging/location services) but if used anonymously where requested web 2.0 applications can be greatly enhanced by this contextual information.

Urbanspoon Facebook App

Urbanspoon Facebook App

You can access Urbanspoon via your social platforms as well, take Facebook for example, but this doesn’t give the benefits of location and context awareness that mobile devices offer. The same Urbanspoon search displays different results depending on where you search from on your iPhone app. The fact that things are accessible through a mobile phone makes Web 2.0 developers ask ‘how can I use my user’s contextual information as part of my Web 2.0 platform?’ Urbanspoon had developed a participatory platform – people want to rate restaurants and share their experiences and Urbanspoon needs to take more advantage of this pervasive networking; there is a lot of value in the movement of communities likes and dislikes with regards to restaurants and this information could be data-mined to enhance other applications. Everything is connected now and every Web 2.0 application should have a mobile app which you can use as multiple different types of user. In the case of Urbanspoon they could do more in this regard for example signing in as a restaurant owner and seeing statistics rather than a restaurant reviewer.

There are lots of sensors in most mobile devices these days yet most Web 2.0 companies or developers aren’t using all of these sensors. The status quo mobile platform strategy is all about access (distribution of content) and not innovation (combining with context). Urbanspoon is ahead in this aspect by tieing its application in with location services early in the game. The app saves you multiple steps – you don’t need to login via a web browser and authenticate your account; you just open the app, pick whether you want a specific cuisine, or cost press a button and you have your restaurant choice

Urbanspoon also needs to think more about how they could step up and develop the application further. How could they use mobile platform sensors to push relevant, contextually based content to their users. That is the type of question they need to be asking themselves. Allow people to upload their photos easier (post to Twitter, why not post to Urbanspoon?). This is where the focus is now – making one-click peer-production a priority. You need to make your application as easy as possible and avoid the pitfalls of proprietary ‘walled gardens’, eliminate compatibility issue (something Urbanspoon needs to work on as they don’t even have an Android app), and avoid digital rights management of your content.

It is much more than the device. If you are rolling out a mobile application you need to leverage existing mobile investments, see what popular Web 2.0 applications that are mobile available are doing with context awareness, how they are using sensor data, and how they are implementing O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 patterns. How can your Web 2.0 application make people do something differently with their mobile device? That’s the question.


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Denne, R. (2012). Elbo.ws is the Next “Intel Inside”, from http://tinyurl.com/88fcse5

Denne, R. (2012). Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes, from http://tinyurl.com/7d8u2ak

Denne, R. (2012). Last.fm – The benefits of harnessing collective intelligence, from http://tinyurl.com/7f5swkv

Denne, R. (2012). Tumblr’s Innovation in Assembly, from http://tinyurl.com/7lrdgcq

Facebook. (2012). Urbanspoon on Facebook, from http://tinyurl.com/7jzc2q6

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O’Reilly, T. (2005). What is Web 2.0 from http://tinyurl.com/84jykg6

Quercia, D. (2012). Daniel Quercia – Research – Reputation, Trust, Risk, Privacy, Social Networks, Mobile Research, from http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~dq209/

Urbanspoon (2012). From http://www.urbanspoon.com