A Practical Internet for Your Phone

October 19, 2007

By Kate Greene

In theory, at least, Internet access on cell phones is a useful thing. However, the slow speed at which Web pages load, their small formats, and the phones’ clunky interface collectively make extracting information from the Internet excruciating. But now a new startup based in Cupertino, CA, called Mobio aims to directly connect cell-phone users to the information they want, allowing them to bypass Web browsers.

This week, Mobio will introduce its first product: a suite of free, downloadable “widgets” for cell phones. These widgets can collect real-time information from a number of different Web services–for instance, mapping services and directory listings for restaurants–and combine them into a simple program on a phone. Mobio’s suite features nine collections of 50 widgets, including ones that give quick access to the phone numbers of local cab services and locksmiths, ones that provide maps to local restaurants that are open late, and ones that let a person buy movie tickets and book a table at a restaurant.

The idea behind widgets isn’t new, of course. Apple’s OS X operating system has offered them for years, letting people track sports scores, compare gas prices, and search the Web, all without using a browser. And recently, a number of established companies and startups have been working to put the same sort of capabilities on cell phones. Nokia, for example, offers a collection of feed services called WidSets that let people get blog updates and see recently posted Flickr pictures. A startup called Plusmo, based in San Jose, CA, offers a similar service. Both Nokia and Plusmo’s applications, however, draw from a single source at a time.

What distinguishes Mobio, says Sanjeev Sardana, the vice president of products, is that its widgets show information and provide access to a combination of disparate services. The information is provided by partners such as OpenTable, an online reservation service. The information is then collected on Mobio’s server; combined with other services, such as directory listings and an online map; and downloaded by phones that have Mobio’s software. Mobio acts, in effect, like the middleman, aggregating the useful data from around the Web and dispensing it to phones over the cellular network.

To get the widgets, individuals need to register themselves and their cell phone on Mobio’s website. Following authorization, the software will be downloaded to a person’s phone. Depending on the network connection, this should take about a minute.

It’s not easy to manage the data that is streamed to and stored on resource-constrained gadgets such as mobile phones. However, Sardana believes that Mobio’s technology addresses some of the major technological challenges. For one, the data that’s sent over the network is compressed by the server software so that it doesn’t eat up as much bandwidth, which makes it faster to update. Additionally, only the information that’s needed for a specific query is sent. For instance, if someone is leaving a movie for which he or she reserved tickets using a widget and wants to find a restaurant nearby, that individual won’t need to reenter his or her location information. The data from the movie transaction is used by the application to locate the individual at that time; the restaurant widget then searches for eateries near the theater.

Mobio’s widgets currently only work on phones in the Cingular, Sprint, and T-mobile networks, and only if they’re Java-enabled, although the company expects that future versions of the software will be compatible with Windows Mobile and Blackberry. This somewhat limited availability highlights one of the challenges of offering Web services to mobile phones, says Daniel Dailey, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, in Seattle. “It’s hard to have client software run on all the phones,” he says.

Sardana thinks that in the future, the widgets could take advantage of real-time location information provided by the phone. Existing applications were designed with GPS in mind, but the location-based feature will have to wait until more phones have the capability. “As more handsets become GPS-enabled,” Sardana says, “then we will seamlessly blend that into our applications.”

MIT Technology Review

Site of the Week: Backpackit.com

September 28, 2007

Backpack is an incredibly easy-to-use Web-based organizational service. This deceptively bare-bones-looking app provides straightforward functionality you can use to organize a wildly varying array of projects.

Straightforward, intuitive, and versatile. Easy to set up and use e-mail/SMS reminders. Premium members can share and download calendars online. Easy to share your page and make it public. Easy to update your page via e-mail and allow others to do the same. Writeboards provide hassle-free online collaboration on text documents.

Nonpaying members get only five pages to work with and no calendar. You can find similar organizational calendars for free from other services.
$5.00 – $14.00

37signals LLC

By Errol Pierre-Louis

Backpack is a Web-based service designed to organize every aspect of your life. The site combines the ease of use that I loved in Cozi with the versatility and sophistication most users demand from a full-fledged personal information manager (PIM). The genius of Backpack is that it’s so basic. It’s like having an online loose-leaf notebook to use as you please.

This app lets you create Web pages using the tools in order to add to-do lists that can incorporate files, images, and, if you pay for a premium membership, a calendar service. You can even set up Backpack to send text-message reminders to your cell phone, so you can stay on top of things even when you’re away from the computer.

To brainstorm my weekend, I hopped over to my Backpack page and set up notes with links to event listings and possible venues I wanted to visit, along with reminders to make reservations. Backpack provided me with an easy way to keep my plans in order, and I set it all up in a couple of minutes, editing and formatting the page as I saw fit. Backpack includes a ton of sample pages showing off the site’s capabilities on its example page. With these simple tools and a little knowledge about HTML, you can arrange for your Backpack pages to organize pretty much anything: book collections, social gatherings, medical records, travel plans, school itineraries, garage sales, craft projects, and so on.

