Tellme…Here I Come…

September 1 was my last day working for eBay. While eBay is in many ways a great company, it wasn’t a great long-term fit for my skill-set and career goals, and it was time to move on to something new…

Starting Monday, I will be moving into a role as Director of Product Management for Tellme Networks. Tellme is the world’s leading voice search provider, serving the consumer through both their product and their enterprise platform offerings.

You’re likely familiar with many of Tellme’s products and services, perhaps without knowing it:

Tellme supports information search through their 1-800-555-TELL phone service. Dial that number from any phone, and receive sports scores, stock quotes, movie listings, etc.;

Tellme provides the Directory Assistance (DA) engine used by several phone carriers when you dial 411 (over 2 billion DA queries per year!);

Tellme is the platform behind the free 1-800-555-1212 national business directory;

On the enterprise platform side, Tellme provides one of the world’s largest and most-scalable voice search/response systems. Have you ever used your phone to search for stock quotes through E*Trade (1-800-STOCKS-1) or Merrill Lynch (1-800-MERRILL)? Perhaps you’ve ordered pizza through Domino’s national 800 line (1-800-DOMINOS)? Scheduled a pickup or tracked a package through the FedEx national service number (1-800-GOFEDEX)? Or scheduled a trip through the 800 numbers provided by American Airlines or Orbitz.com?

These are just a few of the Jasminlive products and services that Tellme provides through their voice search platform.

In addition, Tellme provides a robust set of tools and resources to allow developers to create and publish their own voice-enabled applications on the Tellme network. As a developer myself, I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say about Tellme Studio in the future…

One of the most exciting parts of working for Tellme is that the company has reinvented itself many times in their seven-year existence, each time creating products and services that proved well-timed for the market, incredibly consumer-friendly and well-designed, and profitable for the business. A great combination, and one that I’m confident will continue.

I’m looking forward to being part of subsequent phases of Tellme’s growth and success…and I’m sure I’ll have more to say in the coming weeks and months…

Web 4.0.1

In a recent post, I discussed how a few major themes have shaped the evolution of the Internet over the past 35 years. Communication was a major focus of the early web, allowing the free-flow of information between people and organizations. Then, more recently, with the proliferation of Web usage for more commercial and entertainment purposes, there was a big push to improve presentation mechanisms and technologies.

Now, I want to mention some trends I see emerging that will likely shape the evolution of the livejasmin Web over the next several years. This post will address the first major trend I see emerging – that of data-driven web applications and services.

When I discussed the themes of Communication and Presentation, I’m sure everyone knew exactly what I was talking about. But, I’m not going to assume that everyone understands the idea of data-driven web applications and services. So, let me start with some explanations and examples.

Historically, web applications have been singly focused on a specific task or service, with that task or service defined by the data that the website controlled. For example, you go to Amazon.com and you can buy products. But, that’s pretty much all you can do at Amazon. You go to weather.com, and you can get the weather. You go to cnn.com and you get the news. I think you get the point. Basically, with today’s Web, each website/application owns a specific set of data (book inventory, weather information, news articles), and that set of data defines what the website/application will allow you to do.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “But, why would I ever want to go to one place to buy a book, get the weather and read the news anyway?” Good point…you probably wouldn’t. But, let me give you an example of something you might want to do:

I fly airplanes. And when I decide to take a trip somewhere, I have to visit multiple Live sex chat websites to plan my trip. First, I visit the website of my flight school so that I can book an airplane. Next, I go to the National Weather Service website to get weather information to plan my trip. Then I go to the websites of each of the airports I’m planning to stop at along the way to get airport diagrams and service information. Then, if I’m planning on staying over, I need to rent a car and get a hotel room. All-in-all, I spend an hour going through upwards of a half-dozen websites just to plan my trip. In a perfect world (on a perfect Web), I would be able to go to a single website where I could do each of those actions concurrently. And because this single application would already know certain details of my trip (my arriving location, for example), it could also provide integrated, value-added services as well (recommendations for hotels near the airport, suggestions for dinner reservations, etc).

This is an example of a data-driven web application. The application itself is hosted by a single website, but the data is coming from multiple different sources (multiple airport websites, National Weather Service, car rental sites, etc) and is being aggregated in real-time to allow the user to perform multiple related tasks. While we aren’t seeing many of these types of applications popping up on the Web just yet, it’s not too far off.

So, what’s the fundamental change that will allow these types of complex, data-driven applications to be deployed? The short answer is that the Web is evolving from a set of disparate applications to an integrated application platform; this application platform will allow more complex and more interactive applications, services, and features to be built on top of it. Before I go any further, perhaps I should define “platform.” While everyone has their own definition of what “platform” means, I’ll stick with something simple – a platform is a set of technology components that allow applications to be run on top of it.

