|BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 13, 2000 ISSUE|
|TECH BUYING GUIDE
ONLINE EXTRA: Modo's Mojo Falling
The would-be portable listings guide could have been a trendy flash, but it closed up on Oct. 25. Here's a look back
San Francisco-based Scout Electromedia fell victim to the vagaries of the Net business in Net time. Scout was shuttered on Oct. 25, just six weeks after debuting its Modo wireless city guide. This after collecting some $18 million in venture capital from the likes of idealab! and Chase Capital, which ultimately pulled its funding. The following review was completed on Oct. 24, hours before the company announced its closing.
Despite the product's demise, you can still find the occasional Modo for sale on auction sites like eBay, where one recent seller tempted bidders to "be the first among your friends to own the first Rubik's cube of the 21st century." And you can still read the content posted on Modo's last day of operation, should you feel the need to fetishize a single date in October, 2000.
It's Friday night on a dim Manhattan subway, and as the train lurches southward, I'm getting my first glimpse -- or rather, sustained squint -- at what some think will become the mobile future. It's called Modo, the $99 wireless city guide that will be my electronic adviser for the evening.
Modo isn't a cell phone or a handheld computer. Think of it as a pocket-size, wireless-enabled Village Voice. Designed as a set of scrollable menus (there is no way of entering text), it spits out pithy, sometimes bitchy, 100-word nuggets on movies, restaurants, and shopping. They're supplemented by dozens of rotating columnists who opine on everything from secret Gotham bars to the joys of shopping at Target.
THIN LISTINGS. Via nightly transmissions over a Motorola Inc. paging network, Modo stores up to two megabytes of content, which means the data is instantly accessible, rather than downloaded item by item as on the Web. Already available in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, the one-month-old gadget will hit 12 more cities by yearend 2001 and will not charge a monthly user fee.
Unfortunately, Modo is still missing its mojo. In New York, the listings are far thinner than those available in the (free, and very transportable) Village Voice or listings bible Time Out New York. For example, Modo deigns to list only one bar for the 35-block Upper West Side neighborhood, yet eight for the tiny -- but trendy -- Gramercy area.
That suggests you're not buying a gadget as much as you're buying a point-of-view. Modo's staff of five editors appear to have little patience for suggestions that won't grab its demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds with cash and hauteur to burn. Some recommendations, however, are unexpected, and may help even the most jaded rediscover their home turf. I had no idea, for instance, that there was a weekly roller disco in Manhattan until I discovered it on Modo.
But too often, the recommendations feel like the work of trendy wannabes, rather than wise city denizens. One feature outlines a four-step process for receiving VIP status at clubs. "Play the part!" Modo advises earnestly. Geez, $100 for this?
DIM VIEW. Modo hopes this status-seeking audience will lure advertisers, who help underwrite the transmission costs of the daily updates. Tiny electronic ads already command some 20% of the 1.75 inch screen. Absolut Vodka is an advertiser, and soon, Madison Square Garden and the Guggenheim Museum will place pitches.
They had better design their spots carefully. The Modo screen is too dim, and the listings text becomes inscrutable when it's displayed over distracting graphics. That's a shame, given that the overall product design is excellent. It fits snugly in the palm of the hand and has such a distinct look that two people on the subway asked me what it does. (An accomplishment, given the city's notoriously surly subterraneans.)
Modo's high-tech elegance may appeal to some trendsetters and gadget freaks. It will be a tougher sell to a broad audience. For $50 more, one can buy a new Palm handheld and load it with Vindigo, a free city guide similar to Modo. And because Modo content is updated just once a day, it takes little advantage of the wireless medium itself, which can push out up-to-the-minute special listings or ads when necessary.
Modo's content will likely to improve over time. By then, though, Modo's potential audience will likely have caught on to other wireless services embedded in far more ubiquitous phones and personal digital assistants. When you live by the trend, you may die by the trend, too.
By Dennis K. Berman in New York
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