ReWire, Weak-ties and Serendipity

Rewire

ReWire is an app to help train your attention/concentration skills. ReWire is the first product that my startup developed and it is out on the AppStore. I say developed because the idea and spirit was the brainchild of Mike Redmer, we only played a technical role. Anyway, the topic of this post is how this partnership between Mike and I came to be. And you should check out ReWire, it’s an awesome app which is sort of obvious given its pedigree..well you surely don’t expect objectivity from me on this 🙂

ReWire Day Zero

It was many months ago, I was lazily reading through some blog post and monitoring twitter. The question occupying my thoughts were around which idea to focus on in the startup I had launched. It was the typical problem of plenty, when you could choose anything to work on what do you choose? Of course the standard questions around technical feasibility, resource availability, monetization concerns were all there but still its a tricky question to answer.

Given the set of people I follow on twitter there was the usual mixture of technology, spirituality and hindu nationalism related tweets that were flying past. In case you did not know, I follow a lot of Buddhist practitioners on twitter. Like thirsty men who drink from every available stream, I too dig into every path to see if there is an insight or technique that will refine the animal within.

Weak-ties

As tweets were whizzing past I noticed a tweet that said, and I paraphrase, “Looking for iOS devs to help build a meditation app“. That held my attention immediately but the tweet was from nobody I knew. It was a retweet by Vince Horn. Vince, if you do not know, runs the Buddhist Geeks podcast, of which I have been a fan for long because of the sincerity and insight with which he conducts himself and the show.

Serendipity

I could not resist, and replied to the tweeter saying our fledgling startup could lend a hand. Of course I also told him we have built products before but not on iOS and not within our startup itself. There were tons of unknowns between Mike and our firm. The funding situation, the scope of work involved, our relative inexperience on iOS platform and more. But we barged our way through based on trust and common spiritual interests. Staring with a simple proof of concept we did several iterations to get to a mature beta. As mentioned at the top of this post, the app is ReWire and it got approved by Apple early in the day today.

It is an amazing feeling to see this little app go live. It is such insignificant thing in the larger scheme of things but very important to me and Mike because of the way it came about and how we have grown as people by learning from and trusting each other.

Looking back

I think this is a good example of serendipity enabled by weak-ties. You don’t think so? Well, imagine I have to be a technology person(to have the courage to think I could build it on my own if I can’t hire an iOS developer), I need to have the freedom to work on what I want(which essentially means a startup or some free time if working full-time elsewhere), I need to have interest in spirituality and follow Vince Horn’s Buddhist Geeks podcast and I had to watch the twitter feed at that exact moment in time. Damn..that is near impossible right! Yet, here we are.

I can’t help but be reminded of this quote by Steve Jobs.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.

Credits

So Mike, if you are reading this..awesome work and thanks for trusting us with ReWire. You have a unique vision on how technology can help contemplative practices, so keep plugging away!  And to my wife and family who give me support to even attempt this, a big thanks.

Finally to those few who answered my call, “who will come with me, who will walk with me“, you have my gratitude. And yes, we are taking this baby places.

[Note: Our primary product is still in development. We can’t wait to show you what it does. We believe it will simplify how people collaborate with each other and help catalyze serendipity, just as I described in this post. Subscribe to this blog or register your email at Tataatsu to hear more on our progress.]

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If This Then That

If this then that

Between Flipboard and Zite on the iPad my primary means of consuming news and social media is a settled thing. But the workflow to act upon an information item is not consistent. A new startup IFTTT, aka ‘if this then that‘, takes an excellent crack at the problem.

To add more context, on Flipboard my way of marking an item for acting upon it later differs. I ‘favorite‘ tweets, ‘star‘ RSS entries from Google Reader and ‘like‘ Facebook entries. On Zite, for items I wish to act upon, I end up ‘bookmarking‘ them on delicious. Ideally I would have all favorite tweets, star RSS entries end up at delicious.

