Saga: the contextual app that shows us what Google Glasses could do, albeit today

Saga just launched.

What is it?

A new kind of mobile companion. It studies what you do. How you do it. When you do it. Where you do it. Who you do it with. It’s an app that studies your context and builds an intelligent companion.

Yes, it’s iPhone only today, but will come to Android soon.

Here founder Andy Hickl shows me the app and explains to me what it does, and how it’ll protect my privacy.

This app, after you run it for a while, tells you all sorts of stuff about you, and your day coming up.

It competes with a bunch of things. Including Siri, PlaceMe, and others. I’ll give a more full report in about a week.

Speaking of apps that gather your contextual information, like Saga does, we’re writing a book on this new genre of apps and services called “The Age of Context.” Shel Israel, over on Forbes, posted our table of contents. We’d love to know what you think about that. Are we on the right track? If not, what do we need to put in the book or take out?

The press is covering this. Here’s Venture Beat’s report. Here’s Fast Company. GigaOm’s report.

The coming automatic, freaky, contextual world and why we’re writing a book about it

Robert Scoble and Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin at Last Night's Dinner in the Dark in San Francisco

First, the short version of today’s news. Shel Israel and I are collaborating on a book, titled, The Age of Context: How it Will Change Your Life and Work.

The long version:

A new world is coming. It’s scary. Freaky. Over the freaky line, if you will. But it is coming. Investors like Ron Conway and Marc Andreessen are investing in it. Companies from Google to startups you’ve never heard of, like Wovyn or Highlight, are building it. With more than a couple of new ones already on the way that you’ll hear about over the next six months.

First, the trends. We’re seeing something new happen because of:

1. Proliferation of always-connected sensors.
2. New kinds of cloud-based databases.
3. New kinds of contextual SDKs.
4. A maturing in social data that nearly everyone is participating in.
5. Wearable computers and sensors like the Nike FuelBand, FitBit, and soon the Google Glasses.

More on these trends later in this post.

This new, automatic world, is already coming. Highlight tells you when people who are using Highlight are nearby. Automatically. Google Now tells you to leave early for your next appointment because traffic is bad. Automatically. PlaceMe checks me into every place I enter. Automatically (including places you might not want others to know about, like churches and strip clubs).

We’ve also seen several other examples that are coming over the next few weeks. A TV guide that shows you stuff to watch. Automatically. Based on who you are. A contextual system that watches Gmail and Google Calendar and tells you stuff that it learns. A photo app that sends photos to each other automatically if you photograph them together. And then there’s the Google Glasses (AKA Project Glass) that will tell you stuff about your world before you knew you needed to know. There is a new toy coming this Christmas that will entertain your kids and change depending on the context they are in (it will know it’s a rainy day, for instance, and will change their behavior accordingly). New kinds of algorithmic customer support is being developed by retailers and even at Rackspace that will answer your questions differently depending on your context (we are developing ways to figure out that you aren’t happy before you even call and yell at us, for instance, Rackspace has hired one of the world’s experts here, Harry Max, but we aren’t the only ones thinking about this). We’ve already talked to automobile companies that are thinking about this in a big way (and even startups like Waze are trying to show you stuff about the road before you get there).

Add to that new kinds of software developer kits coming from major companies like Qualcomm (AKA Gimbal), which will gather this new kind of contextual data together, send it off to cloud servers, where developers can build new kinds of apps that will, in real time, hook up to all sorts of databases about us and the businesses we buy from or work for, and bring us back interesting smart alerts and more.

Our announcement this morning: The Age of Context: How it Will Change Your Life and Work

Anyway, it’s very clear to us that there’s a major new trend underway and, so, today I’m announcing that I’m writing a book together with my pal, and Forbes author, Shel Israel (we wrote a book that kicked off the social age seven years ago, called “Naked Conversations” that is still being used in Universities and as a guide to corporate communicators). His take on the book is up on the Forbes Blog, or will be soon.

