Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What is Twitter? Thoughts on communication and media part 1.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the tide pools near our house with some other parents and their kids. A couple of the moms were talking about Twitter, and knowing that I stay up on the current stuff in technology, they asked me if I used Twitter and they wanted to know what it was. I said that I had been using Twitter for 3 years and was one of the first 1000 users (actually user number 590. ) @Derrick . That was the easy part of the question. The harder questions was What is Twitter? I don't recall exactly but I mumbled something about it being a broadcast communication facility to share information with friends. I guess at some level that is technically correct but really punts on the question and sounds dumb. I thought a more worked out answer would be interesting to help my understanding and and to share some of the broader implications with some friends. Hence this post.

In the fall of 2004 I was involved in the podcasting meme of the moment and as a result helped found a podcasting music association with a bunch of fellow indie music podcasters called The Association Of Music Podcasting (which is still going strong here.) We had some discussions with Adam Rugel from Odeo about working with them and somehow during one of my travels I managed to have a meeting with Evan Williams and Biz Stone to talk about podcasting sometime late in 2005. When I met with them, they were actually more interested in talking about what I was doing with Intercasting and Rabble. We talked for a long time about mobile and I have to say it was an enjoyable chat.

A month or two later one of my friends told me they were working on some kind of sms based messaging service called Twitter. I thought that was interesting but I knew that some of the services that had done this previously had hit some roadblocks. Not knowing the specifics I didn't think about it much. A little while later Adam sent me an invite when the service launched. Right off the bat, I thought of a service called UPOC.

UPOC was launched in 1999 by a number of guys including friend Greg Clayman and was interestingly also backed by Fred Wilson. UPOC stood for universal point of contact and the company did a great job of building out the infrastructure to send and receive messages and to organize discussions into groups. They of course also did a great job of getting carrier traction and gained great presence on deck. So why no Twitter? Not sure and frankly I never asked Greg or anyone else but my firsthand experience with UPOC circa 2004 was a very high noise to signal ratio and the use of the chat rooms or channels as the primary communication mechanism. They did get to the millions of users level but never went viral or anything like that.

Twitter at first seemed like a web 2.0, less crowded, less organized version of UPOC. I invited a handful of friends and turned on phone alerts and away I went. I didn't run into anything too out there but it was generally a quiet experience. I have to point out at this juncture that the comparison to UPOC is completely lacking any acknowledgement of the Twitter as platform, Open APIs, and other things that have helped make Twitter the juggernaut it is today. In any case Twitter to me seemed to quietly hum along until SXSW 2007. That was the first step function in growth. One on the most interesting things about community is the concept of inventory. A community without any users/inventory is nothing. SXSW helped to jump start the community aspect in a big way. This year as shown on this chart has really shown the true epic inflection of Twitter. Make sure you adjust the settings to max to see the whole chart.

There are two main concepts that I think are important to consider in thinking about Twitter. The first concept is the evolution of communication. The second concept is around the evolution of media. I will try to hit the first one in the rest of this post and follow up on the second in a following post and also outline some implications I think fall out from all of this. So what do I mean by the evolution of communication? As it relates to the two concepts mentioned there is the method by which information flows between people, and there is the actual content that flows. For the purposes of this post I am talking about how things have changed in terms of the method by which we transfer information. In many ways the changes have been subtle, but the impact is pretty profound.

Most of us who started using technology on a broad scale in high school or earlier depending on our age, are pretty familiar with email. In the pre Mosaic world, text was king and the highest value activity on the "Internet" was either sending text and files back and forth over email or arguably using some form of bbs or chat like channel to interact in a more real time way. Email went on to pervade pretty much all of our lives in the industrial world. Email on my computer, my Blackberry, my phone, are all meaningful time drains on anyone who lives a connected life. It is also how most of us manage our day and how we process information. It is the drum beat of our day.

