A few years back… pre-iPhone era (you can tell from the content), I wrote a post about the Cinderella dilemma suburbanites experience when visiting New York City in the evening. After rush-hour, the options for catching a train out of the city are “limited”, and the last thing you want to do is have your fun night out ruined by an extended stay at NY’s Penn Station.
I thought I’d revisit the current state of affairs for late night New Jersey-bound B&T folks like myself.
In October 2006, I felt like my world had changed for the better when NJ Transit introduced a mobile version of their website. At the time, I was in awe that I could see the train schedule on demand on a mobile device in my hand within one or two clicks. How quaint that notion seems today!
In this new world of mobile apps, what was impressive in 2006 is just taken for granted now in 2011. Everyone wants an app for something. But well done mobile websites can be just as good for many situations.
There have been some debates about apps vs. the web recently. There are some categories of apps that I think might be better served by well done mobile websites. I think transit apps are one of them. With the exception of possibly making use of a user’s location data for routing purposes, transit apps are mostly rendering semi-static time-table content. There’s virtually no need for accelerators, compasses, cameras, or other device specific features that an app would be better suited for.
NJ Transit’s current mobile web site is pretty decent. The site has improved slightly over the past couple of years. Although, there is always room for improvement… like remembering preferences and the routes you frequent so they can be quick linked on their home page!
One major improvement came in October 2009 with the introduction of Departure Vision to most stations. Departure Vision is a website feature that lets you view the same train departure status boards that are on display in the actual stations. For those of you not from the train-using northeast US or Europe, these departure boards are similar to the ones you see in an airport for planes and typically list the next 10 trains or so.
Departure Vision is a lot handier than the point-to-point train schedule feature that excited me in my 2006 post. The point-to-point feature will return you a full timetable between any two stations in the browser. Given the late-night use-case scenario that inspired my original post, you typically need to scroll through the point-to-point timetable all the way to the end to find the late night trains.
That notion of a “quick glance” to obtain the information you need is a key design philosophy of the Metro UI introduced with Windows Phone 7. In fact, the Metro UI was inspired by signs commonly found at public transport systems, just like Departure Vision!
Last month at the Windows Phone 7 launch event in NYC, I was hanging out with my teammate Jim O’Neil from New England. Toward the end of the event, Jim noticed me checking the train schedule with Departure Vision on my Samsung Focus and asked, “What app is that?!” At first I was surprised, “Huh? It’s not an app. It’s a website.”
Then the “doh” moment hit and I realized, “Oh yeah, it (Departure Vision) does look like a Windows Phone app with the white text & colors on a black background. Very Metro like indeed!”
At the same time, it occurred to me that I keep forgetting that you can pin websites to the home screen on Windows Phone. When you pin a website to the home screen on Windows Phone, you get a tile that is a thumbnail snapshot of what the page looks like. Click the tile, and the browser opens directly to that page as if it were an app.
I immediately pinned Departure Vision to my screen for Penn Station.
“SWEET!!!”, I yelled out loud!
Just ONE click… exactly ONE CLICK from the home screen and I can immediately see “when is the next train?” at a glance! This is B&T nirvana!
After getting over my excitement at this technically trivial set up, I pinned tiles for Departure Vision at the three stations I use most frequently. Now, when I need to get a train to or from NYC, I can quickly figure out my best option in true Windows Phone fashion: “Get In, Get Out, and Get On With Your Life”.
Note to the Windows Phone team: There’s always room for improvement. What would be killer is if the pinned website tiles on Windows Phone were “live” and could update dynamically. That way, even with a website like DV, you could always see the latest trains on the tile itself!
The great thing about this is that, given that Departure Vision is a mobile website, this feature is available on any mobile phone. In fact, while writing this post, I discovered that NJ Transit even advertises it with a QR code at ticket vending machines throughout the system. Scan the QR code at your station’s TVM using your phone and it will pop the browser open to Departure Vision for that station. Of course, once you do that, you can bookmark it accordingly.
Last week, I met some good friends for dinner and drinks after work at the Houndstooth Pub in NYC. At some point, the question came up, “Another round? Or does Cinderella have to run?” A quick glance down at my phone and the answer was a resounding “One more please!”
The days of tempting fate with the mystery of whether you’ll be stranded in Penn Station with a pumpkin, a bunch of mice, and a glass slipper are long gone! (Well, maybe not the mice…. this is New York City after all!)