What Happens When You Mashup RSS, IM, and Publishing Services?

So remember that prediction I made back in 2004, the one about mobile busting out in some kind of Web 2.0 way in 2005? And how it didn't happen, so I repeated it again this year? Well, I was wrong. It did happen this year, I just hadn't figured…


So remember that prediction I made back in 2004, the one about mobile busting out in some kind of Web 2.0 way in 2005? And how it didn’t happen, so I repeated it again this year? Well, I was wrong. It did happen this year, I just hadn’t figured it out yet. And of course, it might get squashed before it gets off the ground (more on that later), but I certainly hope not. Here’s the prediction:

Makebot1Mobile will finally be plugged into the web in a way that makes sense for the average user and a major mobile innovation – the kind that makes us all say – Jeez that was obvious – will occur. At the core of this innovation will be the concept of search. The outlines of such an innovation: it’ll be a way for mobile users to gather the unstructured data they leverage every day while talking on the phone and make it useful to their personal web (including email and RSS, in particular). And it will be a business that looks and feels like a Web 2.0 business – leveraging iterative web development practices, open APIs, and innovation in assembly – that makes the leap.

I think MakeBot is it. Or at least, what MakeBot points us toward is it. And the beauty is that a couple of code jockeys like Phil Torrone and his partner Sergio Zlobin can make it happen in a few days, using platforms (IM) and data structures (RSS) that already exist.

This all comes not from a major mobile company, or a hot new Internet startup, but from Make magazine, where Phil – who has been banging this drum for a long, long time – works. MakeBot points the way toward a possible end around the walled gardens of mobile carriers. (Caveat – I’m band manager of BB, and was Publisher at Large for Make, but honestly, I had nothing to do with the MakeBot, and pretty much missed it when it came out last month. It was just this week that I realized what this thing can do, thanks mostly to Boing Boing, which is partnering with Phil to do a BB feed via IM.)

Make Im

What really blows my mind is how simple and obvious MakeBot is. In short, MakeBot is an IM chat bot – it looks like any other IM buddy. You can open a chat with it, and ask it things (based on any number of simple commands that the publisher sets up), or perhaps send it a magazine content search (powered by Google). You can also set up alerts for new items on the Make blog, for example (that’s what the shot at left is showing). To showcase what it can do, Phil has even set up a BoingBoing feed through the MakeBot, so you can get Boing Boing posts in an IM window.

So why am I so on about this? Well, first of all, a mashup of RSS and IM is just a very cool idea. The medium of IM has been underappreciated by nearly everyone in the “media” business for one reason – the leaders of the business didn’t use IM. But lord knows the rest of the world sure does. It’s an extremely intimate medium, and efforts to push brands and marketing into it have mostly failed because they don’t get why IM works – it’s a conversation, of course. Most mainstream media attempts to turn IM into a commercial medium have been driven by a goal of forcing marketing content down someone’s throat (a Tyson chicken recipe bot?!! I mean….who wants that?!).

But there are other types of branded content that makes total sense in IM: publications and personal web services. A great publication has an intimate relationship with its audience, it’s a trusted source of information, a pal, a buddy. And blogs, as I’ve argued again and again, can be great publications. And great web services like local search have earned our trust, know who we are, and we know that when we ask them questions, useful answers will come back. No one wants a stupid chat bot that tries to be, say, Santa Claus, that gets old fast. But a chat bot that is useful? That can instantly deliver your favorite content to your mobile phone without forcing it through the crappy sphincter of your mobile operators crippled web interface? Or can answer questions like, say, “pharmacy 91106” with the speed and intimacy of an IM chat session?

Bb BotThink about for a minute. The implications are vast.

In short, this points the way to what might just be the loophole we content creators (including search and web service companies) have been looking for to make mobile a truly open platform. IM works on nearly every phone, and there’s no reason it has to be limited to person-to-person chat. Why can’t it be how we ask the web questions, or pull down great web content? And once you open that channel, it can also become a channel for personalized, value added marketing messages, approved and requested by each of us, of course. I can only imagine that Google would love Adsense to be included in the search results for MakeBot’s search function, for example. And I can’t wait to work with FM’s advertisers to figure out the best way to offer value added marketing to FM’s author’s IM feeds. The beauty of it is simply this – we can’t do it wrong. The readers will simply delete the bot if we do!

