How OneRiot could be the foundation of social search

Riotpolice

Photo by Danny Hammontree

I'm convinced that the next wave of innovation will be about breaking open data silos that are currently off-limits, and applying some of the lessons we've learnt from the web to build new tools. My focus is on email, but another area full of promise is users' browsing history. We all have the equivalent of a local neighborhood of websites that we frequently visit, and our visits demonstrate that we trust them. Having the option to weight those sites more highly when we're searching could give results personalized to our interests. If you trust your friends judgment too, and use visits from your social network in the weighting, then that adds another level of filtering.

The reason nobody's implemented this approach is that the data isn't easily available. To get the full browsing history you need users to install a plugin, and I know from my own experience that's a high barrier. It's also a network problem, you need a critical mass of friends before the social aspect becomes useful. Me.dium came the closest to jumping this gap with their alpha search service, so I was excited to try out their launch of OneRiot.

They're taking browsing data from their existing 2 million user base, and applying the popularity of a site to its ranking in the results. So as news stories and articles start to spread, they'll instantly appear in the rankings. Google's trying to speed up its indexing, but users are going to find interesting pages more quickly than any robot. This topicality makes OneRiot immediately distinctive, and I can see myself using it to search for breaking news and political stories.

Under the hood, they're offering the PulseChecker plugin as a toolbar to help drive the results, but I like the focus on giving the user something they can use immediately without installation. Persuading people to use an add-in is a tough nut to crack, but it will be a lot easier if the target is already a regular user of your service.

OneRiot are tackling a mammoth problem, but they're starting to build the critical mass of browsing data they need, and I'll be eagerly following their progress.

Tacit acquired by Oracle

Cash

Photo by Johnny Vulkan

I just heard that the technology behind Tacit's expert location system has been bought by Oracle. I've heard a lot of good things from users of their product, and they were true pioneers in pulling information from large email stores.

This seems like a smart move by Oracle. Their Beehive collaboration suite integrates email, IM and document management, so it's a perfect environment for a service that relies on data mining. They're still struggling to convince the market that they're a contender, and Tacit adds a unique feature to their system. With Microsoft boasting that Sharepoint is the fastest-growing product ever in the history of the company, this is obviously a space they want a piece of.

I must admit I'm disappointed that Tacit's no longer an independent company, I was hoping to see them blazing a trail for email data mining. After this and Contact Networks' acquisition by Thompson, there's not many standalone businesses left in this field.

Stretch yourself with VolunteerMatch

Volunteermatchlogo

Forget about the fuzzy glow of satisfaction, there's a lot of hard benefits to volunteering. You can learn new skills you'd never pick up otherwise – Thanks to trailwork I'm now pretty handy with a chainsaw. You'll meet a lot of highly-motivated people who like helping others, and are just plain nice folk – I met Liz working in the mountains. And it's a great way to stretch yourself with new responsibilities. Working as a crew boss has taught me a lot about motivating people to work together and get things, especially as they're all volunteers so I can't fall back on actually bossing them around!

If you're sold on the idea, the best place to start looking for opportunities in your area is VolunteerMatch. Enter your zip code, and you'll get dozens of nearby ideas for almost any activity you can imagine. I recently added the Trails Council to the directory, so if you're in the LA area you can get the full details of what we're up to every Saturday.

For outdoors events, REI runs a fantastic website and email newsletter. Go to their store locator, find the one nearest you, and then click on the events link to see what's happening locally. Last Saturday we had 9 first-time volunteers who heard about us through the Santa Monica store's bulletin.

How can you make a big corporation work?

Dinosaur

Photo by Frank Maurer

Big corporations are often dismissed as dinosaurs. I'd agree, but argue that we're still in the middle of the Jurassic. There's a lot of benefits to being a massive organization, from economies of scale in manufacturing and marketing, to the depth of expertise you can build up in-house. The most important obstacle holding them back is the difficulty in getting that many people to efficiently organize themselves to achieve the business's goals. When I was at Apple I spent a large part of my time tracking down internal experts, to take advantage of the company's existing assets rather than wasting time and resources reinventing the wheel.

What I needed, and didn't have, was a complete and searchable directory of employees. I had the basic white pages, that listed a phone number, department, photo and immediate superior of any colleague, but nothing that let me track down people based on their skills or interests. That meant making connections was a time-consuming process, reliant on cold-calling and word-of-mouth. Multiply this across an organization, and you've got a massive amount of waste and inefficiency.