Think of IFTTT as a way to act on content from any of your social media streams, based on specific conditions being true within the content. Simple example is to bookmark a tweet in delicious if I favorite it in Twitter. IFTTT does this automatically now.

To be clear Yahoo Pipes does do this and more but the user interface is suited for those with programming experience or at least the ability to understand and build flow-charts. IFTTT excels because of its UX simplicity. The means for setting up a task are like reading a simple sentence and filling in the blanks. GUI has given way to a simple textual interface. Beautiful is an understatement!

Head over to IFTTT and have a play. They are in beta though. I have 5 invites to give away, drop me a mail(check my ‘About’ page) and I can send you one. And my first recipe to save favorite tweets to delicious is here.

(Thanks to Robin Sloan at Snarkmarket for pointing out!)

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Jack Dorsey, Twitter Co-Founder’s Stanford Lecture

Listen to Jack talk about the arc of curiosities that led him to Twitter and Square.

Twitter Updates for 2011-01-16

  • Quo Vadis, Quora? http://t.co/eLY0lCK #
  • The Karma Bum by Tyler Stoddard Smith. How Allen Ginsberg's yoga broke Tyler's harmony. http://t.co/IVdQGmK #
  • Cool job posting from ChicagoTribune. Wears its lack of trinkets with honor, awesome! http://t.co/FOzdu8p #
  • This whole iPhone on Verizon thing can only be news in the US..#lame #
  • Like just for title! “@gigaom: Innovation Kills Monopolies Faster Than Governments Can http://dlvr.it/D6wQs” #
  • Daring Fireball: Simple Questions for Google Regarding Chrome's Dropping of H.264. Do no evil? #fail http://t.co/WoVc9xQ #
  • Typograph – Scale & Rhythm. "Somewhere between a tool and an essay" http://t.co/y1GBgw0 #
  • Aww, we got lawyered. Bieber.ly gets shutdown, promotes new verb 'lawyered' 🙂 http://t.co/cWMm7pD #

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Twitter as a Platform

Om Malik lays down reasons on why Twitter should not sell. The key point by Om that resonated with some of my own thinking was this

…“it depends” — on whether Twitter sees itself a service or a platform that would help foster a lot of services on top of itself.

I have been a fan of Twitter for some time now. And my thoughts about it have been for usage as a front-end for interacting with cloud based services; along with adding appropriate mechanisms to augment it with metadata.

Twitter, along with its real-time element, has the curious ability to sit comfortably in two distinct interaction styles: i) Publish-Subscribe and ii) Request-Response

Publish-Subscribe

This is the style of interaction commonly used in Twitter. Publish a short 140 chars text and all your subscribers who follow your updates will receive the update. Note that the message delivery characteristics are sufficiently real-time and asynchronous.

Request-Response

This is relatively unrecognized style of interaction possible with Twitter. Given that the identity of participating users is dealt with, it becomes feasible to drive entitlement based services.

Interaction Scenario: Request Response

What do I mean by this and how would it work? Imagine a Twitter user called “AcmeCo”, which is the twitter profile of a company called “Acme Corporation” from whom you have bought a widget. You have registered a bug report with with them. Now you want to check the status of this bug. An easy way would be to send a twitter style status check message, like “check bug id 123”. On the other end there could either be a human user behind the AcmeCo user profile or an automated service. All they would do is to check the status against an internal system and respond with status of the bug.

In this entire interaction there is no question of broadcasting the message to the world. That would defeat the purpose of request response based interactions, especially if it is of a confidential nature.

All these message interaction would be done as a DirectMessage within Twitter, hence essentially private to the systems interacting here.

Shout out a message when you want the world to hear, and possibly respond, or whisper a direct message to the single user from whom you definitely expect some response or action.

What we have now is a request-response style interaction on a publish-subscribe service and it all feels so natural.

For the idea of Twitter as a platform to work there is lots more to be done beyond the API currently in place. Some immediate areas to focus are around transport security, message integrity and service reliability.