We will take on the fears of this new world and explain why users will end up giving over their most private of information. You will store everything you do in life in this system and, to most, that is extremely scary. Yes, these systems can even tell when you are having sex and, worse of all, will know what brands you like and where your favorite gas station is. Way over the freaky line for most people, at least today, this future is coming and coming fast thanks to a new range of sensors and contextual SDKs (software developer kits) that will sit on our smart phones and other devices we’ll wear.

We will also interview dozens, if not hundreds, of businesses about how they are preparing for this age of context. Already we’ve started this process, talking to car manufacturers, wineries, and many startups.

Shel and I are both seeing the same thing from different points of view. For the past few months he’s been working for Forbes, headed around the world to interview business executives. He has access to companies that I don’t, especially since he’s traveled the world after writing books, on the social age, on Twitter and How to Give Presentations (he used to help startups get ready for big demos).

Thanks, too, to our friends Buzz Bruggeman and Andy Ruff who introduced us years ago and told us to write our first book.

The book will be written over the next nine to 12 months, we’re hoping to publish it sometime in the first half of 2013. Right around the time the first Google Glasses come out. Why then? Because that’s when the Contextual Age will be very clear to everyone and businesses will need to figure out what to do because of these shifts. Just today I talked with the founder of Informix (he now runs the Connection Cloud, which is going to connect all of the cloud systems inside enterprises together, to give enterprise developers the tools to build real-time contextual systems that will do for businesses what the Google Glasses will do for consumers).

How will the book be funded?

Right now we don’t quite know how the book will be funded. The book industry is in extreme turmoil and we can’t bankroll it all ourselves. Just a single trip to see, say, what Ford is doing in Detroit, costs thousands of dollars. Double that if we both go. We have some ideas:

1. Get a corporate sponsor to bankroll the book and other media that will spring out of it. That’s happened on other books, like the Day in the Life series of photo books (IKEA and others sponsored those). If you’d like to participate, please get ahold of us at

2. Get a traditional book publisher to give us an advance to give us some funds to produce the book (that’s how we did Naked Conversations). Unfortunately, though, the book industry is less willing to do that at a significant level.

3. Fund it with a cloud-funding site, like Kickstarter (there are several to choose from, Kickstarter is just the most popular).

4. Some hybrid approach, or some approach where we sell access to chapters. There’s lots of innovation to come in the book industry, thanks to lots of people reading books on iPads, Kindles, and other mobile devices.

5. Fund it by doing speaking gigs or developing conferences around the idea. Other authors have done this, by charging $20,000 per speaking gig, which they use to fund book development, or pay off credit cards that get overused while investing time into a book.

There are other ideas, too, and we’re interested in hearing about them, (please write me at It’ll cost about $100,000 to do this book right over the next six to nine months.

So, what’s Rackspace’s role in this?

Rackspace is very excited by this new world. We are already seeing our customers building contextual apps, systems, and infrastructure and we want to help further innovation in this space by providing a set of open source and open cloud technologies that will enable developers to innovate on faster. Open source is a big trend, driving this book, and investors are behind that big time too, see Andreessen Horowitz’ $100 million investment in Github, for instance.

Rackspace is funding my research behind this book (I’m a full-time employee of Rackspace), and, indeed, already am doing interviews like this one with the CEO of CouchBase, the database that Zynga is running on.

Back to the trends

Let’s talk about the trends, introduced earlier.

Proliferation of always-connected sensors.

Your cell phone, alone, has these sensors: Video, Audio, GPS, Gyroscope, Accelerometer, Compass, Gravity, Wifi, Bluetooth, and possibly Temperature, and Barometer. All of these sensors can be used to figure out what context you are in. Are you walking, driving, skiing, sitting? These sensors can already know (companies like Alohar are already studying them and sending that data up to the cloud).

New kinds of cloud-based databases.

There are new kinds of cloud-based databases. Take a look at Firebase, for instance. has my interview with its founders. This is a real-time system that enables new kinds of applications to be written. Add to that CloudBase, which already runs Zynga and is about to see a major revision that will allow real-time searching. Or, even, other kinds of social databases, like Pearltrees, which lets you organize data into contextual trees (interview with them coming soon).

New kinds of contextual SDKs.

Qualcomm’s Gimbal is only the first. It lets you build new kinds of geofences, interest sensing, and other features that will enable developers to bring this new world to us.