Of course there are many issues and hurdles with this idea. It depends (at least initially) on the ability to open a robust web browser when links are returned in IM, for one (though there is no reason you can’t send the entire text of a post out, just like in RSS). And folks are not used to the idea of having “buddies” that are services, as opposed to real people (though the idea is certainly not new). And most importantly, one can imagine the major companies – large mobile carriers, perhaps AOL and Yahoo and others – deciding that this particular loophole needs to be closed. I certainly hope not. I think that with a bit of time and a lot of open coding and sharing of resources, we might just have a chance to build something truly new and important in the mobile space.

OK, now I really am going to take the rest of the weekend off….

50 thoughts on “What Happens When You Mashup RSS, IM, and Publishing Services?”

  1. so, one of the people i “hang out with online” is kyle jessup, the 50 pound head behind the lasso programming language (http://omnipilot.com).

    kyle, when he was building SOAP into lasso tested it using a chatbot he created that would fetch google results.

    it was amazing, and sounds a lot like what you’re describing here — but in 2003 🙂

    anyway, i hope useful bots become popular — they are, uh, useful, afterall.

  2. yup, (phil here) bots aren’t new, neither was search when google entered the arena, but there is always room for innovations. in bot history, i used the activebuddy sdk, and i made irc bots years and years ago – the new thing is why we put the makebot together, making it work with a brand like make and what we plan to do next with blogs and more.

  3. You are basically reinventing the command line. If the command language is sufficiently flexible, it may be better than DOS or Unix, but these user interfaces are usually more difficult to use than a GUI.

    I think you are setting up a false dichotomy with the “crappy sphincter of your mobile operators crippled web interface” as the alternative to the command-line interface. It should be possible to design a much better UI to mobile services when you use the full set of features available on the device. The fact that phone companies are (not yet) good at usability is no proof that it can’t be done.

  4. i don’t think we’re reinventing the command line, but i understand what you’re saying. one of the most useful things about the bot that we’re working on are the alerts. when we release the forums on MAKE, and you get a reply to a post or question you’ll get an IM (if you wish). things like that are what really exciting me about adding rss as fuel to our MAKEbot…we’ll see, it’s all just starting, and all “beta” as they say. i think of MAKE as a friend/brand so having it a my buddy list doing useful things is what we’re working hard to provide now.

  5. Jakob, for a lot of tasks I do, the CLI would be better- as long as “the command language is sufficiently flexible”. I have an online reminder system, and I’ve had to use things like Outlook. A bot I told “meeting John tomorrow, 3PM” would actually use fewer steps- my IM is always open, and clicking on the icon and sending such a command is quite natural. I’d like such an interface to supplement the GUI, so I don’t have to use the GUI for small tasks.

    It could be fun, and a bot might be a good metaphor / main interface for a semweb agent. Getting that language sufficiently flexible would be difficult, but the end result could be impressive.

  6. sure there is room for innovation, but how is this innovative? I think its cool, and I dug out jaim again, but calling it innovative is a bit much.

  7. yep, that’s why i said there is always room for innovations, that doesn’t mean it’ll be from us. perhaps more folks will do what you did, play with jaim and think of things others haven’t considered with IM. each week we’re going to add many things we’re working on that i don’t think have been attempted with IM, so we’ll see how it goes…

  8. I do think aimbots are an unexplored interface. I have been working on forum presence maintenance with jaim as well. I also did an art project with it. I am curious to see if aol is cool with this stuff though.

  9. In the past (the ActiveBuddy days), AOL was not cool with just anyone doing this. They were trying to charge companies like AB a lot of $$ for the right to run bots on AIM.

    But in the new, open days, I have to imagine they’ll be somewhat more lenient.

    At the same time, if there are this many opportunities in “the loophole”, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them try and choke at least SOME of them off.

  10. The biggest issues with this type of innovation are clearly going to be on the side of “consumer electronics.” Fred Wilson posted about consumer electronics being extremely closed off, and I don’t think cell phones are an exception.