Email has reduced the amount of faxes in our life. It has reduced a lot of the paper. I think I get one to two pieces of dead tree each day and on average 200+ emails. With the victory of email has come spam. If this is the main way one interacts with the "Internets" then it is the best place to get you to respond to Viagra ads, or Nigerian wealth scams, or whatever. And so we arm ourselves with tools and methods to defeat this but in general realize we have probably reached a peak utility for email for now and many of us look for new/better replacement mechanisms. In the work environment I would offer that there are no obvious better alternatives and we are left with efforts to lock down the enterprise and barricade off the spam. But what if you are a consumer? What can you do?

Some choose IM. Don't get me wrong, instant messaging is by no means a replacement for email, but I do know that for the legions of kids behind computers all day, and for the many kids carrying around devices like Sidekicks, instant messaging is a primary method of communicating. I started using IM in 1999 at MP3.com and over the years it became the primary way for me to keep in touch with my staff when I am on the road which is always. the more interesting part about IM is that it has a different mode of communication that email. Email is sprawling, comprehensive and something that you actually have to process. Instant messaging is fast, specific, and to the point. IM is for when I don't want to send an email and I don't want to pick up a phone and call you. How r things? Good? Kewl.

Another short bursty method of communication that started big outside the US and is now every bit as big here is SMS. SMS is very much like IM to me with a shorter back and forth. Call me when you land. Dude that was a riot. etc. While these things are all very different (Email, IM and SMS) they are all very much at their core communication functions and they are used to carry on certain types of conversations or information exchanges. The different forms are also used by different groups although I would argue that over time there aren't going to be strong demographic differences like kids only texting etc. My wife's aunt is really into texting right now. I smile when she sends me messages.

So to continue this thread of evolution of communication I think the next logical step is to talk about blogging. While Twitter is most like SMS to many, I think the lineage of some other modes is important to get a better feel for Twitter. So back in the late 90s buys like John Hiler at Xanga, Brad Fitzpatrick at Live Journal and Evan Williams at Blogger created tools for simple publication of thoughts ideas etc. This was/is huge for a big chunk of the youth demographic. Actually I would argue it has crossed from youth to people of all ages. Blogging is something I picked up back in 2004 and have been at with the exception of about a year hiatus since. I found blogging an interesting way to share my thoughts with friends and to document things for myself. I gained a ton of satisfaction when seeing friends and they knew what I had been up to as a result of my blog. Time well spent.

Blogging as communication? Absolutely. It is one way but you do have comments and are able to carry on conversations around topics, ideas or funny stuff. Blogs can be link blogs, dense theme based blogs, or just silly random stuff. One of the big downsides of blogs though is that they are a one person party in general. There are not people hanging out at your blog. Since the time of Friendster, those people have been congregating at the social networking sites of the world which are what I would argue are the next steps beyond blogging.

Social networking sites as communication tools. Most of the big popular social networking sites today have email, chat/IM and the ability to share posts or content not unlike blogs. For many kids, they may check email once a week and check their profile pages on Myspace or Facebook 10 times a day. This has made the sites extremely important in the battle for things like search and advertising. If we live our digital lives on a specific site, then that real estate is obviously of some of the highest value and I would argue that today that still remains the main battlefield in terms of Internet monetization and opportunity.

Twitter when originally launched was described as micro-blogging. A lot of this was driven by the constraint that SMS message only allow 140 characters which is the limit Twitter implemented. The big thing though that Twitter did in my opinion was the developed API framework. If blogging was my party at my house, and Facebook and Myspace is THE party that I need to be at to have my friends here me, then Twitter is an electrical plug that can be plugged into anywhere. I can update it from my phone. I can use a Twitter IM client. I can use the web. Not only can I send stuff to Twitter for others to see, but I can get Twitter data and consume it other places.

It is an interesting concept. Email and IM and SMS are point to point communication. Blogging is broadcast, social networking is broadcast. Twitter is broadcast but also re syndication and the development of a framework construct around pure message flow. There are whole pieces of ecosystems that have popped up around this. Twitpic and Twitgoo for photos. URL shortening like Tinyurl for sending links. A whole semantic language around topic organization using #.

