Putting the “m” in Commerce

31 01 2011

Fifteen years ago, web developers were busy trying to put the “e” in commerce by creating e-commerce sites. The novelty factor was huge, of course, as were the pockets of consumer resistance. It was all pretty new, and trying to figure out how to take a three-dimensional activity and reduce it to 2D was challenging. Never mind that all social aspects of shopping in those early efforts were painfully absent. But worries about security and privacy trumped those, resulting in an emerging retail platform that was as wobbly as a toddler taking his first steps.

Of course, we all got over those hurdles. Now we’re busy contemplating how to take that same online shopping experience and put it in our hand…as in a mobile device.

But as John Arrow, CEO of Mutual Mobile, explained at the Austin Rocks conference last Saturday, mobile is not just a portable version of a website. It is not a billboard (or brochureware). It is not direct mail. And it is much more than the interactivity levels found online.

It must be tailored to fit the device. Or, as Arrow joked when sharing that his firm developed the iPad app for Google’s Boutiques.com, it’s “m-commerce with style.”

Boutiques.com is a very different type of project for Google. It is what remains of the former Like.com, which Google bought (ha! what else is new?). Boutiques is a personalized shopping experience that allows users to curate content, or use the curated content of others. It brings together many designers and vendors in one place, where users can cobble together their own mall of fashion. Although it is currently only available for US women’s fashion customers, it will soon expand.

What made the Boutique app challenging is that the iPad is vastly different from scrolling and clicking through a traditional website. Tapping, swiping and pinching (or spreading) are the means of navigating, collapsing or expanding content. But the app still had to have the same basic functionality of a standard e-commerce site: consumers had to be able to buy just like before. Safely. Securely. But with style befitting the fashion-forward coolness of the device.

This is very different from the point-and-click we have all grown accustomed to when shopping online. Apple has already mastered this with their iBooks Store, utilizing the same finger movements to facilitate opening and closing a book, as well as flipping its pages. As Arrow and Company figured out, the palette for m-commerce is not limited necessarily to the rectangle of the screen. Panels can slide in our out to the side, top or bottom. Layered screens appear atop a tapped object so shoppers can take a closer look. One more tap brings forth a purchasing page from the vendor’s own site. A couple of quick taps and these pop-overs vanish.

Can all of this fit on a much smaller smartphone? Sure, but it won’t be quite the same experience. The consensus is that tablet devices like the iPad are now here for good (even though Apple took a huge beating with its Newton tablet back in the 90s—they were just way too far ahead of their time). Having yet another platform for which commerce must be designed simply means that savvy developers will be in demand for a long time.

Going unanswered in this discussion, though, is why in the world Google would want to be involved in the fashion business. There is no room for a “g” in commerce, right? But there is room for a company to continue to learn more about users, and then tailor ever more advertising that can be targeted with cunning precision.

Yes, there is an app for that. And you just stumbled into the cross hairs.

Dr “Curate This” Gerlich

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