    While many phones do have AIM on them, I know that my plan personally charges me a “text message” for every outgoing and incoming IM, which basically makes it ridiculously, financially impractical.

    I would love to be able to get standard RSS and content on my phone via AIMbots, but I don’t think that cell service companies are going to let go their stranglehold anytime soon. For that to happen, we’re going to need to see a lot of SF-like wireless networks show up, followed by widespread skype-phone consumer electronics. Once that type of “open” competition forces the market to change, I’m not sure we’ll see significant progress.

    That’s probably not going to be 2005 or 2006. Of course I’d love to be wrong.

  11. you didn’t post my comment? because i didn’t provide a (real) name or email? even a fake one? i don’t care either way, but way to build a readership.

  12. I don’t buy it.

    Twice as many Americans (10.2%) retrieved news or information through their phone’s web browser than used their phone to send/receive instant messages (5.8%) in November 2005 (source: M:Metrics). The web, even the mobile web, has a ton of advantages over an IM client for retrieving information. You wouldn’t give up a web browser on your desktop in favor of an IM window. Why would you do it on your phone?

    If you’re recommending using the IM protocol to punch holes through carrier-imposed walled gardens, I hardly think that will be necessary. Consumers will demand access to the web on their phones. Carriers who don’t provide it (and don’t provide it quickly enough) will be like ISPs that attempted to do the same with the web (think Prodigy, AOL way back when). And that aside, all carriers do provide it today anyway.

    The mobile web has quite a ways to go in terms of adoption by consumers and by publishers (and by tech companies who will provide automated ways of moving traditional content into media optimized for the mobile web). But nothing in your post seems to indicate the value add of IM bots. Am I missing something?

    BTW, the major IM players all have instant answer and other bots, and MSN Messenger allows search directly in the chat window. Not sure what’s new/revolutionary about IM bots in Make…

  13. Well, this has made me take the dust off my JAIM projects. I’m starting with a new torrent notification bot for Murmurs.com. Since I already collect AIM id’s, this should be pretty easy 🙂

  14. adam, good points. a lot of the value of IM (with the way we’re doing it) are alerts, let’s say you want to get all the news about the treo 650 as it happens, or maybe MAKE meet ups in your area. if you have always on IM on your phones, desktop, etc. not a bad way to deliver that. maybe you want your 5 favorite rss feeds sent as they happen to your phone. for devices like the sidekick, i’m using aim for everything lately. we deliver flickr photos, del.icio.us bookmarks, how-to projects, search of the entire magazine and soon forum reply messaging. and there’s lots more coming. ok, back to work on this for me…

  15. It doesn’t seem to work at all on Linux clients. I could add the buddy with Kopete, but got no reply to my messages. Adding the buddy in Gaim, crashed the program. I re-opened the program. But when I tried to send a message, it claimed I wasn’t logged in (I was). I then opened the AOL client on my cell phone and the buddy wasn’t there on my list at all. So, this thing has a few problems. IM is supposed to work on any platform.

  16. hey jim, that’s oddd. adding a screen name and having that crash an app has nothing to do with us. i did notice aol on my mac and pc here went offline for a few, then came back, maybe that was going on while you were trying? any way feel free to email me i’d like see what’s up.

  17. Instant Messaging is a great platform – underappreciated because it has been associated merely with “people to people” chat for a long time. Unlike the web where you must go to the data, data comes to you on IM. Unlike store and forward email, IM is real-time interactive – i.e you can conduct a two-way conversation with context preservation.

    At Vayusphere ( http://www.vayusphere.com ), a company I founded in 2000 to go after this opportunity, we expanded on this idea to use IM to enable “application to people” chat.

    That said, the fact you use IM to query for new data or have data sent to you is just a minor part of what you get with IM. The real benefit is that IM provides a measure of Presence and Availability of a user. What it means is you can now find and follow the target user no matter where or how that user is connected. If a person is not available, you can send the event or information to someone else who can act on it. No more “Spray and Pray”.

    We have bots that integrate this concept with RSS and other event-oriented enterprise applications ( Remedy, Siebel, Salesforce.com etc) to combine the always-on nature of IM – to send the information out with low latency-, with the Presence and Availability information to decide who to send it to.