I would stop here and go to the next post but I think the last important mode of communication evolution that should also be touched upon is the idea of site information aggregation. I think I mentioned before that I was an advisor and board member of Socialthing which AOL acquired last year. They are very similar to Friend Feed which is a storied Silicon Valley startup from one of the former top guys at Google. These sites both create a one stop shop for people to view all their friends across a ton of services and to also create content there to send out to the various services. I know that I use socialthing everyday to monitor about 7 different services and have to think that there is a movement from centralization, to decentralization, to reaggregation that consumers will ultimately want as they fatigue the constant introduction on new services. Hard to say but definitely something to also watch.

Post 2 to come...

Monday, April 13, 2009

G1 Applications

I swear that this is my last G1 post. So beyond calling and texting, what do I actually do with my phone, or rather what applications do I use. I have a number on my phone but the following ones are the ones I use most frequently, in no particular order:

Anycut - Anycut allows you to make shortcuts on you phone home screen. It is pretty nifty when you start using it. For example, I put a shortcut to a new application on one of the 3 main screens. Ok, not too clever. What I can also do though is create a number of things that are essentially actions or script like activity. I have a shortcut that calls my wife directly. I have a shortcut that lets me send a text message to Shawn. I can do a data synchronization etc. This application also allows you to define a shortcut which I am assuming allows you to script your own although I have to confess I am clueless on how to do it. While this isn't an application that I open frequently, the functions and shortcuts I have set up on my device are things I use ever day.

Locale - Without question, one of the coolest Android only applications that I am aware of. Locale is an application that primarily runs in the background and is triggered by certain things. Click on the link of you want to see some examples. I use it in two ways. The primary way is that I set up GPS tags at every airport I fly into and out of. Whenever I trip the geo-fence of that location, Locale fires off a Twitter message that says @Derrick is SFO (or SAN/MCI/JFK/etc.). My Twitter name is @Derrick. I do this in case one of my friends happens to be in the same are and wants to grab a drink/bite/etc. Locale makes sure I keep Twitter current, at least as it relates to my travel activities. And the best part, I do nothing after I set the application rules up.

The second way I use Locale is a bit more subtle. Essentially I have a rule that checks my location, confirms if it is between 11 PM and 5 AM, and if I am at home and it is that time, the G1 volume is set to silent. Don't call me when I am sleeping.

One thing to note, to use certain things like Twitter you have to install a Locale Twitter plugin. While I was initially annoyed by this, it guarantees you can customize the application for only things you use.

Wikitude - This application is another Android only (as far as I know). You have to click the link to see the screen shots to do this justice. This is how it works. I fire up the Wikitude application. It looks up my location via GPS and then returns a map of places around me. I can then switch into list view to read them, or, most importantly, switch into camera view. With camera view, I can look around me and there is a virtual reality overlay of those places with distance from you and a clickable link to the specific information. Super bad ass. Think locative art from William Gibson's Spook Country or Cyborgs in Stephenson's Snow Crash. It is definitely a wow application. Too bad Tmobile isn't running ads for this. It would make the G1 a hell of a lot sexier.

One big note here, which also applies to the Sky Map application I will mention below. Both of these applications take advantage of a Compass and Accelerometer which is something the iPhone doesn't have (Compass).

Sky Map - I camp. I like to look at stars. One of the guys I camp with brings an awesome green laser out with us and he points out the stars and constellations to the kids. That is great and all but I can never really figure out what stars make up a constellation beyond the big dipper. This application gives you a great map of the stars and, when used with that green laser, it is amazing. All the dads were digging the astronomy show on the last camp out.

Gmail and K9 - I use these both. I use Gmail as a spam catcher and K9 for my normal email. Gmail is good. K9 is good enough. Nothing special to say in either case.

Browser - As I mentioned in my last post, a very good browser. In my opinion the best. I use it all the time.

