Yesterday I spent the morning with Halsey Minor, founder of CNet, then 12Entreprenuering, creator of Snap, icon of the boom and bust, and now CEO of Grand Central. Halsey was his old enthusiastic self (not to say he ever wasn’t, but it’s not been easy these past few years, after all, and he did move away for a spell).
Halsey is convinced he’s got a winner with Grand Central. After a couple hours of whiteboarding, it’s hard not to at least see his point. The company is in a really interesting space, essentially providing the glue that allows for innovative companies to create really cool tools through web services. While web services as an industry has been on a three-year slow smolder, I think it may finally catch fire this year.
Should it ignite, I am not as convinced as Halsey that Grand Central will be the winner. He points out that there’s really no one in the space doing what he is doing, but then again, Jonathan Abrams probably said that when no one had heard of Friendster. If Grand Central proves the space, IBM, MSFT, and others will move quickly to own it. Halsey has a defense on this point too, but in the end, it’s all about execution, so we’ll see.
Nevertheless, Halsey’s vision for the space is compelling. It’s based on the law of unintended consequences, in a way, combined with the concept of network effect. But maybe it’s best put as a Who Woulda Thought Of That kind of business. (As in, who woulda thought a major bank would sell certificates of deposit via an internet auction?!)
When the web is viewed as a platform, individual services can be snapped together to make for powerful and previously unthinkable solutions to common problems. Grand Central is something like a big Lego board, a common interface where corporate IT guys, web developers, and publishers can think up and build cool new hacks.
Want proof? So did I. Halsey has a bunch of examples in his process directory, and he walked me through a few. Sales automation, for one. Imagine you’re using Salesforce.com and your CRM system tags a bunch of potential leads. With Grand Central as the intermediary, your company could write a process that goes out through Grand Central to a bunch of disparate web services – Dow Jones, Dun & Bradstreet, Google, the SEC – and compiles a dossier of competitive information for your salesforce to use when it calls on that client. Grand Central negotiates with each of the databases and/or websites, organizes all that information into a format Salesforce.com understands, and then pushes it back into the system.
Not convinced? How about this: I think it’d be really cool to use such a system to hack together an index for the internet economy (or anything else) via dozens of feeds, integrated into an online application showing the health of the sector in real time, with various knobs and buttons you could tune. We tried to do this at the Standard, but it would have taken too many engineers too long. With web services and Grand Central, the idea may be possible to execute. Still don’t see it? How about an application (perhaps integrated into your calendar) that knows when you have to go to the airport for a flight. It asks you for your flight number and your location (if it doesn’t already know), then runs a process which queries online traffic information sites, MapQuest, and SABRE to determine when you need to leave for the airport. It determines which route is the best, then sends you an email with a map and the optimal time to leave.
Still want more? How about this: Grand Central has already created an interface that optimizes and automates the process of selling things on eBay, integrating SAP and EDI for big companies that want to clear inventory. There’s a lot more to be done in this space – and GC claims to be working on it. Ditto for Amazon. (For more on that…see this CIO piece.)
Anyway, the options are as limited as the imagination. And that’s cool. Whether Grand Central will make it happen remains to be seen. But don’t count them out. Their tech has been feted by Infoworld and the company is one of B 2.0′s “Hot Startups” for this year. Halsey has a very tight relationship with Salesforce.com (CEO Mark Benioff is on his board, Halsey was on the SFDC board till they filed, Halsey is a major shareholder in SFDC). He also seems quite patient. He says he expects to be pushing the rock up the web services hill for at least another 18 months. A lot can happen in that amount of time.
So… How on earth does this relate to search, you might ask? Well, using web services to open up previously dark and deep databases of corporate information is a very interesting aspect of the search story. These databases require many levels of access control – many require fees and security/querying protocols, and many are not HTML compliant. Until the web weaves itself into more of a platform, and companies like Grand Central allow for business models to develop which make them available to the masses, those corporate databases will remain unsearchable to most. Halsey commented that the massive amount of useful, structured data that is in fact NOT available through Google et al is an extraordinary problem/opportunity. I agree.