It’s All About the Pages

Backpack’s log-in differs from the typical protocols on most sites. Instead of just picking a username and password, you also pick a unique Backpackit.com URL. You use this URL to log in to your Backpack account. You’ll probably want to bookmark this URL for easy access to your Backpack page.

You start off with a blank homepage, and you can add pages by just clicking the Make a New Page button on the right-hand side of the page. A free account gets you five pages. A Basic account for $5 a month gives you 25 pages and 500MB of data storage, a Plus account for $9 a month gives you 100 pages and 1GB of storage, and the Premium account for $14 a month gives you 1,000 pages and 3GB of storage. Only paying members can upload files or images to their pages and use Backpack’s Calendar service.

The menu at the top of the page links you to everything you need to add to the page (mostly notes and to-do lists). Just click on the element you want, then title the list, note, or image gallery and begin adding content to your page. Backpack doesn’t have formatting tools, but with a basic knowledge of HTML you can easily add links and edit fonts.

You can add as many notes and lists as you want to your page. Paying members can add images and files until they hit their storage limit. You can title the notes, lists, and image galleries you create on the page. You can also add Backpack’s “dividers,” solid lines going across the page, to further organize and section off your page. To move or edit elements of your page, hover your mouse over them; a small pop-up will appear that you can use to edit, delete, or drag and drop the elements around the page, or from one of your Backpack pages to another. Lists and galleries have links within them to add items quickly to your list or pictures to your gallery. You can use tags to categorize your pages and group them together. Since free members get only five pages, this is a feature that paying members are more likely to find useful.

Backpack makes it easy to share and collaborate with others. Clicking the Share This Page link takes you to another page where you can choose to make your Backpack page public—publishing it as a read-only Web page with its own URL that you can share with friends. If you want to collaborate with other Backpack users, you can e-mail them links that give them access to edit your pages.

You can also edit your pages and collaborate with others via e-mail. Each Backpack page has its own unique e-mail address. Send an e-mail to this address to add notes, to-do lists, files, images, or post e-mails to your page. Anyone you share the e-mail address with can also contribute, and you can edit your page on the run by e-mailing from your cell phone.

Features Beyond Pages

Backpack’s Writeboards are sharable Web-based text documents, similar to Google Docs. You can save every edit, roll back to any version, and compare changes. Others can collaborate with you on your Writeboard documents by editing and leaving comments.

Click the Writeboard link to open up a new Writeboard document and give it a title. Each Writeboard has a unique URL, so you can access your Writeboard from any computer. Invite people to collaborate with you on your Writeboard using the link at the top of the sidebar to the right. The Invite People link sends e-mails to collaborators with links and passwords that’ll let them edit your Writeboard.

Whenever you save changes to your Writeboard, a new version of that document is created in the sidebar so you can easily review and compare different versions. The dots that appear next to each version indicate the degree of changes made to the document. The bigger the change, the bigger the dot. Viewing edits in Writeboard is similar to the “Final Showing Markup” option in Microsoft Word. Text deleted from a previous version will appear struck out in light gray and added text will be highlighted in green.

Backpack features a calendar similar to Cozi’s in its ease of use. Backpack’s calendar is a premium feature available only to paying members. It has the same kind of intelligent language programming that lets you set appointments by typing the dates and times into the Add Event field. For example, to set a doctor’s appointment for November 10 at 8 p.m., simply type “Nov 10 8pm Doctor Appointment.” You can set extended events—a weeklong event for instance—but you can’t type in recurring events, as you can on Cozi. You can, however, set recurring events via a drop-down menu.

Navigate through calendar pages by clicking arrows or by typing the dates you want to jump to in the Add Event field. Annoyingly, you can view the calendar only in six-week mode. You can’t expand to multi-month view or focus down to a weekly or daily view, a feature common to most PIMs.

The Add Calendar link lets you add color-coded event themes and schedules. One cool calendar feature is the ability to add iCal calendars to your personal Backpack calendar. For instance, I can easily add the Yankees’ schedule to my Backpack calendar by copying the Yankees iCal link from Apple’s iCal library and pasting it into my Add Calendar field. You can also share your own calendars with others by clicking the Share in iCal Format link of the calendar you want to share and sharing that iCal URL.

Backpack has a messaging service that lets you schedule e-mail or SMS reminders easily. You can either set up your reminders to be sent out at a specific time or use Backpack’s preset times. So if you just have a general idea of when you want to receive a reminder and not an extract time, just pick options like Tomorrow Morning (the next day at 9 a.m.), Tomorrow Afternoon (next day at 2 p.m.), A Couple of Days (in 48 hours). You can set up reminders from your calendar by checking off the Email/SMS options to get a reminder 30 minutes before the scheduled event. Reminders will be sent to whatever e-mail and cell-phone number you provided on your settings page. Charges may apply, depending on your carrier.