Last.fm - I don't like to use my phone as a music player. It kills the battery and the speaker sucks. I don't have headphones for it. There are times when I am in my wife's car and I don't have Sirius Radio or a CD player and I will use Last.fm. Last.fm has a scrobbled version of most of the music I have so it is a last ditch effort to do something other than listen to the radio. The application is generally good except when I am in low capacity areas for coverage. Then it barfs an hangs and starts randomly on me. That is why I have a Touch.

Maps and Location Stuff - Google Maps is awesome on this phone. So much so that it is kind of creepy. Street view, directions, etc. All the good stuff. Have to say that I am really impressed with it. I also use Latitude which is Google's Location based social network service. I think a piece on LBS social networks warrants a further discussion but not here. I am Derrick.oien@gmail.com if you want to let me stalk you and visa versa. I also play around with Loopt which is another service. My real cell phone number is my user id there.

That is mostly what I use although I would throw in Shop Savvy on an occasion, as well as Weather Channel and NYC Subway maps.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

G1 Likes and Dislikes

Based on the last thing I wrote I thought it would be good to share two more things. First, what I like and dislike about the G1. Second, what applications or interesting things I use on the phone. I will do the second one later. This one will be about likes and dislikes.

Right off the bat a big disclaimer. Most people primarily use their phones to call people and to send text messages. My phone works great for that. These comments are more about the things that phone nerds do with phones.

So let's start with the dislikes and end on a positive note with the likes.


Total Google Buy In - I knew coming in this was going to be the Google phone. It even says so on the back. I use a lot of Google services and have no problem with Google but setting the phone up brought the integration front and center immediately. The key piece that highlighted this was the use of Google contacts. I have somewhere near 1400 contacts in my cell phone and contact database and their is no easy way to get them into the G1. Well, except importing all your contacts to Google Contacts. Given that Google knows what web sites I surf and a bunch of other stuff, I am a bit hesitant to just hand that over. Ultimately I did, but I have to say that it was with a lot of reservations.

Out of the box email - A closely related issue to the first problem is email support. Out of the box mail support was buggy when I first used the phone (my first phone was stolen but that is another story). If you want to use email, users were pushed to use a program called K9, which is ok, but certainly not all that in my opinion, especially when compared to what I had on my old Sony phones. There is one exception. Gmail is wired in hard and has awesome integration. The problem with that for me is that I use Gmail as a spam catcher and I can't really use it as my primary email.

IM - As a devoted Sidekick users, I was pumped to be using a device that is a spiritual descendant of the Sidekick. One real big win with the G1 was the addition of Google Talk along with the standard services, AIM, MSN and Yahoo. The problem with this device though is that Google Talk works in an awesome way and the other ones are lacking. The way the Sidekick would hold IM sessions doesn't seem to be implemented here and it may be because of some proprietary Danger IP. Given they way IM works, with the exception of Google Talk, it really isn't a good always on IM device, at least with the default IM software. I haven't tried some of the other 3rd party services like Meebo but the net net of this was that I felt like in this area the device misses the mark.

Battery - This has been covered widely elsewhere. The battery, at least the first version, drained in no time at all. The firmware upgraded improved things significantly but the underlying power issue remains in my opinion. What I mean by that is that if I am using services other than call standby, for example wifi or gps, I have to keep an eye on the battery. With those services suspended the battery is ok, but the hope of a device like this is that you can take advantage of those advanced services without constantly looking for a power supply. This isn't unique to the G1 but it is something that is hopefully solved over time.

App store - I have a love hate opinion of the initial application store. I love the ratings and comments. I love some of the really cool G1 applications that are unique to the device like Wikitude and Locale. I dislike how hard it is to find useful applications. I think the merchandising job that Apple does is way better although I suspect that over time either Google or some specific operators will make something compelling.

Some problems aren't obvious - When things go bad with the G1, it isn't always clear what is wrong or how to fix it. Two cases in point. First Tmobile hotspot access. On my old phone, I had to reboot the phone to get my phone to login to a hotspot for free wifi surfing. Hack. On my new phone, I can never connect to Tmobile hotspots. Not sure why. Haven't been able to find an answer online. Seems buggy.