A maturing in social data that nearly everyone is participating in.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora, and Google+ are all maturing very quickly. Facebook, in particular, has built APIs that enable new kinds of apps. Highlight shows the way here, with it you can see people near you who are already using the app. On its display you can see what Facebook likes and friends you share in common with this person.

Wearable computers and sensors like the Nike FuelBand, FitBit, and soon the Google Glasses.

When you go to the doctor in the future he or she will be able to see your vital statistics like weight, exercise activity, and more, thanks to sensors many of us are already starting to carry around or use. I have a FitBit scale that doesn’t just weigh me, but shows me my BMI (Body Mass Index). Just so I know how obese I am. Soon other sensors and contextual systems will arrive, too. I used one from Empatica, while on stage at the Next Web Conference. It is a galvanic skin response sensor which measures my emotions in real time. Imagine how companies could use this to improve customer support! (I’d love the airlines I use to see my graph as I interact with its employees, for instance).

Add these trends together with major announcements made by Google (who already shipped Google Now and has already previewed the Project Glass at its developer conferences) and the reactions I’ve gotten to posts where hundreds of comments have come in, like this post written last week, and we see there’s a need for a book to help everyone see what’s going on and how to take advantage of the new contextual age.

The role of my blog is going to change

Starting today I’m going to focus my blog here totally into this new project and what I’m seeing in the world over the next nine months. There are plenty of other places to watch me publish other things in my life (I’d recommend subscribing to me on Facebook, which is the best place to follow me since you’ll see my Quora answers, all my posts on Google+, my Soundcloud podcasts, my photos posted in various places, including on Facebook, and all my videos I post on various YouTube channels, and, of course, my blog posts here).

Next steps

We’re already working on the book and Shel will publish early versions of chapters onto Forbes where we can gather feedback about them. When we published Naked Conversations putting our work into the harsh eye of the public dramatically improved the book. People around the world gave us critiques, added new ideas and companies to it, and even grammar corrected our work. That process was totally unfamiliar to the book industry back then (we forced our publisher to accept it, rather unwillingly I might add) but it’s interesting to note how few authors are using that technique seven years later. It’s invaluable and you will definitely be part of every step of this process (which is why we’re announcing that we’re working on this now).

Anyway, read Shel’s post over on Forbes which adds more details about this project and let us know what you think.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo taken of me and Sergey Brin, Google Co-Founder, by Thomas Hawk. Sergey is wearing the Project Glass prototypes that Google will release to developers sometime in 2013 (Scoble is the 107th purchaser).

Mobile 3.0 arrives: How Qualcomm just showed us the future of the cell phone (and why iPhone sucks for this new contextual age)

Google Now screen shot

The world just changed yesterday. You probably didn’t notice. But I guarantee strategists at Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google did.

What happened? Qualcomm shipped a new contextual awareness platform for cell phones.

Yesterday the Mobile 3.0 world arrived. First mobile was the standard old cell phone. You talked into it. The second mobile era was brought to us by the iPhone. You poked at a screen. The third era will bring us a mobile that saves us from clicking on the screen.

We’ve seen lots of precursors. Heck, Google itself, a couple of weeks ago, shipped something called “Google Now” that tells you stuff based on your context. “Hey, Scoble, you better leave for your next appointment because it takes 53 minutes to get there” my new Nexus 7 tablet tells me. You see the actual screen shot above.

But in the future your mobile device, whether it be something you hold in your hand like a smart phone, or wear on your face, like Google Glasses, will know a hell of a lot about you.


Well, Qualcomm just shipped the developer SDK, called Gimbal.

This SDK talks to every sensor in your phone. The compass. The GPS. The accelerometer. The temperature sensor. The altimeter sensor. Heck, we’ve known about sensors in cell phones for a while now. Here’s a New York Times report from May of last year.

But now, thanks to this SDK your smart phone will start to make sense of the data. Developers will have a single data pool on your cell phone to talk with (Qualcomm was very smart about privacy — none of this data leaves your own cell phone unless you give it permission to).

