Next Metro iPhone app – your frequently asked questions

Late on Sunday, the Next Metro iPhone app quietly went live in the iTunes App Store. This morning, barely 36 hours after launch, Next Metro is a top 10 travel app in the UK (out of roughly 17,000 in the section) and a New & Noteworthy app, as chosen by Apple:


Throughout today you’ll begin to hear about Next Metro on local radio, read about it in the local papers and you’ll see our flyers around Tyne and Wear. We spent plenty of time planning the launch, because it’s very different to any app we’ve launched previously; this is an app available in a global market, but of interest to the tiniest percentage of consumers in that market.

While developing the app, we received a lot questions from followers of the Next Metro accounts on Twitter and Facebook, and the same ones are already cropping up now the app has launched, so I’ve tried to tackle these in the FAQ below. I also want to clear up the independent nature of the app, because we’ve had several enquiries as to whether the app is official, and where we sourced the train time information.

Next Metro is a collaborative project between ourselves and developer Alex Reid. Alex had a brilliant idea – an app that told him when his next Metro was due while commuting between home on the coast and work in Newcastle. It sounded like an app everyone would find useful, so together we met with the communications department at Nexus last December, and presented demos and mock-ups for both Android and iPhone. Everyone agreed it was an exciting project and we were asked to submit a proposal.

Disappointingly, Nexus couldn’t take the project forward, and despite attempting to follow up with DB Regio, the new operators of the Tyne and Wear Metro, we never heard anything from them. It would have been fantastic to produce an official app and it’s a great shame it didn’t happen. So faced with the choice of mothballing the project or finding a way to continue without support, we spent a lot of time reading up on transport data and issues faced by other developing attempting similar projects – there are plenty of pitfalls to avoid.

We spoke at length to Traveline – a scheme that falls under the remit of the Department of Transport and is operated by a partnership of transport operators and local authorities – and eventually secured a license to use the Metro timetable data. That’s how we’ve been able to develop this app independently.

We’re really proud of the finished product – Alex has made a cracking job of the build, and together we’ve created a UI and feature set that will be invaluable, whether you’re a regular commuter or first time visitor to the region. We’ve packed in bags of metadata to help users make sense of the Metro system, and we have new features planned for later releases.

FAQ

Why isn’t the app free?

The timetable data used by the app is copyright material. It may be printed on leaflets and available on websites, but its use is restricted – and licensing the data costs us money. On top of that, we have to pay a certain percentage of our revenue per app sold, and we have server costs, too. In short, this app can’t exist without it costing somebody money.

That aside, we ultimately believe Next Metro is an invaluable app, and we believe valuable apps are worth paying for. Yes, free things are very nice, but from a business point of view, we can’t support future projects by working for free. Furthermore, we can’t support this project by working for free. From a consumer point of view, it costs less than a coffee at Starbucks, and it’ll save you money the first time you don’t miss your last Metro home.

Does the app show delays and cancelled trains?

Unfortunately, no. Or rather, not yet.

Right now, the app uses live timetable data. One of the restrictions of using the Traveline NextBuses API, is that we can’t store timetables within the app – timetables are regularly updated and it’s Traveline’s view that the consumer should always see the most up-to-date information available. So it’s live timetable data, because the app makes an API call every time it’s used – any changes made by Nexus to their published timetable will appear in Next Metro. The downside is that API doesn’t know about adhoc changes, such as last-minute delays and cancellations.

Why can’t the app display real-time information? Because the ability to see that information outside the Metro system doesn’t currently exist. The information appears on platform boards around the Tyne and Wear network, but there’s no pipe carrying it out of the control room – it’s a closed system. The good news is the situation is likely to change – substantial investment in the Metro system should see the arrival of live train time information that is available externally.

Until then, I’m happy to say the Metro runs like clockwork most of the time – eight people tested the app over the course of two weeks in May, and in nearly every instance, the arrival times married up to the app to within a minute. If you live near one of the stations that only sees off-peak trains every 15 minutes, Next Metro is going to save you plenty of long waits on the platform.

Where’s the Android version you mentioned? And BlackBerry?

We had hoped to develop Next Metro across all three mobile platforms, but there were concerns. A good app is one developed to suit the strengths of the individual platform – and that development takes time and money. At the moment, we feel iPhone is the only platform that will make good on such an investment.

We haven’t seen much evidence – from our own experience or from other developers – that an Android version of Next Metro would sell any more than a small number of apps. That’s not to say Android isn’t worth developing for, absolutely not, but when the end product is only of interest to a tiny percentage of a global market, we have to be sure it’s worth doing.

As for BlackBerry, there are similar concerns with take-up, but the overriding issue is with the BlackBerry App World platform. It costs $200 to acquire a license for up to ten app submissions, and each version or update of the same app counts as one submission. The high-cost entry-level is no doubt there to ensure professional intent, but again for an app of limited appeal in a global store, we have to question the value.

We are still considering development for Android and BlackBerry, but we’re content to monitor sales and activity of the iPhone version.

Where’s the official Metro map?

The Metro Map is the property of Nexus and we can’t use it without permission. Now the app is released, we’ll approach Nexus/DB Regio once more about collaborating – it’s in their interests as well as ours that the map is included. It’s not strictly needed for regular passengers, and the combination of line orders and Google Maps takes care of most queries – but it’d be nice to have it.

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