With these sorted, I feel the idea of Twitter as a platform will get more credence and traction than the stand-alone service that is being talked about now.

Twitter as Command Line to the Clouds

Twitter Twitter as a channel for streaming short messages of 140 chars is well known. This has been covered to exhaustion and then some more. Heck, even Britney twitters! And my early thoughts on Twitter can be found here.

 

Overlooked Trait of Twitter

A particular aspect that has not got adequate mentioning is Twitter as the front end for bot mediated interactions with services in the clouds. And what the heck did I mean by that? Well read on…

Cloud-based Services

Web 2.0, as definitively defined by O’Reilly, has as one of its tenets services that use the Internet as the platform. That performs large amount of its functions centrally, uses Internet standards as interface for any external systems to interact with it etc. I call these cloud based services.

IWantSandy, a personal productivity application, is a popular example, that I have used and am familiar with. Typically, all user interaction with such applications is using a browser.

Trends in Interacting with Cloud-based Services

A trend that has been emerging is the rise of dedicated rich client applications that act as front end to these services. The services still continue to reside on the server, the dedicated rich client application merely acts as a front-end of pretty skin to the meat of the functionality on the server. Twhirl as front-end for Twitter is a relevant example.

If you notice here we have embellishments to the core service that juice up the user experience, without having to forcibly stare at a browser-based UI.

Austerity in Interaction design

Now the other end of such a logic, is to strip away all UI to the barest minimum. The result of this thinking must be a little hard to imagine, how could you pare down a UI? Well, we have had such a UI since the dawn of computing and its the venerated command-line.

Utility for Command Delivery

Remember though that the service still remains on the cloud, on a server somewhere far far away. All that would be needed to give a command line interface to such services would be

  • To have a mechanism that can forward text based commands to a specific location
  • And return any response text returned by the server.

Note that both the above points make no assumption about the kind of service they talk to, this is just infrastructure. This problem has to be solved just once for it to be applied in many contexts.

In the specific case of Twitter and IWantSandy- Have Sandy jot down a reminder or appointment you could do type the following text “d s r nirvana tomorrow 4pm” in twitter. This translates to “direct message to sandy, remind about nirvana at 4pm tomorrow“. Remember the overhead of learning the syntax will pay off many times over, since you don’t have to logon to the website to add this reminder. 

Conduit for Text Commands

Enter Twitter that does both the above tasks brilliantly. Twitter acts as a conduit, a passive conduit, that makes it perfectly suited in this scenario. It is this facet of Twitter that multiple services like IWantSandy, RememberTheMilk, etc build upon.

Advantages of Stripped Down Interaction Modes

This way of interacting with the service might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it has significant advantages.

For example you can i) Add twitter bot as a contact in your IM and send commands to the bot. No need to sign onto any application. Anywhere you can have a IM client you could use this feature.

Characteristics of Such Bot-based services

  • Immediacy – No form to submit, no page post-backs in interactions. Type command and hit enter!
  • No wait time – Messaging protocols are asynchronous by default
  • No delivery guarantees – Always managed through response messages for confirmation
  • Cross-platform – Works wherever IM protocols work!
  • Better perception of interactivity than a windowed application!

Some Usage Scenarios

Twitter, or IM bot mediated services, could be used in a variety of ways to enhance the user experience. Some examples could be –

  • Application help – Instead of requiring to visit a website, why not have a IM bot provide needed info via text.
  • Workflow status checks – Use this to check up on status for literally any workflows, assuming you have a unique ID to track items
  • Reference – Use to do quick look-ups of Wikipedia or similar knowledge bases
  • Search – Used as front end for search, reduce the single text-box plus button to just a text-box!

Past Efforts

One of the most popular efforts around using IM as a means to interact with systems involved AI Bots. A version of the history of software agents can be found here.