Today I was talking with Roland Ligtenberg, product developer at Qualcomm Labs. While talking with me I realized just what Qualcomm was up to.

See, if you do all this collection and analysis in software there is a battery cost. Remember Highlight? My favorite app of SXSW (and really the year). Did you ignore it? Well, investors aren’t. Ron Conway told me that aside from Pinterest Highlight is his favorite new company. Mine too because it showed me something no one else showed me before (a new kind of context of people who are near me). It actually is a lame app compared to what is coming, thanks to this Qualcomm SDK.

Qualcomm wouldn’t comment, but Roland told me that if you did all this in hardware there would be a lot less battery cost. So, look for this SDK to come to your mobile phone (or other wearable computing devices, like Google Glasses) soon.

Want to see what other use cases are coming? Check out this answer on Quora (actually 28 separate answers from techies) about what the Google Glasses world will bring (really they are talking about contextual and wearable computing, mashing together).

To add onto those answers, these new systems are going to know whether you are walking, running, skiing. Whether you are shopping, working, entertaining yourself (it knows whether you are in church, or in a strip club, or at school, or at work, or driving). Thanks to the wifi and bluetooth radios it can even know you are riding in your wife’s car, not driving. (Only available on Android, because Apple doesn’t let developers talk to the radios).

Which brings me to why Apple sucks.

Apple does NOT give developers access to the Bluetooth and Wifi radios. This is going to really hinder developers in this new contextual world.

Think about why your phone or Google Glasses might want to know you are in the kitchen, vs. sitting on your couch in the living room. The information that should automatically show up on your phone will be radically different. In the kitchen I’m in a food context. I want recipes, or healthy living guides, or I want my device to track just how many Oreo cookies I’m eating “hey, Scoble, you fat dude, this isn’t helping!” Already we’re doing this kind of quantified self stuff with Fitbit, Nike Fuel Band, and other devices. My wife is already tracking everything she eats and does on her cell phone.

Now, in the future our cell phones will know us at a very deep level. Already I’ve told Facebook more than 5,000 things I like. Check out my list. It’s public. On it you’ll see which startups I like. But also that I like Round Table Pizza. Think about that one for a moment.

In the future my cell phone will know I ordered a pizza. Will know when I get in my car. Will know who is in the car with me. And will give me contextual data that will make my life better. For instance, on my todo list I might have put “pick up a hammer at the hardware store.” It will know that Round Table Pizza is near the hardware store. It will know I have an extra 15 minutes. It can use Waze to route me to the hardware store first, tell me to pick up my hammer, and then head to Round Table to pick up that pizza. All while measuring how many steps I took (Nike Fuel points!) and telling me who has crossed my path. Oh, Joseph Smarr, who works at Google, is also at the Round Table? Cool! (He lives in Half Moon Bay too so this could happen at any time).

But when I get back, can my phone understand that I’m now in the dining room, eating? Or the living room, ready to watch a sports show (it knows already what sports I like — think about the next Olympics where it tells me that it has queued up the track and field finals for me to watch automatically)? Only if you don’t have an iPhone because Apple hasn’t given developers access to the wifi and bluetooth radios, so it can’t let developers let you map out your house accurately.

Which gets me to what Facebook and Amazon could do to totally disrupt the smart phone market (both are rumored to be working on hardware). See, you shouldn’t work on hardware if you only can match what Apple has already done. You should work on it if you can totally blow away what Apple has done.

I bet that Amazon and Facebook are building a new kind of contextual device. One that already knows you. Facebook already knows what I read, watch, listen to, and much more thanks to its Open Graph API system. Amazon already knows what I read, watch, and buy, thanks to its commerce system.

Add these two companies to Qualcomm’s new contextual platform and you have a new world.

By the way, Qualcomm is a $95 billion market cap company and is spending $3 billion a year in R&D and its chipsets are probably inside the phone you are currently holding. So, I take what they are doing very seriously.

So seriously that next week Forbes author Shel Israel and I will announce a new project all around contextual computing next week. See ya on Tuesday.

A new age just arrived. Mark yesterday in your calendar and see you on Tuesday.

