Pokémon Go: A Killer Catch

August 6, 2016 by guidj

Pokémon Go has been released for roughly six weeks now, and it's already a phenomenon that is moving people. Literally. Whether you're trying to get an egg hatched, searching for new Pokémon to capture, or just looking for the next gym battle to conquer your turf, and territory, people are out and about with their Pokédex in hand walking the Earth. It's a must, if you want to become the world's most premier Pokémon master; and according to the number of users of the app, almost every young adult and child with a smartphone does.

This success has not been without incidence. Several cases of disorderly conduct, and violence have been reported around the world, from Japan to New York, and the app has earned more titles from religious, social groups and governments than probably any other application or product in history. Surely, the developers are facing scaling challenges that few companies ever have to a such a rapid pace, and there will be glitches and faults here and there. Like all rapid grown innovations, there are issues to work out, be them technical, social, legislative or economic.

But Pokémon Go is not just a killer app. It is a technology-enabled phenomenon. Over the past 15 years, technology has evolved at a brilliant pace. We went from CDs to portable iPods in a short span, and from those to smartphones in an ever shorter time span. Computers have essentially doubled in capacity on a yearly basis, even if that's becoming harder to achieve today. Yes, hardware technology has truly been astonishing, and will probably continue to impress us in the future. But what really amazes me is when technology is put to use with transformative consequences.

Mobile apps have been around since the 2008, when the AppStore debuted. While devices have come packed with many interesting, and increasing abilities like large screens, graphics processing units (GPUs), GPS, and NFC, there were only two instances in my life that an app has amazed me. The first was taxi calling. I was living in Kuala Lumpur at the time, and public transport was pretty scarce in my work area, so we often had to rely on cabs. I missed my ride with a colleague, and so I needed to hail a cab to go home. Another colleague told me about an app called MyTeksi (now Grabcar), and so I installed it and gave it a try. Registration took me a minute or so. The app had my location, so all I had to do was give it my destination, and press a button. Within minutes, I had a cab driver who had accepted my request, and was on his way to pick me up. Not only did I have an estimate of how much I'd have pay, but I could also see when the driver would arrive, and where he was at that moment. Right there and then I thought to myself, this is the first actually useful app I have ever seen. Later when they introduced a feature that effectively turned anyone with a car into a driver, I felt the world had been transformed. I grabbed rides with all kinds of professionals, from technologists, to lawyers, some of whom worked in the same building as mine, retired folks, and all other kinds of people. It was a new era for transportation.

The second time was when I was living in Madrid. See, when you live in a city with a slightly complex metro, bus, and tram system, figuring out where to go next can be a time hogging feat. Especially when you're going to a new place. But with this app called Moovit, no matter where I was or what time of the day it was, I could tell the app where I wanted to go, and it would provide me with a planned route to reach there: walk 10 minutes to metro station A, take the metro line X until stop B, exit on Street C, catch the 123 bus to station D, and you will have arrived. Because the app had a live feed of the transportation lines, it could tell me exactly how long I'd have to wait at each stop for the next train or bus, and how long it would take me to arrive at my destination. To my view, public mobility had been transformed.

I like playing games on my phone. I also have a regular note app, movie ticket booking app, and what have you not app installed. But I know that all of those apps are merely replacing native or web versions of their counterparts, and thus can also be replaced by them. I can buy tickets from my browser by visiting a website, and the experience can be just as smooth (depending on the design). But to hail a cab, have the driver know where to come pick me up, and see how far they are from where I am? Or getting the planned route that combines 2-4 different transportation routes and means from my current location to my destination? and now, explore the entire planet for fictional creatures, competing against millions of others on the street? Those to me are natively smartphone apps. The actual killer apps.

What these killer apps have in common are three factors: (1) they use our current context in their algorithms to, e.g. GPS to check for nearby cabs, or bus stations, and (2) they rely on some kind of knowledge base of information pertaining the resource or service we seek, e.g. the transportation feed or the different bus, train, tram, and metro lines; and finally, (3) they provide a utility value, which is transportation, or transportation planning in the case of Grabcar, and Moovit, respectively.

And now, using these same principles, Pokémon Go has taken the entire world by storm. This creation from Niantic relies on (1) landscape at a given location to distribute Pokémon across the globe, along with GPS to decide which Pokémon a user will encounter; (2) it also uses a landmarks knowledge base, Ingress, previously created by the company to set up PokéStops. Exceptionally though, the value proposition here is not a utilitarian one, but an emotional one. Every person for whom Pokémon was a part of their childhood now has a chance to live their childhood dreams of becoming Pokémon trainers, and rightly, they will try to do so. After all, how often do people get to live out one of their favourite childhood moments?

So, the next time you wanna think about a killer idea, check that those 3 factors are present, and your creation might just take the world by storm. Granted, there are more ways to create innovative services and products. Right now, Pokémon Go is also providing new mechanisms for small businesses to attract customers in organic ways, working effectively as a platform that enables businesses and users to engage from common interests, which I think is another key factor for triumph.

It's worth mentioning that Niantic had already used this recipe to build another product, Field Trip. In the app, you can see architectural, art, and historical facts about the places surrounding you, making it an excellent companion for a field trip, or just an excursion around your city. Interesting to see how great products can come out of combining existing services like Google Maps with powerful open knowledge bases, like DBPedia, which powers Wikipedia

As for players, I strongly advise everyone not to forget that we live in the real world, and walking around at 3AM, or trespassing property to catch Pokémon are not great ideas. Having said that, let's paint this planet Red.