    On the comment that IM is a command line interface – sometimes a sparse interface is just what you need to interact with urgent information and repetitive tasks. However, all new IM clients support rich integration with HTML.

    Although new in the consumer arena, the Financial and Service provider industries have been using IM bots for several years. Customer service with IM routing, somewhat like a voice call center, is a very popular application

    I do agree that the timing is about right for this concept to explode, specially on mobile devices. There are several always on mobile devices and networks available. IM is everywhere, and getting more approachable for developers. The appetite for increased speed in getting information out is not decreasing.

    In terms of predictions, I would say that the rich client UI applications of tomorrow will be delivered when the “browser” is merged with an “IM client”. This integration will provide the richness of the browser for client applications, and the speed and bi-directionality of IM for real-time information delivery.

    Pushpendra Mohta

  18. Philip: I went back using Kopete in Linux and everything is working fine now. So, apparently, I caught you when you were offline earlier. But I still don’t see MAKEbot in my buddy list when I sign on to AIM on my T-Mobile cell phone. In suspect this has something to do with the limitations of T-Mobile’s T-Zones service (and it has LOTS of limitations!).

  19. The interesting concept here, IMHO, is that the alerting function of IM mimicks the very unique feature of mobile phones…i.e. they are always with you, aware of your presense (and location) and are perfect for “push” style alerts.

    2005 has seen a noticable “thawing” of the walled gardens with the carriers and the major mobile content aggregators are all seeing a push towards making any content, not just there own, available on the mobile. Whether this happens fully in 2006 or 07 we’ll just have to wait and see.

    in the meantime, building interfaces for IM alerting style applications vs. browsing style tools, will, I believe, move us towards the more “killer app” style functions of mobiles.

    One caveat with AOL specifically, has been their limit on the number of buddies you can have for a given account. This means that if you want to send out alerts, only when a user is online, you need to have them as a buddy and you therefore need to create multiple subaccounts to handle the volume of users.

    AIM Bots are straight forward to develop as Phil says, but the value, as always, will be in an explosion of ideas about what can be push/pulled over IM and ultimately moving to a mobile phone.

  20. Be sure to check out the EventfulBot.

    AIM: eventfulbot

    An interface to Eventful.com. Ask it questions about events. For instance, “music in san francisco this week”, or “lectures in new york tomorrow”.

    To start, try asking it “help”.


  21. brian, nicely done!

    Eventful Bot

    I found 6 Events for “music” happening in “seattle ” on “this weekend”.
    Ernestine Anderson
    Ernestine Anderson
    New Years Eve with the Dusty 45s
    Ernestine Anderson 1st Set Package
    Ernestine Anderson 2 Show Package

  22. Ben:

    This means that if you want to send out alerts, only when a user is online, you need to have them as a buddy and you therefore need to create multiple subaccounts to handle the volume of users.

    This isn’t entirely true. You can send IMs to users who aren’t on your buddy list. You just don’t get notification of people coming online/going offline if they’re not on your buddy list.

    There’s ways to work around this. 🙂

  23. Dossy – Thats the problem. You often need to know if the user is on/offline in order to store and forward alerts to them.

  24. Ben: you can do that by sending an IM to their screen name, and seeing if the server sends you back a positive or negative ack that they received it. It’s one way to determine online/offline status — that and a few loose heuristics.

  25. AOL has a special buddy called “AOL Buddy” and “AOL Yellow Pages”. I’ve used these and they are pretty good general tools. Especially since my RAZR has an AIM client built right in…

  26. This reminds me of LJWatchBot, a program I made for my compsci projects course back in 2003. LJWatchBot was an AIM bot that would keep track of LiveJournals, and, eventually, other RSS services. You can see the documentation and VB6 code here:


    LJWatchBot is no longer online due to low usage, along with AOL killing the TiC/ToK protocol it used to connect to AIM.

  27. “LJWatchBot is no longer online due to low usage, along with AOL killing the TiC/ToK protocol it used to connect to AIM.”

    are you shure? How long since?