By the way, for those at Rackspace, this will eventually change everything about our business too. We’re well positioned, thanks to our move to supporting a totally open cloud, which will pay big benefits next year as developers need to build new infrastructure to deal with this contextual age. The cloud is about to turn contextual in a very big way and that’s why we need to keep up with what Amazon, Google, and the other players are doing here and why we should start building support systems for this Qualcomm SDK now. It is that big a deal.

Watch this video to see a taste of what’s coming in the new contextual age.

Scalable Living: changes you can make to be more productive

I’ve been going through lots of changes behind the scenes that is leading me down a new path I call “scalable living.”

To get there, over the past year, I’ve unfollowed about 10,000 people on Instagram. Then I did the same on Quora. I deleted hundreds of apps from my iPhone. Totally changed how I communicate with all of you (I almost shut down my blog, instead, preferring to spend time where most of you are hanging out anyway: on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Google+).

Over that same time I added more than 1,500 filters to Gmail, which clean out my inbox of a lot of crap. Rebranded our shows to “Small Teams, Big Impacts.”

These changes will continue the rest of the year. Here’s where my head is at:

I might only have one day left on earth. Several people I knew died this past year at a younger age than I am at (I’m 47). That struck me. What would I do if I only had one day left? What would I change about my life.

Well, I would focus on doing things that have scale. For instance, instead of calling each of my family members one by one (I don’t have much time left, for instance) I would get them all on a Google+ hangout together. That has scale. Calling them one by one doesn’t. By the way, the hangout would be shared with the world. That has scale. Letting you hear the news second hand wouldn’t.

Now, we don’t need to be so dramatic about these choices we make. After all, I hope I have more than one day left here (someday I won’t even have that, though) but let’s take it into smaller things: sharing and curation.

Over on Facebook I laid out a challenge to people. I called it the frictionless-sharing shootout.

See, if you really want to know who I am and what I’m doing, Facebook is dramatically ahead of other publishing systems. Visit my profile and you’ll learn what music I’m listening to, what questions I’ve voted on over on Quora, what news I’ve read, and much much more. Subscribe to me and you’ll know — while I do it — what articles I’m liking and commenting on.

That’s mostly done “frictionlessly.” That’s scalable living, because I didn’t need to explicitly share those things with you. See, writing a blog post is hard. It takes time, thought, and, I’d argue, even a bit of talent and experience to keep it interesting.

Worse than that, though, is that each time I publish I am keeping YOU from living in a scalable way. Why?

Sharing something like “I’m listening to Skrillex right now” means you have to see it on your screen, and pay attention to it. If you are still using an old-school RSS reader (I am using new school ones, like Flipboard, or Facebook) then they won’t be filtered out. If I do enough of them you will unsubscribe because I’m bringing too much noise and not enough signal to your life. You can sense that’s not scalable living.

So, what role does a blog have in this new world. It certainly is NOT centralizing my life. Facebook is — by far — the best place to do that. This morning alone I listened to several songs in the car. Do you really want me to post every time that happens here? No way. But on Facebook that’s easily dealt with. Even better Facebook usually filters that stuff out and Facebook gets better over time at figuring out what you want to engage with and what you don’t. If you saw everything I did on my profile come through on your home feed you would unfollow within an hour. Instead 330,000 new people in the past year alone have subscribed to me on Facebook. Why? It’s scalable living and having great inbound makes life more interesting.

Over on Quora, after unfollowing everyone, my inbound got a lot more interesting. Why? Because only once in a while are people interesting (even the most interesting people are only interesting once in a while, I’ve learned, while talking with hundreds at lots of conferences that have lots of interesting people). Quora, when you focus it on topics, brings you MUCH more interesting things. I was sitting on University Avenue last week looking at the Palo Alto topic and learned so much about a city I’ve spent a lot of time in.

Same is true everywhere I’ve applied “scalable living” techniques to. Can you write a script using IFTTT to do something for you rather than you do it yourself? You did click on IFTTT to learn about what it is, right? That stands for a service that lets you write scripts following a “if this then that” statement. You can do all sorts of things with Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, Email, Weather, and other channels. Scalable living for sure.