So, now I’ve stated that I believe data-driven web applications are one piece of the next evolutionary phase of the Internet; I’ve stated that these types of applications will be enabled by the Web being transformed into an application platform; and I’ve defined platform as a set of components on which applications run. For those of you who like details, perhaps now would be a good time to define what I believe this platform – this set of technology components – will specifically consist of.

As you can see, the model of mapping a single application to a single set of data has been broken. Applications rely on data that is stored in multiple locations around the Internet, and not only will a single application rely on multiple data stores, but a single data store will serve many applications.

This type of data distribution (and the data-driven applications on top) is made possible by two relatively recent advances in technology:

Better Structured Data (Schema)

The Internet has so much information that sometimes it’s difficult to make sense of it all. Companies like Google and eBay have spent years figuring out how to take all the data that’s provided by web users and organize it (structure it) into a format (a “schema”) that is easy for both a human being and a computer to understand. For example, if I go to eBay and do a search for “New 40GB iPod”, eBay’s search engine needs to be smart enough to figure out that I am looking for an Apple iPod with certain characteristics – namely that its condition is new and that it has 40GB of storage. But, how does the search engine know that “iPod” is the product, and “New” and “40GB” are attributes? Humans can parse this type of data and make sense of it; computers have a difficult time doing so.

With the proliferation of search technology, new standards for data representation (XML, specifically), and the ever decreasing cost of storage, the ability for companies like eBay and Google to import massive amounts of data, analyze it (whether by hand or by machine) and then begin to organize it is finally becoming feasible. Google Base is one example of an initiative designed to collect and organize massive amounts of data into a well-defined structure that can be used to disseminate human knowledge in a way that a computer can (in some ways) understand.

In our example above (the flight creation website), the application will only work well if the airport data for my departing location is formatted and structured in the same way as the airport data for my arriving location. In other words, the “schema” for defining airport information must be consistent across all the databases that store airport data.

Web Services and Data Syndication

Once a computer can understand the logical relationships between disparate pieces of data, we’re well on our way to building applications that can be smarter and more flexible. But, there’s one other piece of the puzzle that’s essential to creating data-driven web apps – moving that data from one place to another in a standard fashion.

Web Services is a technology designed to allow computers to communicate with each other and send data between each other in a standard fashion. Using Web Services, one computer can “talk” to another computer, and find out what kind of data that other computer has, and then request that data. In our flight creation website example above, our website could use Web Services to talk to each of the other websites it needed data from, and request that data in real-time. This means that our website didn’t need to store large amounts of data itself, and also didn’t need to worry about that data changing or expiring. Every time it needed data from another computer it could “talk” to that other computer in a mutually accepted fashion – using Web Services.

In addition to Web Services, data syndication standards such as RSS have started to become extremely popular among content creators on the Web. RSS and other syndication standards provide a mechanism by which content authors and owners send data and content to other computers and applications that request it. Along with Web Services, data syndication standards such as RSS will make sending and receiving data as easy as passing a note.

Well, I’ve now touched on the first major trend I see emerging on the Web – data-driven web applications and services. In an upcoming post, I’ll touch on some other trends I foresee.

In the meantime, I’d love any feedback you might have…

More on Under the Radar 2.0

In a previous post, I discussed the Under the Radar 2.0 conference I attended yesterday. While I was generally unimpressed with what I saw in terms of new ideas, there were a few companies that I believe have the opportunity to actually deliver some reasonable new technologies and/or business models…

Riya - For anyone who uses Flickr to store and share their personal photos, I highly recommend keeping an eye on Riya. One of the few (in my opinion) Web 2.0 companies actually making technology advances, Riya is focused on allowing users to store, sort, and search their personal photo collection using a set of digital imaging technologies that can be trained to recognize faces. Once all your photos are uploaded in Riya, you give it a few examples of pictures of you, and it will automatically find the rest. While I personally believe this technology is better suited to a desktop app (do I really expect to find photos of myself and my friends from most of the other 1B web users out there?), the demo was impressive, and there’s little doubt that Riya has the opportunity to make a big splash in the digital content storage space (or get acquired by someone already in the space).