Summary

  • Cool as it seems any command driven interaction with server-based services won’t gain mainstream traction and will not replace traditional and UI driven means of interacting with an application.
  • But will simplify interactions with cloud based services and be a legitimate means of interaction for power users.
  • This will be especially relevant on constrained mobile devices

With my opinion of this out of the way, where would you take this?

For similar ramblings follow me on twitter, or subscribe to my feed here.

[updated: feed link at bottom of post was broken, fixed. Thanks to Nischal!)

Who/What/How am I, with MeeID

http://www.meeid.com/maheshcr/

Within us, there are many selves. The web reflects each.

MeeID is a static representation, constrained to 10 statements, of what we are.  Not a stream of content from all our online interaction, not even a pointer to all the locations we play in..just abstract space to represent what we are, with a means to provide a URL to de-reference as needed.

I don’t see this taking off at the grassroots but still a small interesting idea executed well. I think of this as Twitter for the idea of multiple online identities.

What do you think?

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Shakespeare in a River Of Tweets

The weekend was dull. Amongst the teeming conversations in the blogosphere nothing made me pause. It was the same thing over and over. Yahoo this, Google that, Microsoft sucks and so on. Sometimes reality resembles a junkyard. Debris in various stages of preparation.

Me needed a little poetry. And all I had in hand was the blackberry. I checked twitter on GTalk and it was shorter versions of the same debris.

Thats when I realised, on GTalk there is no option to watch the public feed. Not always of course, but just to take a peek now and then.

I wanted something with sap. Something that made the barrenness inside a little moist. On a whim I tracked the word eternal. It was my digital ear to the ground listening to a single word.

All was silent the whole of yesterday. And today it arrived, without context, a lofty arrangement of words..

Would be eternal in our triumph: go

I obviously wondered who would have crafted this! It did have the rhythm of a master poet, but not being familiar with the particular work I was not too sure. And then I saw who had sent the tweet. Billionmonkeys was the user. A whois revealed the following

…typing out the complete works of shakespeare

I started following the user. And what delight. I don’t read every tweet. Don’t have the time to read enough to get the drift of the plot. I take a handful from the river of tweets that passes by and drink every refreshing gulp. I did stop to think why this user would do it. But then thought why the hell bother. One does not question the motive of a blooming flower.

One understands the depth of a Master poet. Every sentence is crafted! Every sentence even without the scaffolding of a plot stands as a monument!

All I could remember was the phrase “accelerated serendipity” that I had come across in this blog post. The phrase itself is supposed to be by Tara Hunt.

Life is not structured. The greatest impact is left behind by that which was not anticipated. The web 2.0 type apps in aggregating the many seem to bring together the un-anticipated. In doing so make the process of “happy discovery” easier.

Oh, I need to thank Billionmonkeys and twitter for making this happen.

Twitter and Frameworks for Serendipity

“Allow users to define your app” goes the refrain from Josh Catone on ReadWriteWeb in this post.

Definitely an interesting notion. I too have been following Twitter and its Bartimaeus-que ability to shift shapes. Right from being able to add an expense thru to Xpensr, or being able to add a reminder to Sandy..Twitter seems a ubiquitous endpoint, much like a telephone, acting only as a conduit to carry commands to a given destination.

But this openness is not something that can be built consciously. It is difficult to predict which application would be more amenable to adaptation by users in brand new contexts, short of actually rolling out a product and seeing what sticks!

But a simple rule of thumb could be used-
i) Start from simple systems
ii) Change minimally when confronted with new need
iii) Yet retaining backward compatibility
iv) Serve
v) Repeat as required

Numerous examples come to mind to illustrate this but HTTP, TCP/IP standout as familiar examples. Anything that aspires to universality, it seems, ought to heed to the principles of evolution.

Bottom line, no amount of upfront planning is going to tell you with any certainity if users are going to ‘play’ with your application. Starting simple, listening to customers and a willingness to drop pre-conceived notions can inform whether the product you have is a framework for serendipity!

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