Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Hotel Receptionist

Traveling this summer, we stayed at a concept hotel called Aloft, an experiment of Starwood Hotels. It had a vaguely Euro/Scandanavian design with a trendy, hipster sort of ambience, but what intrigued me was their idea of dispensing with a breakfast area in favor of a self-serve lobby all within view of the receptionist. You simply pick up whatever you want and the receptionist rings it up.

So what does this have to do with business models?

A lot! In the age of smartphones which can act as your door key, wallet, concierge and passbook what will be the role of the receptionist? This experiment seems to be a way to re-allocate resources (receptionists, to begin with) as tech-savvy consumers demand more services that are seamlessly integrated with their gadgets and gizmos.

Microsoft Takes a Stab

A futuristic video developed by Microsoft sketches the story of a business traveller 5-10 years in the future, as she lands and checks into her hotel. Some notable ideas are hyper-location, translating AR glasses and an embedded digital room key. The one technology that will appear well before five years, and has the potential of creating the most disruption, is the smartphone as door key.

Phones as door keys

The idea of using a phone to unlock a door has shifted from an interesting research curiosity to working products that you can buy in a store. Although NFC seems the obvious answer, as seen in the video below, it misses the point that it only works with a small set of smartphones, thus limiting its usefulness.

WAN Connected Doors?

You know there is something going on when digital locks attract the attention of an established company such as Schlage. They are certainly taking a conservative approach and not trying to replace a real key. In fact their value proposition is to simply allow remote access for babysitters, workmen, etc. It thus becomes part of a broader home security and automation need, rather than a gimmicky "internet lock".

It is worth noting that the phone is simply a secure remote control that accesses the lock through a specific LAN gateway.

Not to be outdone, Zipcars can be unlocked by a smartphone. No NFC needed, an ID number and a cellular modem will do quite well, thank you! Of course they wisely kept a backup of a card-scanner behind the windshield that unlocks the car when presented with the right barcode.

Is Apple's Passbook the Answer?

It is certainly part of the answer. As Phil Schiller of Apple noted in a recent interview on The Verge, "Passbook does everything customers want". With little NFC infrastructure and a long slow upgrade of terminals, door locks, etc. over the coming years, NFC seems to be the proverbial hammer looking for a nail.

The other part of the answer is simply using location and visual information as a way to authenticate a person. Square seems to have gotten it right with Pay with Square, certainly Starbucks thinks so! No need to take your phone out of your pocket.

So is our receptionist out of a job? Lets say she has new tasks to take care of while the need to hand out card-keys slowly shrinks.

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