SimplyHired - This company doesn’t have any new technology, and doesn’t have any new business models, but it solves a compelling problem with a set of simple and easily usable interfaces and exemplifies the use of “mashup” technology to improve user experiences. SimplyHired is a job search site that aggregates listings from many of the large existing sites such as Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com, and HotJobs. In addition to the aggregation of large numbers of listings (the site claims to have 10x the number of listings as it’s nearest competitor), the founder repeatedly mentioned his borrowing from Google’s learnings about simplicity of interfaces, and it comes through. Add to that some great integration (through Ajax, of course) with other data providers for things such as salary surveys and LinkedIn relationships, and you have a great example of what I believe is the next wave of great data-driven distributed web apps.

Goowy - Imagine Microsoft Outlook, all your instant messaging clients, and a host of Konfabulator widgets all well-integrated and embedded into a clean browser-based experience. While I believe the future of the web is on the desktop, that reality is likely a few years away. Until then, Goowy has proven that a browser-based experience really can be fast, clean, visually appealing and responsive. The key? Shying away from the trendy (Ajax), and sticking with the tried and true (Flash). I don’t imagine I would ever use a brower-based desktop, and I’m not convinced there’s value here to gain a critical mass of users for Goowy, but they’ve proven that browsers can be used for more than just clunky HTML.

Meetro - This company is a perfect example of focusing on what’s hot as opposed to focusing on how to make money. Meetro has created a platform (though I don’t think they realize that) to bring users together based on proximity. In it’s simplist form, Meetro is an integrated chat client that shows you other users in your vicinity (whether you know them or not). The obvious application here is social networking on a micro-scale (i.e., dating), and with the addition of some basic privacy, filtering, and networking features, Meetro probably has a hit. But, I believe the real opportunity for Meetro is not as a desktop client, but as a portable infrastructure that can be replicated on other platforms and hardware devices. In fact, I would argue that Meetro is the basis for the killer cell phone application (I could go into more detail, but this is my personal billion-dollar idea :) ). Again, not revolutionary technology for the most part, but if Meetro generates some patents in this area, they are ripe for success. All they need is the vision to see past the boring Web 2.0 craze, and to recognize the platform opportunity they have before them…

Under the Radar 2.0

I attended the Under the Radar 2.0 conference yesterday in the Bay Area. This was essentially a gathering of 32 up-and-coming “Web 2.0? companies presenting their businesses, demoing their products, and getting feedback from audience members and guest panelists. The audience members were mostly founders of other Web 2.0 properties, and the panelists ranged from VCs to journalists to heads of large Internet companies.

The conference brought home a number of points for me. Most importantly, it reinforced my belief that what everyone is calling “Web 2.0? is actually just a collection of small, discrete technologies aimed at creating new user experiences using existing and user-generated data. Very few of these technologies have any real technological invention behind them, and even fewer will enable new business models or markets. If anything, those that deserve all the credit for what has come out of this recent surge of technologies are the User Interface designers and User Experience Researchers, who are figuring out new mechanisms for presenting and manipulating data. But again, these aren’t revolutionary new technologies, and they certainly aren’t driving new business models.

Speaking of business models, when asked what their revenue streams would look like, most of the 32 companies gave very similar answers. First, there was a look of surprise, as if the company’s founders hadn’t really considered the question (or if they did, hadn’t considered it important). And once we did get to an answer, it was generally either “ads” or “premium services” (subscriptions). While I would agree that these are two very tried-and-true models for generating revenue, they’re hardly revolutionary and certainly not scalable. I have to believe that the majority of these companies founders are looking at M&A as their primary means for future (personal) success…

The other point worth noting is that most of the businesses presented were competing for users in a small set of markets. With highly overlapping market segments, it’s unlikely that (m)any of these companies will generate the critical mass of users necessary to support either an ad-based or subscription-based business.

All that said, some of the discrete technologies presented were both interesting and useful, and there is little doubt that some of the existing large Internet companies with established user bases will adopt these technologies and interfaces for the benefit of their existing users. In the end, some of these “Web 2.0? companies will certainly have the opportunity to cash out, but for the most part, I have a feeling they are going to serve as free research and incubation labs for the bigger players.

RSS for eBay Search Results

If you like to shop on eBay and you prefer getting your daily (or hourly) dose of information via your RSS reader, today is the day for you…

Today, eBay releases RSS for search results. Whenever you do a search on eBay, you will find a little orange RSS button (RSS Button) at the bottom of the search results page. Click that button, copy the URL of the page it takes you to, paste that URL into your RSS reader, and you’ll start to receive of feed of all new listings that match your search query.

Adding RSS support throughout eBay is been a project that my team has been focusing on for the past several months; we started by enabling eBay Store feeds a few months back, we’ve now added search results feeds, and we have a number of new RSS initiatives rolling out throughout 2006. Hope you enjoy, and if you have any feedback, please leave me a note!