Make every detail perfect and limit the number of details to perfect.
Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, founder and CEO of Square
Yesterday I spent some time at the Tel Aviv Port, a formerly run-down area that has been turned into a super-trendy nice-restauarant upscale-shopping area of the city. While having lunch at a restaurant facing the water, I did something I occasionally do when I’m in new place, I glanced at the ‘Near Me’ tab in the App Store on my phone. As is common, many of the apps that showed up were transportation related. This included an app called TeloBike (iTunes link), which provided information on the locations of bike rental stations in Tel Aviv, including how many bikes were available at each station. It worked pretty well, and operated in both Hebrew and English.
The data for this app presumably comes from the site run by the city of Tel Aviv for bike rentals, Tel-O-Fun. The site itself is not bad, provides a map of all the locations with the number of bikes available, and operates in Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, and Russian. The app Telobike itself is not from the city, or connected to the site directly, but was created by an independent developer. Why doesn’t the city have a mobile app itself? I’m not sure. More on that in a second.
After lunch my wife and I walked to the closest bike rental station and rented bikes. Not having done so before, or having read the web site before, we were not sure how it worked. The most surprising thing to me was that the ATM-like machine at the rental location only operated in Hebrew. I didn’t then know then that the web site was in five languages, but I was still surprised that the actual rental machine only worked in Hebrew. It could be because of the second thing I found odd, which is that it appears you need to give an Israeli ID number in order to rent a bike. I’m not sure what would happen if you entered a random number, but even if it did accept it, it was a bit strange that that was a requirement. However, if there was no desire to make these available to tourists then that might explain why the machine only operated in Hebrew.
The basic financial model seems simple. You buy a day pass for 17NIS (just under $5) and then pay for time used. Weekly and annual passes are available as well (the annual pass is slightly cheaper for Tel Aviv residents), and if I lived in Tel Aviv I’d probably want the annual pass, but the passes are just paper receipts, so I wonder how well they last after a year in a wallet.
If you use it less than 30 minutes, there’s no additional charge. An hour costs 5NIS ($1.43), 1.5 hours costs 10NIS, 2.5 hours costs 30NIS, 3.5 hours costs 70NIS, and 4.5 hours costs 150NIS. Each hour after that until 24 hours costs 100NIS. In other words, the first half hour is free, then each hour gets progressively more expensive. The first hour (really the second half hour) costs only 5NIS. The next half hour costs another 5NIS. The next hour then costs another 20NIS. The next, another 40NIS, etc. Clearly the idea is to get you to return the bicycles as quickly as possible. These bikes are meant for getting places, not for pleasant joy rides (unless quite short). Presumably, however, since you’ve paid for a day pass you can simply return the bike repeatedly at one of the many locations in under a half hour, and pay nothing, even if you’re using it all day. That being the case, it’s no clear to me why they insist on the ever-increasing hourly charge. Sure, keeping them within a half hour of one of their locations probably makes it easier to insure their bikes will get returned, but if you want to charge people for the convenience of not returning the bike quickly, why do you double the amount they pay every hour?
In any case, once you have your pass, you check out a bike. You select from one of the available bikes, and the lock disengages. You remove the lock from the bike and can now take the bike. It can be a bit hard to get the lock out in some cases. I watched a group of teens trying to get the bikes out when we were returning ours, and a couple of them had real difficulty getting them out.
The bike itself is a beast. I’m not expecting a carbon fiber or titanium bike here people, but this steel bike was incredibly heavy and bulky. Obviously the reason is it needs to stand up to lots of abuse. I get that. I just wish it was a bit lighter and easier to handle. The bike has a cargo strap on a curved surface on the back – useful for putting a bag on, but annoying to hop your leg over if that’s how you normally get on a bike. The bike has a built in lock that you can use if you want to park somewhere. The lock’s code is printed on your pass, a neat trick (i.e. the code travel with you from bike to bike).
The bike I chose (the closest to the terminal) was a bit beat up. The shifter casing was cracked open. I didn’t bother shifting gears (there were only 3) so I don’t actually know if the shifter worked. Overall, however, the bike seemed to work fine (other than being bulky) and it got me from point A to point B.
Without the app I had downloaded while at the restaurant, however, it would have been considerably more difficult to find a place to return the bikes. The web site of the service is not mobile-optimized. The papa per pass did have the web site address on it, as well as a phone number to call. Presumably I could have fallen back on the phone number if I couldn’t find a location to return the bikes.
Back to the app for a second, or rather lack of an app. The independent app was great, and very helpful, but it can’t do anything other than show you where there are bicycles. In a city like Tel Aviv, how is it possible they don’t have an app, or at least a really good mobile web site for the service? If I lived in Tel Aviv, would I really want to keep a paper pass safe for a year? Why not do everything electronically? The web site theoretically allows you to see your usage and invoices (I say theoretically because I could get neither to work in English, and only the usage to work in Hebrew). The paper pass has a bar code that you can insert into a covered section of the terminal to have it scanned. A slight redesign could allow scanning a smartphone screen if that was really needed. I say really needed, because why not allow unlocking a bike from the phone directly? Who needs the barcode? Imagine just going to a location, loading the app, having it recognize your location via GPS, show you the bikes that are available, and letting you pick one. Seems simple to me. It would also be nice to get a confirmation that the bike has been returned. A text message or e-mail would have been nice.
