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Grading Zipcar's New iPhone App

Posted by Scott Kirsner  September 29, 2009 03:32 PM

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zipcarapp.jpgApple finally made Zipcar's first iPhone application available today on its iTunes store, only a few months after Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith had hoped it'd show up there. It's a free app geared to the car-sharing company's existing members.

I had a chance to use it today for a lunchtime car rental. Here's my take:

- One of the things I was most eager to try was the app's ability to honk the car's horn (to help you locate the car), and open and lock the doors directly from your iPhone. So I was disappointed to find that the app wouldn't honk the car's horn until I'd "swiped in" to the car by waving my Zipcar membership card over the windshield, and that the app doesn't open the doors without your card. You still need to swipe the card to open the car when you find it and to lock it up when your rental is over. (I've been known to leave my wallet at home once in a while, and was hoping that my iPhone might come to the rescue on those occasions. And at least once, I've had trouble locating a Zipcar in a dark parking garage, when the horn honk would've been handy.) The honk function, as well as locking and unlocking the doors, worked perfectly once I'd swiped in to my Honda Accord this afternoon.

- The app enables you to make new reservations easily, or extend the reservation of the car you're currently using (important if you want to avoid Zipcar's $50 late fee.)

- You can also see on a map all the Zipcars located nearby. The app lets you sort them to see what kind of car is available at a specific time (if, for instance, you want a Mini Cooper for two hours on Friday at 10 AM.) But the car-sorting menu seemed excessively long -- it lists a lot of models and types of cars that aren't available in my neighborhood (no convertibles in Cambridge, for example.)

- The app has crashed twice so far. Not a big deal, but just wanted to note that. Also, sometimes it can get stuck in an operation (like "Loading Vehicles") with no way to get out of it other than exiting the app.

I give the app a B- overall. (It'll earn a B if future releases improve the stability.) I expect that I'll be more likely to use it to make new reservations while traveling to other cities, or extend the reservation time of a car I'm using, than I will to do all that honking and door unlocking that seemed so appealing when Zipcar first demoed the app back in June. (I do give Zipcar extra credit for having already trained their phone reps to answer questions about the app -- one of them explained that I shouldn't try to use the app to "check out" of the car when I was done with it.)

Update: I may have tried to honk the Honda before my official reservation time had arrived yesterday, which Zipcar says would be one reason it didn't work. Honking worked better with today's reservation, but I was vexed today by the slow start-up time of the app every time I wanted to lock or unlock the doors. And the display showed some weird text that read "Null Null Null." So I'm leaving my grade where it is...

Your thoughts?

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4 comments so far...
  1. Actually you can honk the car before you clock in with your card. I tried it today. You just can't unlock it before you swipe in. You should probably correct that.

    Posted by jason September 29, 09 06:01 PM
  1. Jason-

    It didn't work for me but I'll try again soon...


    Posted by Scott Kirsner September 30, 09 08:10 AM
  1. I was in a parking garage yesterday that had no cell coverage. So, the unlocking feature on the iPhone wouldn't work in such a case. Maybe it's a good thing that Zipcar makes you carry your card so you won't get stuck in such a case?

    Posted by Jason October 1, 09 02:41 PM
  1. I've been disappointed with the app overall. I gave it a try the first day and have used it again twice since then, with basically the same failures each time.

    Firstly, the app crashes relentlessly. After a sign-in, after viewing available cars, trying to view current reservations, has crashed at least a dozen times on me.

    The location aware features are not fully baked. You click on the location icon and it guesses that your market is Boston, okay that is correct, but then you have to approve the decision to use Boston as the location and then press the icon yet again to finally zoom in on where you are located. This should just be the default.

    The locking/unlocking and honking were such sexy sounding features and in reality they barely work. On my first reservation the lock/unlock did not work at all, even after signing in. The honk and unlock feature are also disabled for some vehicles, and you don't know that until after you've reserved the car. And finally, each feature, when it works, takes 30-45 seconds to happen. You press lock, wait, nothing happens, press lock again, then finally the first lock happens and then the next. Very delayed and confusing.

    Overall the app is just a slightly better way to reserve or extend reservations, everything else is sub-par.

    Posted by Dan Abdinoor October 5, 09 02:41 PM


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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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