Backpack is just as accessible as Cozi but has the versatility and sophistication of the more complex PIMs. This is a great organizational tool for both the tech-savvy and people who just want an organizational program that works. The only downside I see with this is that nonpaying members can’t add files or images and can’t use Backpack’s calendar service. I can understand making people pay to add images and files because of bandwidth concerns. But I’m not so sure how Backpack justifies making its calendar a premium feature when Cozi and other services provide theirs free. That said, even with the basic functionality of to-do list, notes, and reminders, free members will still find this a powerful site. With enough imagination you can use Backpack to organize pretty much anything.

Visit www.backpackit.com

Mailbag: Web-Based Appointment Scheduling

August 5, 2007

By Richard Morochove

This month I answer a reader’s question about Web-based scheduling services.

I am a social worker in a group private counseling practice. We track our billing using software that has a scheduling module built in, but we’ve never used it. It seems too clumsy, too difficult to customize around the personal schedules of nine therapists. We’ve stayed with paper appointment books. This works but is cumbersome, especially when someone calls in and asks, “When is my next appointment?” or when you have to flip through nine books to find the first opening someone has for an urgent caller.

Is there an intelligent way to evaluate appointment software, short of downloading trial versions for installation? We have been told the wave of the future is online, Web-based scheduling services that allow a prospective client to book an appointment at any time without a phone conversation.
–Terry Moore, Omaha, Nebraska

There are many different appointment scheduling applications, and there’s no easy way to evaluate their suitability for a given situation without using trial versions, as available.

Start by analyzing your business needs, as I outlined in an earlier column. That article was about choosing accounting software, but the same principles apply in your circumstances: First analyze your needs, then rate the capabilities of each application in that context.

Stand-Alone or Integrated?

The appointment schedulers I’ve seen built into financial management or billing applications never seem to be quite as good as the stand-alone programs. Of course, the downside of using a stand-alone appointment scheduler is the lack of integration with your billing app.

Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Web-based business application services. They tend to be easier to set up than packaged applications that you install on your own PC, and they usually handle software updates and data backups automatically.

Web-based apps are also more likely to offer online self-service. Customers can access certain capabilities over the Internet, if you permit it.

Benefits of Client Self-Service

Allowing your clients to book their own appointments online delivers several benefits. It can increase client satisfaction since it lets them easily schedule an appointment based upon their top priority, whether that’s the earliest possible booking, the most convenient time, or seeing their favorite therapist. Clients can also cancel appointments or change times.

A Web-based service is available for your clients to use 24 hours a day since it does not depend upon someone answering your phone during business hours. This also relieves your staff of some tedious scheduling-related tasks.

You’ll still need someone to answer the phone to schedule appointments: Not every client will have Internet access, and some will not feel comfortable booking appointments online.

AppointmentQuest Web-based Scheduling Service

AppointmentQuest Online Appointment Manager is a highly capable Web-based appointment scheduler with client self-service capabilities. It offers six membership packages with varying features and capacities, priced at $7 per month and up.

You can try out AppointmentQuest by signing up for a free 30-day trial account. I found the application process easy, but setup proved time-consuming and somewhat problematic.

You must go through a multistep procedure to configure schedules, add personnel and locations, and more. I got lost somewhere in New Account Setup and couldn’t figure out how to resume the setup process.

I wound up stuck in Suspended Schedule Status. I knew–and the online help confirmed–that customers can book appointments only when the schedule status is Active. However, the online help did not explain how to change the status to Active. Online help that tells you what you already know isn’t very helpful.

I finally used a Web-based form to query support and was pleasantly surprised when, despite the stated 48-hour turnaround, I received a detailed e-mail response within a few minutes. I was then able to complete the setup.

Highly Customizable

Despite the setup glitch, I’m impressed by AppointmentQuest. It offers a wealth of scheduling capabilities. You can change the appointment interval, set an appointment lead-in or lead-out to add time between clients, and establish an appointment cancellation deadline. I think it would be simple to set different work hours (including split shifts), days off, and vacation days for each therapist.

You can customize the Web interface for both you and your clients, changing fonts and colors. You can add your business name, logo, and contact information. You can also modify appointment e-mail notification messages and policies for both clients and staff.

It’s easy to check availability, and you can activate the Online Appointment Scheduler for use by clients. There are several ways to link from your Web site to your appointment data, including options for both new and returning clients. The client interface is intuitive and easy to use.

Credit Card Billing

The AppointmentQuest package that appears most appropriate for your practice is Gold PRO, which handles an unlimited number of appointments for up to ten employees, for up to 24 months in advance.