That's why I've been so interested in IBM's Bluebook project. They've built a company-wide system that's more like Facebook than the phone book. Each employee has a profile with their basic information, but also a wealth of user-generated content, from their resumes to blogs and things they've tagged. Searching this would let me locate helpful contacts a lot faster than more manual methods. They even encourage people who've been helped by specialists to rate them, so the helpers can get credit at their next review. This seems a crucial component of any system that aims to build horizontal connections in an organization. At the moment lip service is usually paid to the idea of helping other teams, but rewards are often based solely on your own group's achievements. This leads to fiefdoms and vertical silos within companies, as department heads fight to safeguard their resources from other groups. Only recognition of cross-team help can break that inefficient pattern.

Bluebook became the ancestor to Lotus Connections. I haven't seen much coverage of it in the mainstream tech world, but Connections seems to be getting a lot of adoption. I'm convinced that approaches like this are the key to getting more for less in big companies. Microsoft's Sharepoint is headed in the same direction with its approach to social networking using 'My Site' pages for each employee.

Part of winning the adoption battle might be to lose the social networking label, and focus on a more familiar analogy, the employee directory. It's easy to imagine how having an enhanced directory can help productivity, whereas a social directory makes it sound like you're providing a service for employees to waste time chatting on.

How does Blue Coat speed up Exchange access?

Bluecoat

Photo by Will Merydith

One of the highlights of Defrag was the email BoF dinner on Sunday night, where I finally got to meet Scott Chasin. Founder of MX Logic, he's got an incredible depth of knowledge on the mail world. One of the things he told me about there was a network device by Blue Coat, that actually understands MAPI RPC communication between Outlook and Exchange, and uses that knowledge to reduce the bandwidth used within corporate WANs. In dispersed companies, mail servers may end up centralized at HQ for regulatory or administration reasons, so remote branch offices can put a severe load on the network. Their MAPI proxy can dramatically reduce the strain by breaking the calls down into their components, and compressing each one.

That's nice Pete, but why are you so interested? It's a practical demonstration that it's possible for a third party to sit between Outlook and Exchange and understand their network traffic. That means you can use a reverse-engineered MAPI RPC implementation as a reliable API to Exchange's data store, a key route to breaking open that silo. It doesn't help me implement that at all, but it does show it's worth trying.

Why Microsoft loves startups

Shutupandkissme

Photo by Bob Fornal

I've just signed Mailana up for BizSpark, Microsoft's new initiative to offer free software to startups. It's a great deal, giving Mailana access to copies of Exchange, MS SQL and Windows installs, though I'll still have to pay for Office licenses to develop with Outlook. But why are they being so nice to me?

The Beast of Redmond isn't generally known for its uninterested altruism, but they've always had a strategy of trying to build an ecosystem around their own software. They make it easy for third-party developers to run on their platform, and bet that their investment in support pays off by locking the users of those applications into purchasing the MS foundations.

This might sound like a no-brainer, but Apple takes the opposite approach. Their culture is to fiercely guard the user experience, and third-party extensions are always a threat to that. That's why Safari and most other internal apps have no support for add-ons. This philosophy definitely helps protect the stabilty and robustness of the platform. Even a lot of hardware drivers are supplied by Apple to avoid the common Windows problem of those installs hosing your system.

In this case, Microsoft's immediate objective is to give early-stage tech companies an alternative to the current default of LAMP for their servers. The official launch of Windows on Amazon's EC2 helps here too. In the end, the reason they're being so helpful is that the open source movement has ended up with an even better environment to develop in than the Microsoft world. This looks like the start of an arms race to win startups' business, which can only help the tech world.

Why has Exchange never been beaten?

Boxers

Photo by Okinawa Soba

Exchange holds around 60% of the business market, and it's still growing. What makes it so popular?

No missing features. There's lots of competitors out there like Zimbra, but they're all offering essentially the same functionality as Exchange, just with evolutionary improvements. There's no painful unsolved problem to drive customers to a competitor.

Network effects. There's a massive ecosystem of other devices and applications that are designed to work with Exchange, most notably Outlook. There are solutions like add-ins that let you use some of these tools with other servers, but that adds a massive cost for installation across an organization above any server change. Standardizing on Exchange lets you work with the rest of the world without worry.

Widely-known skills. The sheer number and long history of Exchange means there's a large pool of people capable of administering it. That also means there's a lot of training and reference material available to sort out any problem.

Cheap. At a few thousand dollars for the base server, and then between $70 and $100 per client, Exchange is not a bank-breaking cost for most companies. It's Microsoft's big success in the enterprise infrastructure world, helping drive adoption of Sharepoint and other services, so I expect they'll keep it low.

