I have some questions about mobile, geo, and platforms

February 7th, 2016

At some point blogs professionalized to the point where they became the province of answers rather than questions. This blog post isn’t an answer, it’s a question.

At the first (and only?) O’Reilly P2P conference I remember seeing Ward Cunningham give a lightning talk on how to ask a question on a wiki (and by extension the Internet), “You write down everything you know, and the Internet will correct your mistakes.” I’ve heard many folks repeat this, cynically, but as I recall Cunningham’s telling it was joyful, what a generative and generous way to ask a question.

I’m a product of the web. I started working professionally in software development the year the web was created, and I’ve been working on the web in one capacity or another for 20 years. It shapes my imagination. And one of the truths on the web is the switching cost is low. I don’t have to discover and download software, learn a new tool, navigate some gated garden of experiences. If I want to use an experience, or switch experiences it’s a simple click away in the universal client that has come installed on every computing device for most of the last two decades. This obviously doesn’t describe either desktop apps, or mobile apps.

Swarm (and Dodgeball before it) briefly had a feature for messaging folks you know who are in your general geographic vicinity. It’s not a common behavior. Especially as we’ve aged. And it probably isn’t a feature that ever makes sense in areas less dense than a major city. And certainly not useful if you don’t know a large number of folks using Swarm. Any way, the feature was removed due to lack of usage. Which as a once-and-former CTO I understand, but as someone with the problem, “I have some rare and unexpected free time and I’d love to see someone who is also at loose ends”, I’m frustrated.

In late high first bubble “portals” arose. Websites dedicated to being able to satisfy all of your needs: weather! sports scores! stock tips! tv schedules! horoscopes! email! what else is there to life! Even pre-Google that was a pretty dumb strategy. Even then switching costs on the Web were low and the portals were doomed.

Now however there are a number of things about portals that feel like they’d make sense. If you’ve managed to get someone to download, install, configure and authorize your native app it feels like the natural pressure would be to accumulate more and more features, your crappy email/stock/horoscope features in the installed app vs a better version in an app you haven’t installed (and can’t discover due to the paucity of our current generation of app stores — definitely pre-Google there)

Why haven’t we seen this? Why do we see something like the Facebook app demonstrate comparative discipline? Why doesn’t Google Maps offer to fulfill all my possible geo needs, the rare behaviors as well as the common ones? (the obvious answers around cost of development are irrelevant in this late-stage stacks era we find ourself in) Why hasn’t Twitter tried turning itself into a portal in its darker hours?

I want the feature of being able to message nearby friends who are at loose ends for the once or so a month that I find myself inclined to use that feature, and the maybe 2-3 times a month I might be able to join someone else’s broadcast short notice plans.

My first thought of course is, if it isn’t going to be part of Swarm someone should build just that app. And now we run into the challenge of high switching costs in native mobile. There is essentially no chance that anyone other than Foursquare will be as effective at getting my friends to use their purpose built app, especially for a use case which just doesn’t come up that often. So scratch that.

Is it possible to build it on top of the web, or somehow recreate the web’s low costs model? It doesn’t seem obvious to me that it is?

Could you string together enough use cases to make a mobile geo platform a thing? A sort of IFTTT for a thing in my pocket that knows who my friends are, and where we’re all located? This feels like an idea from a more optimistic and earlier era (call it Web 2.0)

Maybe you could lower the costs by federating, if you don’t need the app I’m using and yet we can collaborate, that might work? We obviously have a few examples of this (email), but in the last few decades this has been something of an idealist’s fantasy.

Except you know with geo we’ve already agreed on a pretty well defined set of abstractions for talking about the shared space we’re describing, namely latitude and longitude and the planet as it exists today. Platforms are hard, federation has failed significantly more often then it has succeeded, but geo feels like a place it could work.

Of course that’s all a lot of work for a feature that would be trivial for a number of lumbering mass installed apps to add. (thus does conscience does make cowards of us all)

What am I missing? We don’t we see more portal like behavior? Can federation be made to work for real humans? Can platforms overcome the inherent inertia around installing yet-another-app?

(I tried to fit this all into 140 characters, but obviously I failed)

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One response to “I have some questions about mobile, geo, and platforms”

  1. Julien says:

    Too many ideas/thoughts come to me after this post! This certainly means it’s good.

    First, I faved your “@dens products were better before we had metrics” tweet. This is so true and is yet another version of Ford’s “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”.

    Metrics only allow us to measure what you’re looking for. They remove so much of the serendipity that I sometimes wish we’d remove them from the process of “creation”.

    Then, your geo-bound chat idea makes me thing that it would be really cool to have a chat app which only allows you to chat with the say 100 people closest to you. If the area is dense (like a city), then, it will probably be people who are leaving next door… but if you’re in the desert you end up chatting with the folks who are hundreds of kilometers away. Of course, there should be a “presence” aspect to it so that you only are able to chat with people who are “active”. That would be fun :p

    Now, when it comes to “federation”, I think we’re slowly starting to see something “on top” of existing networks. For example, on Medium (!), when you create an account, you are asked your Twitter and Facebook info and later you see posts from people from either of these platforms, without knowing from which of them the “friendship” actually is. Basically, I think the friendship graph which would be so painful to recreate is slowly being less meaningful and it’s possible to build “on top”. You could probably use Facebook’s location API (is it public?) as well as Foursquare as well?

    Then, you need to think about messaging itself and “bridge” messages from these platforms.

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