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HolidayBuyer's Guide

Revving up with the Zipcar iPhone app

Using the new app to find and book the car-sharing service's vehicles on the go is really convenient, but at least at this point, its unlock-by-iPhone feature is more of a gimmick.

Searching for a Zipcar with the company's new iPhone app. Zipcar

SAN FRANCISCO--It's like the ultimate yuppie geek convergence: there's finally an iPhone app for car-sharing company Zipcar. To put it in the most stereotypical of terms, you now no longer need a computer to book that Prius for your weekend Whole Foods run.

Apple gave a green light to the free download earlier this week, so Zipcar members can now use the app to find and book available cars using GPS-enabled maps, access account and car database information, contact the company's headquarters, and use a "virtual key fob" to lock and unlock their reserved cars. It's the first-ever mobile endeavor for Zipcar besides text-message alerts, something that may be surprising considering the company's outside-the-box, next-gen image.

"This is an entirely new channel of communication with members," Zipcar Chief Technology Officer Luke Schneider told CNET News in a meeting at the company's San Francisco office, adding that over a quarter of the company's 325,000 members (which it calls "Zipsters") own iPhones. Applications for more mobile platforms are tentatively on the way, he added, as another quarter of Zipcar members own non-iPhone smartphones. But he said the company hasn't decided which to develop next.

Zipcar, founded a decade ago in Cambridge, Mass., is designed as an alternative to car ownership and rental. You pay by the hour, gas and insurance are included, and cars are scattered in parking spaces across cities and university towns (the places where living without a car is most feasible) so that once you've booked a vehicle, you can show up and unlock it with your membership card. Schneider came on board when the company merged with a rival, Flexcar, about two years ago.

With its iPhone app, Schneider said, Zipcar hopes to achieve a twofold goal: first, making the membership experience easier by allowing for mobile reservations and database information; and two, attracting new customers by letting them toy with the app even if they aren't already members. Load up the "virtual key fob" without logging in or having a reservation, and a pop-up message will appear saying, in quirky Zipster fashion, "You do not have a current reservation, but you can make fun sounds anyway." In other words, you can push the horn-honking button until your friends want to wring your neck. It's about "the experience" of the Zipcar brand, Schneider explained.

For the company's management, the mobile app can also fine-tune some of the data that Schneider says they're "constantly obsessed" with: which car models are in demand at which times of the day and year, which locations seem over- or under-served, and so forth. It doesn't collect any sensitive personal data, he assured me.

I had a chance to test drive the new iPhone app on Wednesday, when I picked up a Zipcar to drive to Mountain View for the TechStars Investor Day event. The app is extremely well-designed, and making a reservation is a no-brainer. It's overall terrific branding for Zipcar: newcomers will certainly get the idea that this is a company that's tech-savvy, rooted in convenience, and has a sense of humor.

And Zipcar needs to keep up that image, now that the car-sharing trend is catching on with rivals from both the nonprofit space (like the Bay Area's City Car Share) and the mainstays of the rental car industry.

The Zipcar iPhone app's 'virtual key fob' is cute, but more gimmicky than convenient. Zipcar

"Zipcar established a category that didn't exist yet," Schneider said of competition in the market. "It validates the space when bigger competitors come in."

My gripe with the app, unfortunately, is with the nifty part that everybody's talking about. The unlock-by-iPhone feature is more of a fun toy than a utility; it simply isn't as convenient as it should be. First, you've got to load up the app and let it log you in--which takes a few seconds, enough time for me to fish around in my wallet and find my "Zipcard," the ID card that also locks and unlocks reserved cars. Then, upon hitting the lock or unlock button, the app has to communicate with Zipcar via data connection--not a short-range signal like an automatic door opener--and sometimes that can take another second or two. (Once, in fact, it just didn't seem to want to work.) Typically, I just got impatient and dug out my card.

Additionally, the app won't replace the credit-card-sized "Zipcard." They'll still need to use the card, not the iPhone interface, to unlock a car when they initially pick it up.

But that's a security regulation more than anything else, Schneider told me: "We don't want you to be stranded if your battery's run out."