Mission-critical. There's no compelling reason to switch, and email uptime is crucial to any business, so the costs of experimentation are high. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

I do think there are trends that may give Exchange a bloody nose, and I'll cover those too in a later post, but anyone looking to change email in the enterprise has to first acknowledge its current strengths. For most people right now, buying Exchange is the rational thing to do.

SnagAJob makes the world a better place

Drivethru

Photo by Pine Red

I was 19, newly married, struggling to get myself through college, and had bills I couldn't pay. I tried to hunt down a retail job near my university in Manchester, a town I didn't know anyone in. The UK was in the middle of a recession, and the city had been hit hard, so they weren't easy to find. I walked from shop to shop, and tried to find a manager to ask in each one. In most cases I was told there wasn't any work, or that they'd take my application and keep it in case something came available. It was depressing and pretty humiliating. After weeks I finally got hired as a shelf-stacker at Kwik-Save in Fallowfield.

The job was objectively terrible, with awful pay and a manager, Mr Albinson, who memorably told me "Our customers are scum. You have to treat them like scum". I only lasted a year. Yet it made a massive positive difference to my life. It was a lifeline financially and the pressure made it the closest team I've ever worked in.

I was thinking about that as I talked to Lou Paglia at Defrag. He's the product head of SnagAJob.com, a job site for hourly employees. You'll never see them in TechCrunch, they aren't listed in LinkedIn's directory and I bet you've never even heard of them. Yet they're doing more good for the people left out in the cold than any other company I can think of, and making a profit too. It's as revolutionary as Ebay, making a whole area radically more efficient.

For job seekers, SnagAJob give you the chance to enter your details once, and then find dozens of nearby hourly jobs. It makes the process dramatically faster, simpler and more efficient, all massive helps if you're struggling to make ends meet. You even get more choice, because you see at a glance a number of employers who are actively hiring, letting you can pick your favorite. This is worlds better than the old process I went through, it leaves people with dignity and more control over their lives.

The site is popular with employers because it's got some unique features to make it efficient for them too. Unlike traditional services like Monster aimed at individual salaried jobs, it's designed for recurrent, hourly positions with multiple locations. The interface is designed for harassed local managers who aren't recruitment professionals.

Lou told me about the massive number of thank-you emails they receive from people they've placed, dozens a week. I believe him, I would have been so happy to have that help getting a job back then. They're really doing something that matters, and I think the tech world should celebrate that achievement.

What can you do with gadgets in Gmail?

Milk

Photo by Denmar

I was very excited when I saw that you could now add third-party Gmail gadgets through a new labs feature. My obsession is opening up the closed silos that hold our email, so I hoped this would give external developers access to messages. Unfortunately for me, the gadgets interface gives you access to the UI of Gmail, but there's no new API for looking at emails. That is very handy for tools like Remember The Milk, which make sense as part of your mail interface, but don't need to know anything about your messages, but I'm still stuck with IMAP and 'Lockdown in sector 4 (Failure)'.

If you want to build your own Gmail gadgets, it's essentially the same process as building one for iGoogle. Have a look at the docs for gadgets.*, and be aware that this is still a labs feature, so your users will have to jump through several hoops to install the add-in. There is one ray of hope; since you can now inject your own html into the Gmail interface, it should be possible to screen-scrape the email information that's currently displayed. Xoopit is doing exactly this in their Firefox plugin, so they could probably create an equivalent Gmail gadget and have a lower-friction adoption path.

Defrag is here!

Huddle

Photo by BBC Jersey

I'm here in Colorado, stoked to be attending the second Defrag. Things really kick off tonight with an email dinner hosted by Microsoft, but I've already caught up with Rob from EventVue for brunch. I've raved at length about how good this conference is, but I realized last night it feels like a huddle in the middle of a match. Everyone who attends spends the rest of the year on the field getting things done, we have a few days break to meet up, catch up and learn. Then we all fan out again to do our part in building our version of the shared vision. It's not a conference based around making news and announcements. Eric's kept it small enough that you end up having conversations, not just sitting and listening while somebody important tells you how things will be.

This year's integration of EventVue is a massive aid to this sort of meaningful conversation. They're conglomerating every attendee's twitter feed, along with Facebook and LinkedIn integration, so you can make connections you never expected. If you're attending, make sure you log in, or you'll be missing out. I've wanted a better way to connect at conferences for a long time, that was why I prototyped Defrag Connector last year, but Rob and Josh have really knocked it out of the park.