Why I got Highlight wrong (and how Bluetooth Low Energy might save it)

Back in March 2012 I hyped up Highlight something fierce.

I thought it was going to be the next big app. I was wrong. Should have picked Snapchat (which I didn’t see coming because I personally don’t need it very much).

Highlight just hasn’t proven to be very addictive to either me or my friends. We talk about it often. I keep running it.

Now, what did they do right? They did fix their battery issues. It doesn’t put a major strain on my battery anymore. It does have some users, it’s just that the user count isn’t going up very fast and the UTILITY hasn’t gotten to where I thought it would.

Why not?

It has the chat room problem.

What is the chat room problem? I wrote back in 2009 that I’ve noticed that chat rooms get less interesting over time.

Why? Because chat rooms drag in new users (even interesting new users reduce the quality of an already-existing conversation). Eventually they drag in uninteresting users, even spammers and trolls.

Highlight hasn’t gotten that bad, but in talking with tons of users about it I think it tried to solve the wrong social problem: we simply don’t want to meet random people. If we did want to do that we’d just walk up to random people in the street and introduce ourselves.

This is why it has a chat room problem: when Highlight started out it was full of interesting people. Mostly A list bloggers and people at SXSW. In other words, people like me. People that I’d hang out with anyway.

I assumed that as more people used it the quality would remain the same. HORRID assumption on my part. Back when it started I had lots of interesting conversations because of Highlight and the people who were walking by me were people like Jack Dorsey. Today? Not so much.

I screwed up by getting it wrong with Highlight, so I’m sorry.

Now, what DO we want to do? I’ve seen this over and over again: people love it if you step up their experience. No one turns down an upgrade to business class in a plane. But Highlight doesn’t do that. It is too random.

Highlight just shows you other people near you and brings a lot of noise into your life. If Paul made one small change it could radically change and there’s a new technology that would help him do this: Smart Bluetooth, AKA “BLE — Bluetooth Low Energy — radios, er, Beacons.”

What is the change I’m recommending to Paul he makes?

Instead of bringing random people into my life, bring only people my existing friends have spent at least an hour with.

“Huh?”

The people who can step up my experience are those who have a common set of experiences with people I know. Think about it. How often did a total stranger come into your life to make your evening better? Not very often. But the friend of your friend? That happens all the time. On Tuesday I’m taking someone I don’t know to a special winery in Napa. Why? My friend asked me to “step up this guy’s experience.”

That very rarely happens with total strangers. There has to be a common tie for you to go out of your way to drive four hours and make a ton of phone calls to help someone else.

Now, how does Low Energy Bluetooth fit in? This new technology is now in every iPhone with iOS 7. I have given tons of speeches lately about our new book, “Age of Context” and very few people know what these are, even though they are carrying them. These little radios spit a number into the air every second. They use very little battery (the ones from recent Y Combinator graduate Estimote run for two years on a coin battery, for instance).

Why is this important? Well, with Apple’s iOS 7 Apple added a software layer called “iBeacon.” Here’s an article in Gigaom about iBeacon.

So, now, if Highlight added this capability, it would be able to add a feature where it would know who you spend the most time with. Then it could filter out everyone who hasn’t spent time with your actual friends (or at least push the random folks down so the high utility folks are at top). See, if I meet someone who really knows my best friends then I want to meet them too. But Facebook doesn’t have enough signal to really do this. BLE would. It also would let Highlight add innovative new features like “it looks like you are in a conference or event, because you are in a high density of people.”

Basically these radios tell your iPhone how close you are to another user. You can even make it so that your iPhone could “count” how many minutes that person is standing with you. You could even write other algorithms that would know the context. Did you spend that time with that other person in a church? Shopping mall? Bar? Work? Were you in a group, or just face-to-face? All that is now possible thanks to BLE.

If Paul turns Highlight into a contextual app, instead of a purely “meet random people you might like” app, it might have a chance of getting people excited again. For now, though, it’s one of those apps I keep on my phone just because I don’t have the heart to admit I was totally wrong. I hope that Paul figures out how to save Highlight for me before I totally get to the place where I delete it forever.

How about you? Do you get utility from Highlight? If you already deleted it, why did you? Am I on the right track here?