E-mail appointment reminders can be sent to clients and therapists, as well as to an office administrator. Gold PRO supports both rescheduling and recurring appointments.

Appointment and contact information can be synchronized with Microsoft Outlook or the Palm Desktop. You an also export data to a spreadsheet and prepare appointment books in PDF.

You could even opt for credit-card processing, which collects fees or deposits from clients when they make appointments. That feature requires a merchant account, and AppointmentQuest charges transaction-processing fees that vary depending upon the plan you select.

The Gold PRO package costs $100 per month. Discounts apply if you agree to a six-month or one-year contract. For your group, the cost for this plan would amount to about $11 per month per therapist. This sounds pretty affordable to me, though it does cost more than a paper appointment book. You’ll need to decide if the scheduling capabilities are worth it.


The Web’s Most Useful Sites: To-Do Lists

December 22, 2006

By Ryan Singel

The old-fashioned to-do list, which lets the brain concentrate on the task at hand rather than on others in the future, remains one of the world’s best productivity tools. These fresh new sites let you keep track of your obligations and prompt you to keep up the pace.

Winner: RememberTheMilk reinvents the to-do list in a snazzy interface that lets you make lists in configurable categories, all laid out on the front page as tabs. Adding to-dos is easy, though adding deadlines, notes, and time estimates is unintuitive.

You can add to-dos using natural language such as “Call Ted next Thursday,” sync with your calendar via the widely supported iCalendar format, and set tasks such as “Pay credit card bill” to recur. RememberTheMilk sends reminders through instant message, e-mail, text message, or a combination of these. You can also upload tasks via a special e-mail address that the site gives you.

It’s a tremendously well-rounded free product, with neither more nor less than you need to get and stay organized.

Runner-up: Hiveminder is a bit prettier than RememberTheMilk and relies on tags, rather than categories, to group tasks. While you can’t set the time and date for tasks using natural language, you do get a nice drop-down calendar, and you can easily edit or add tags to a group of tasks.

Hiveminder syncs with external calendars, publishes RSS feeds, and lets you e-mail tasks, but the only notification it offers is a once-a-day e-mail. In addition, tags are more difficult to track than categories, and while Hiveminder has a more intuitive interface than RememberTheMilk, it doesn’t feel as useful in practice.

Also-rans: Those who prefer minimalism will love 37 Signals’ Ta-Da List, where you can build multiple to-do lists. It allows no tags, categories, or time elements–just lists of tasks with check boxes. You can make the list public or subscribe to it as an RSS feed, but it won’t send you reminders.

Backpack, Ta-Da List’s older sibling, lets you create five shared pages that can include to-do lists, notes, and a shared wiki-style document. It will send you up to ten reminders via e-mail or text message, but these are oddly separate from tasks, which, as in Ta-Da List, have no time element.

Web-based Calendar Compared

The Web’s Most Useful Sites: Event Calendars

December 22, 2006

By Ryan Singel

Finding something to do on a Friday night has long been a process of searching your local newspapers or subscribing to e-mail lists of bands or theaters. Now a trio of startups are attempting to make finding events and adding them to your busy social schedule easier.

Winner: Yahoo’s Upcoming.org has listings from around the world thanks to its devoted users, who add tons of local events, as well as to the recent inclusion of events from Yahoo Local’s listings.

Upcoming has a social networking feel, and every event has a listing of users who say they plan to attend. You also can click on a user’s name to see what other events that person plans to attend. While the site feels both basic and cliquish, it is the most active events site on the Web.

Despite the addition of millions of Yahoo Local listings, Upcoming found only 28 listings for San Francisco art openings on the weekend we checked (Zvents found more than twice as many). Still, adding events to your calendar is simple, and Upcoming offers e-mail and text-message reminders.

Runner-up: Zvents has the most full-featured and user-friendly event service on the Web. The site offers a search engine that understands terms such as “this weekend,” descriptive listings, and an embedded Google map.

With just a simple click, Zvents’ great interface permits you to add events to your Zvents calendar, or to your AOL, Google, Outlook, or Yahoo calendar. Users also can invite people to events, add them to a group calendar, and easily post events to a blog.

A search for “art opening” in San Francisco on one weekend showed 68 relevant matches. Unfortunately, Zvents relies mostly on user-submitted events in most cities, and few users comment on events. Expect Zvents to take off once it automatically populates listings in other cities.

Also-ran: Eventful, another San Francisco Bay Area-based startup, has deep listings, but the search function is too literal: A search for “rock” in San Francisco over a whole week uncovered merely eight listings, only one of which was actually a rock-and-roll performance. One plus: Eventful supports Microsoft’s innovative Live Clipboard service, which allows you to cut and paste event data between Web sites.