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:
Mobile 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.)
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?
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….