The second one was an issue around contacts. My contacts disappeared one day. I synced and they came back but when I tried to do subsequent sync's I got an error message saying sync was down and would come back later. Except it never did. I broke down and searched extensively and while I found multiple suggestions n how to fix this, ultimately I had to go To My Faves, delete all my contacts and re-sync. That worked. Very intuitive, especially since I don't use My Faves. I don't get that linkage.

Camera - I find the camera on the G1 to be slow and cumbersome. It is certainly fine enough but by comparison the Nokia cameras are literally good enough to be a stand alone camera.

Tethering - Can't do that. I could always do that with my other phones on Tmobile's network. Frown.


Keyboard and Trackball - Bad ass. The keyboard is better than just about every QWERTY device I have used (although I still like the rubber buttons from the Sidekick II). That trackball is AWESOME. So not only do I get touch, which appears to be the interface dujour for a lot of consumers, I get some of the things that are important to me, a keyboard, as well as a trackball, which you may not realize, but is something you will use frequently with this device and certainly long for it on others once you have tried it.

Background Processes - One of the coolest things about the G1 is that applications can run in the background. Examples of this are primarily GPS, but it extends to other things. I will hit the GPS application use cases in my next post but suffice it to say, unlike the iPhone, this phone can do more than one thing at a time. If you are looking to take advantage of advanced features, this is a must.

Best Browser on Mobile - The default browser on the G1 is amazing. It has full Javascript support so while I am booking a flight on Virgin America, I can actually get through the process where Shawn on his iPhone has to pull out the laptop. Again the trackball is a good compliment to the browser especially when the website is involved. I haven't seen any other browser with the same sort of support on mobile.

Google integration - While I cited Google buy in as a dislike, the depth of the integration is amazing, and if you are bought into the various Google services, they are here in spades. Maps, Gmail, Google Talk, etc. All the handoffs are nice and it is an amazing extension of a web software platform to a hardware device.

Compass and Accelerometer - It has both. It is especially cool with apps like Sky Map and wikitude. More on those two later.

Full package - In general, the G1 is the best blend of a computer and a cell phone I have seen. I can do many of the things one can do on a laptop (mountable storage drives via SD, web surf, email, IM) but also have a first class phone experience. I have not commented on the media capabilities which I think are sufficient but I prefer to have my media devices independent of the phone, ergo I have a Touch. I know others feel differently but for me this is a good blend.

So that is it in a nutshell. On balance, I am really pleased with the phone. I think there will be some interesting upgrades in future versions and you can count me as someone who plans on following future updates. Next up, applications I use.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Smartphones - My G1, and how I got there

I have been a smart phone user since 2004. In 2004 I wanted to see where handsets were headed and I believed that while our company was focused on the feature phone/mid range market of handsets, that it was important to see where handsets are going to be in the future. At the time I had been pretty fond of my Sony Ericsson T610 and wanted to see what high end offering Sony had in the smart phone category. Sony had been an early entrant in smart phones with the P800 and P900. I had read a number of positive reviews (as well as a lot of headaches to boot) and thought that the P910 might be the device for me.

The range of other choices for me then included the option to go with a Blackberry, which never had much appeal for me, Windows Mobile, which seemed more like a laptop and less like a phone, and Nokia, which frankly I just wasn't all that familiar with. I think if I had to go back and do it all over again with the knowledge I have now, I would have selected a Nokia device. In any case, I ultimately decided on the Brickish P910 and spent about 4 years using that device as well as the next generation device the P990.