  28. John,

    I’m glad that you’ve found bots running on IM to be a natural and wonderful interface.

    Conversagent (fka Activebuddy) pioneered IM bots pulling content from various web services and presenting information in a conversational thread back in early 2000. We’ve got a number of bots running that do many of the things you describe.
    Of particular interest is SmarterChild. This agent has talked to over 20 million unique IDs (IM screen names or mobile numbers) since 2000 and is currently responding to 10’s of millions user queries per day.
    You can try it as:
    – “smarterchild” on AIM
    – “smarterchild@hotmail.com” on MSN
    – wap.smarterchild.com/xhtml/ for mobile phones with a browser but no IM client.

    One of the Smarterchild deployments does include Google AdSense ads, with individual user activity driving the ads that each user sees. This scheme of running AdSense in IM conversations was developed in early 2004, but it took quite a bit longer to finally do so in a sanctioned way with all partners involved.

    We have also developed for Microsoft an agent named encarta@conversagent.com on MSN that accesses the Encarta Encyclopedia.

    As for the challenge of opening a new web browser to activate links (in a mobile environment), we don’t regard this as a challenge, but rather as an opportunity for thinking beyond current UI conventions. There is no reason that activating a link cannot mean simply returning a response in the “conversation” that accesses the data underlying the “link”. So a click doesn’t have to mean spawning a new browser, but instead means instructing the bot to present the content related to the “link”. The bot system (and properly implemented web services behind it) will do the work of accessing the content behind the link and returning it as a response in the message thread.

    We’ve got lots more cooking. Watch this space.

    Stephen Klein

    Hello John. The same Stephen Klein of iballs, Dawntreader Ventures, etc.
    Good to see you back in the fresh news business.

  29. “As for the challenge of opening a new web browser to activate links (in a mobile environment), we don’t regard this as a challenge, but rather as an opportunity for thinking beyond current UI conventions. There is no reason that activating a link cannot mean simply returning a response in the “conversation” that accesses the data underlying the “link”. So a click doesn’t have to mean spawning a new browser, but instead means instructing the bot to present the content related to the “link”. The bot system (and properly implemented web services behind it) will do the work of accessing the content behind the link and returning it as a response in the message thread.”

    give it anywhere a demo where anywhere can see it in action?

  30. While I can see that IM has advantages over SMS… mostly a quick way to publish content to mobile phones without needing to deal with carriers, there are advantages to SMS.. the biggest one being availability.

    SMS is available… whenever the phone is within range of a tower. GPRS data service is sketchy at best, and timing scheduled updates via IM over GPRS is iffy, especially when dealing with phone calls that knock you off the data service. SMS messages, on the other hand, come in while you’re on the phone, and even get queued while your phone is off (at the movies) and/or out of range. Turn on your phone or come back into range and you get the message. Most carriers queue messages up to 72 hours.

    The biggest problem for content providers is cost and complexity when dealing with carriers. However, there is another way to deal out content to mobile subscribers without having to mess with carries… txtGroups, the company I’m working on launching in the US in just a few months will allow content to be published to mobile subscribers, without needing to mess with carriers. We’re adamant about putting together an API that is accessible to as many developers as possible – https://api.txtgroups.com – We’ve put together an XML, plain-text, and JSON format API, and are currently working on SOAP and REST API interfaces as well.

    The service is not launched yet, however I felt it was ok to jump the gun a little and post this info. While it is a blatant plug for txtGroups, it’s still info that is relevant to this article.

  31. A stupid question, but are there instructions on the web somewhere for actually adding RSS capabilities to an AIMbot? I’m new to the entire subject, want to build one for my personal site, have been searching all over the web today, but can’t seem to find the simple instructions. (I’m going through MAKE’s tutorial on building your own Dashboard widget as well right now; it’s another one I recommend for fellow amateur programmers.)

  32. feedmashr.com takes another approach to the rss feed mix application. it mashes the daily popular rss feeds from the popular social bookmarking sites, and others, but also lets you toggle back in time to see hot links that you may have missed.

  33. you may not hear of Anothr.com, it’s already realized the vision same to you, which can deliver RSS feed over IM(Skype, Gtalk, MSN, etc.)

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