Life in the Slow Lane: Zipcar’s Sputtering iPhone App Release

Sometimes even a do-gooder company flubs something badly enough that it deserves to take some crap. So I give that honor to Zipcar, which over the past few months brilliantly and boldly promoted its iPhone app even though, for all practical purposes, it didn’t exist.

The story begins with a giant coup: Zipcar won an invite to show off its App at Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference in San Francisco this past June, the one at which Apple rolled out its 3GS phones. It’s the kind of exposure that could turn an App into the mobile equivalent of a summer blockbuster—and that, presumably, was exactly what Zipcar execs had in mind.

So on June 8th, Zipcar CTO Luke Schneider and principal engineer Jonathan Wolfe took center stage before a packed house and gave a slick demo of the car-sharing company’s futuristic App, which, as Schneider proudly announced, “We’re very excited to introduce….”

Wolfe played the role of Zipcar customer, Schneider narrated, and the audience—which of course extended to the Web—watched on a giant screen.

Schneider described how Jonathan, a carless San Francisco resident, needed a Zipcar to pick up friends for dinner. Jonathan taps the Zipcar icon, and a map emerges on his phone. It locates Jonathan via GPS, and then shows him nearby Zipcar lots, complete with bright green pins to indicate available cars. Jonathan taps a location, selects a Mini Cooper and reserves his wheels for the evening.

This was cool stuff, but the duo wowed the audience even more when Schneider described how Jonathan nears the parking lot, taps on a virtual key fob and—voila!—the car horn honks. Next, Jonathan reaches the car, taps on his fob once more, and the Mini unlocks, as if by magic. The crowd applauded enthusiastically.

It was a sweet victory for Zipcar. The press picked up on the futuristic idea of smart phones controlling your car. Bloggers got excited. And the company said its App would be available this summer.

In the following weeks—nah, make that months—Zipcar scored all kinds of adoring press, culminating with a September 14 cover story in Fortune (the actual release date is a couple of weeks earlier) in which the magazine hailed Zipcar as, The Best New Idea in Business.

The article naturally opens with newest and coolest thing: That iPhone trick. The writer describes Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith entering the parking lot at his office in Cambridge, Mass., and using his iPhone to make his Mini Cooper honk and then unlock itself. The story goes on to explain how this revolutionary company is growing like mad, about to turn a profit and on track to go public in 2010, which likely explains why Zipcar has been courting the media so hard. This was killer press for any company, well worth the visit Griffith paid to Fortune headquarters in June to make his pitch to the editors.

As for the iPhone App, however, Fortune didn’t bother to mention one little thing. It still wasn’t available.

More than a month after that story came out, on September 29th, Zipcar at last announced the “immediate availability” of its Zipcar App at the iTunes App Store—a full 114 days since Schneider introduced it back at the Apple conference, which, in the age of Twitter, seems roughly equivalent to a decade.

Okay, then. Great! The App must be killer, what with all that extra time.

So let’s go to the user reviews, where the leading category is….

Zipcar Reviews

The two key complaints: One, the App crashes the phone. And two, Zipsters, as they’re known, still need their Zipcard access card, and they want the App to replace it entirely.

So what gives?

I emailed Zipcar spokeswoman Nancy Scott Lyon. “In just a few weeks,” she wrote, “We’ve had nearly 140,000 downloads of our app. About 3% rated the app and less than 1% of those who downloaded the App have reviewed it–we’ve noticed that this is a trend that many other popular apps have experienced such as Starbucks, ESPN, Bump, Gap, and Whole Foods.”

In other words, the reviews offer too small a sampling to draw any conclusions but are enough of a concern that we’ve roped in others to show we’re in good company.

But does the App really cause the phone to crash? Well…

At Zipcar, we constantly are pushing the envelope when it comes to technology. We’ve already submitted a point release to Apple that currently is in their review process. This point release addresses every crash/freeze bug we have become aware of since the 1.0 launch. Once approved, anyone who has our app automatically will receive an update that they can download.

Oh, shit, sometimes it does cause iPhones to freeze.

As for replacing the Zipcard access card, Lyon said the company’s aware that some members want this, but that the first version was made this way so that people “don’t get stranded because their phone battery goes dead, they lose their phone or can’t get a network connection.”

Fair enough.

Really, though, why did it take almost four months to get the damn thing out when you showed a working demo back in June? Lyon sent me an answer, but, in truth, she didn’t answer the question. I’m guessing it’s a sore subject back at Zipcar HQ.

Just for fun, let’s look another car-controlling iPhone App that just hit the market, the Viper SmartStart, which came out October 13. The Viper App differs from Zipcar’s because it’s made for your car and as such requires installing hardware in your vehicle.

But it has features Zipsters want: It can unlock the car on the first try (Zipcar requires you to first sign in with your Zipcard), and you can start the car, not just open it, from anywhere, which could come in handy on sub-zero days in big Zipcar markets like Boston.

The Viper App was made by after10Studios, an App-building company in Santa Monica that’s run by a 24-year-old named Mohamed Alkady. I asked Alkady how long it took his team to get the Viper App designed, built and in the App store. Answer: Three months.

Now, I know this is just an App—it’s not like Zipcar is knowingly putting people in exploding cars. But when you reach a certain size, you become fair game.  So when you start posing on the cover of Fortune and talk about becoming a multibillion-dollar company, well, the honeymoon is over, even if you are great for the environment. Besides, Zipcar likes to point out that more than 25% of its 325,000 members have their lives on their iPhones–so this whole App thing seems like something they might want to be a little more careful with.