In general, I was always fond of these phones. They both had a vaguely familiar Star Trek Tricorder look that I thought was cool and others thought was gigantic. Unfortunately they were gigantic and never very pocket friendly like the various in vogue Razr-esque devices. I found myself pretty happy with the Symbian UIQ user interface but in retrospect, I think that was more about familiarity than anything else. As the smart phone market started to heat up with the iPhone and the various other devices previous or since then, N95 etc., I was anxiously awaiting the new devices coming out of Sony Ericsson. I skipped on the P1 and heard rumors of the X1. When the X1 was announced a little over a year ago, I saw one at MWC in Spain and while I was really impressed with the industrial design, I was very disappointed that it was a Windows Mobile device. This change of direction made me decide to look at the various options in the market as my device was about to fall apart from age and drops.

So, with a fresh perspective, I decided to take a good long look at what was in the market. As I have a lot of access to the various devices and in fact carry a lot of them to meetings, I figured it would be good to make a thoughtful decision, or at least justify an impulsive one! My first place to look was at my Sidekick. While I wouldn't consider the Sidekick a smart phone, I have carried one forever. It has been an indispensable tool for me to interact with the team while on the road (sometimes quite literally). My initial happiness with the Sidekick in the IM arena was undercut by my disappointment in a continuous upgrade in features over models. Why no Jabber? Why no conforming web browser? Why no a lot of things. All that said, I will always strongly believe that the Sidekick is THE killer device for IM, but it doesn't do much for me in terms of productivity or some of the other things I would expect from a higher end platform. I actually no longer carry a Sidekick after having one forever. Next.

The iPhone is an amazing device. The photos. The brain dead simple UI. The ecosystem of content. There is no question in my mind that this is one hell of a device. The deal killer for me, and I would say there are some other significant issues I won't mention, is the lack of a keyboard. I have large sausage fingers, a history of using QWERTY devices, and no time to fumble around with a touch screen as my only input method. I may be backwards assed, but I have to have the keyboard. I do though have a Touch, and I love it. It is my constant companion on long flights, on runs, and for those times when I want to snack on media. The Touch is great as a media device and I am glad it isn't my phone.

Nokia smart phones. Nokia makes some of the best devices in mobile. They literally have everything and the kitchen sink embedded in the devices. They have a ton of software, services, features and a large ecosystem of applications that can allow me to do things like watch my home TV on my phone, find myself on a map, and browse the web with a quality browser. The problem is for me, it feels like it needs an update. Don't get me wrong, I always have a Nokia demo device with me and I have to say there are many days where I eye it with a lot of affection, especially the N95 replacement I am using the N85. This is one hell of a device. The problem I have with it though is that it seems to be trying to do too much. It is actually very hard to do a lot of things that are simple on some other platforms. I can do whatever I want but I have to really dig at times. That digging can be a real barrier to usage and user friendly interaction. No keyboard. Again, this one is hard for me. I will say though that I would have a Nokia before an iPhone as my personal device.

Blackberry. The Bold and the Storm are really, truly awesome devices, and I also liked the Curve which I carried as a demo phone for a while. I just can't get into the Blackberry mindset. I feel like it is the dark side that wants me to have email attacking me all day and if I would just cross over to the dark side I would never go back. I do like their keyboards and have to honestly say that I haven't given them a good shot at being my personal device. Maybe someday.

So that brings me to my current phone the G1. So truth be told, the number on factor in having this device for me was that I am a long time personal customer of Tmobile. This of course made the G1 an obvious front runner. Second for me though was that this device was essentially created by the folks who brought you the Sidekick, except it has all the stuff the Sidekick is missing (compliant browser, advanced features, etc.). Third was the idea that here is an operating system for phones that could be hacked, i.e. recompiled to do other stuff. Not that I ever would, but at least I knew that I could.

I made the plunge into the G1 world and have to say that I have been pretty happy. I think an overview of what I like, dislike, and actually use would be good fodder for a follow on post sometime later.


Cough, cough, cough. I remember this. I used to hang out here. I really enjoyed this but somewhere along the way things got either confidential or busy. I think I want to come back and do some more of this. Guess I need to pick things up, dust them off, and give it another go. I am not convinced that the entire world only wants to create 140 character posts but I could certainly be wrong.