In the end, we had fun on the bikes, and returned them without a problem. It seems the city of Tel Aviv could improve things a bit, especially with the web site which has different parts that work in different languages. I would also think they’d want the bikes to be used by tourists, so offering a user interface on the rental terminals themselves in other languages would seem a must.
Rented a bike in Tel Aviv, or in the many other cities worldwide with rental bikes? What did you think of the experience?
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.
Do the success of tablets signal the end of paper?
I think we can never truly understand understand what the future will hold, even if we can predict its trajectory. Ray Kurzweil speaks often about how technology grows exponentially. Not only is technology progressing quickly, but the rate at which it is progressing is increasing. This is counter to how many people perceive it. This is best outlined in Kurzweil’s paper The Law of Accelerating Returns. I bring this up because he posits that the 100 years of this century will see the equivalent of 20,000 years of growth at the growth rate at the turn of the century. In other words, even at the growth rate that existed in 2000, it would take 20,000 years to reach the equivalent growth if kept constant, compared to the accelerating growth that really exists and will occur in this century. So how will we consume the written word in 10 years? in 50 years? in 100 years? Can you perceive what the equivalent of 20,000 years of progresss will mean?
One can argue now about the tactile difference in reading a paper book versus reading on an iPad, but what about when you don’t need to feel anything? Perhaps some day we’ll have retina displays literally in our retinas? We won’t need any device to pop up the text of a book and read it clearly. That doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. If Google has Glass now, and we’re experiencing exponential growth, then presumably it won’t be long before the capabilities of Glass are in a contact lens, then in the eye itself. We are already capable of surgically replacing the lens within the eye. Currently that is used for corrective surgery (an alternative to the more common LASIK), but what if at the same time you were correcting your vision you added Google Glass capabilities? What if we could literally pull up any book every written, in any language, and pop it up in our view at will? That changes the tactile argument quite a bit.
I’ve long been a book collector. I used to spend hours wandering the aisles of bookstores looking for rare and obscure books to add to my collection. Finding bargains in the early days was a real pleasure. A 28 volume dictionary from 1889 I found in a barn in New Hampshire was a real steal. The Internet mostly changed both the wandering around bookstores, and certainly finding bargains. If I want a rare book today, I usually search online first. Bookfinder.com, Alibris.com, Abebooks.com, etc. Every bookstore, from the biggest to the smallest one-person-in-a-barn bookstore is today hooked up to these sites. Many of the more popular older books are spammed (bammed?) into these online listings as print-on-demand books. Many of these same books are also available for free on Google Books.
It’s a different world, but certainly whether new or old almost every book one could want is available in some form online (at least in English). It’s only a matter of time before every book ever published will be online (some for free, some for pay). I’ll be the first to point out that most of the mass-scanned books like those in Google Books are not high quality. Reading one of those scans versus reading a real book is not even close. However, that’s something that can be fixed over time. Most people wouldn’t want to read a real 200 year old book either – the pages might be crumbly, the paper brown (lowering contrast), etc. Google did the best they could under the constraints of the technology when they did it. Eventually those books will either be scanned better, or converted into a format that uses real text layed out properly, scalable, and with all the features we expect in ebooks today. It’s nice to be able search a book, add comments, copy and paste text, etc. I still like the tactile feel of reading a paper book, but at some point the advantages of the digital versions will outweigh the tactile difference. What happens to my hundreds (maybe thousands) of books then? Will my children care? Will a library even accept them as a donation? Will there be physical libraries?
There is some irony that in a time when publishing a book is easier than its ever been, and self-publishing is no longer just a vanity pursuit, that paper books are heading the way of the rotary phone and Betamax. Of course people can publish straight to ebook, and skip paper altogether, but I imagine most people today who want to publish a book would feel that was some kind of fake, along the lines of straight-to-video movies. We don’t really consider them quality movies, so why would we consider straight-to-ebook books real books? Of course as time goes on we’ll get past that (the books, not the movies).
One big winner in the ebook revolution would seem to be the textbook publishing industry. I’ve always been personally offended by the tactics of textbook publishers, who release new ‘editions’ with minor changes every year in an effort to eliminate the second-hand market. Now, with etextbooks, they can link a book to an individual without the ability to sell it to a second party. Once they leave paper behind (and textbook publishers will do it as soon as possible) they no longer need to invest the money in making yearly changes. They no longer need to worry about second-hand sales. It’s win-win for textbook publishers.
In the end, the real question is will we reach a point where publishing a paper book becomes too expensive? As demand for paper books declines, will the cost skyrocket? Inevitably it must, although that is probably in my children’s timeline more than my own. As the video above rightly illustrates, there will always be use for certain kinds of paper.
What do you think the future of the printed book will be?
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
I’ve blogged in the past on a variety of topics, but not on technology and business, which is odd considering I’ve been working in tech for over 20 years. This blog at trauring.org, and the accompanying Twitter account trauring are an attempt to put out my opinions on technology and working in startups. I’m currently starting a new project, so as that progresses and becomes more public, I’ll be posting about that here as well.