Have you “tuned” Facebook yet to bring you interesting stuff? Did you even know you had to tune it? First tip: run this tool to separate people you don’t talk with often into your acquaintance feed. Then use the other tips I sent to my friend Jason Calacanis.

I’m going to try to refocus my efforts with startups on this new kind of living. Entrepreneurs need to live this way to increase their chances for success. Paul Graham talks about “leverage-able moments.” That’s scalable living. Putting yourself in play to get the most out of life. When I answer Quora questions, like this one on connecting with high-profile people, that’s what I’m trying to do.

Even when I listen to music on Spotify, I’m trying to do that. Because you know that I listen to Skrillex one of you suggested I listen to Ratatat. Of course I liked their page on Facebook. Why? Because that brought me more news about them to my news feed.

Companies can do this too. Beyond using Cloud Computing, you can use tools like New Relic which helps you watch your cloud infrastructure, or integrate other services that do things like comments (I use Facebook here, but Universal Studios uses Echo).

Doing those things is scalable living.

Anyway, enough rambling. You can blame this whole post on Tim Ferriss. On his Facebook feed he posted a New York Times article on the Busy Trap and said it was one of the best articles he’s ever read in the New York Times. I agree, but Tim is one of the best authorities on scalable living I’ve ever met. So, Tim, this is for you! That article did, indeed, rock, and is aiming at the same thing I am: scalable living so you have time to hang out with your friends and not be “busy.”

That said, the article is wrong. The first rule of scalable living is to get control of your inbound. That means telling a lot of people “sorry, I’m too busy to have lunch with you today.”

What that really means is that Fred Davis, one of the founders behind Wired Magazine, will be here in a few minutes and we’re just gonna sit around this afternoon thinking about the future. The future is scalable living. Oh, and those Google Glasses things are gonna be how it arrives! 🙂

Shhh, my blog is coming back!

I just loaded the new WordPress plugin from Facebook. It’s been several months since I’ve blogged, since I’ve been publishing on Google+ and Facebook. But now my blog can come back. Hopefully Google+ will come out with a publish API at the Google IO conference so I can rejoin my WordPress blog into my Google+ profile just like I did with my Facebook one.

Speaking of which, next week I’ll be at the LeWeb conference in London where I’ll be debating Andrew Keen about social media.

Ahh, the fun!

Why haven’t I been here lately? Well, let’s see. A year ago I had 0 followers on Google+. Today I have 1.65 million!
A year ago I had 13,000 followers on Facebook. Today I have 333,000!

Social media audiences have shown up big time and so I’ve been investing all my time over there. Especially on Facebook lately, since I’m getting more engagement per person and, well, the audience is just more influential there (the CTOs I want to talk with are mostly on Twitter or Facebook, if you know where to look).

Will all this work out? Who knows? I’m having too much fun! Anyway, it’s good to be back on WordPress!

Have Arrington and Conway screwed up big time with their investment in Highlight?

Paul Davison, left, shows off a stealth app at a SF geek party

Tonight I’m getting message after message that friend after friend has joined Highlight (the photo above is of Paul Davison showing it off to some of its first users back in December on the day it launched into a closed beta). What is Highlight? Well, two weeks ago, in the Next Web, I named it as one of two apps that will “win” SXSW.

What is it? It’s one of a new band of companies trying to own the “real time people discovery space.” Crunchbase says Highlight is a mobile ambient awareness app. I believe we’ll see lots more of these kinds of apps over the next few years and, even, Google is rumored to be building new kind of wearable monitors to use apps like these.

Just for completeness, the competitors are Glancee, Kismet, Sonar, and with more coming this week (by the end of the week I’ll write up a more complete analysis of the competitors, since most of these companies, including Highlight, will ship major updates to their apps this week — I’m sure I won’t be the only one, either, given the attention these things are getting).

Why? Well, it has been picked by not just me as the “SXSW hotness” but also by Mashable, by Techcrunch, and others. Mashable’s founder, Pete Cashmore, in an article on CNN, named it “Scariest Tech Trend.” Mike Arrington and Ron Conway liked it so much (or their fund partners did, anyway) that they invested in it. Or, more accurately, their funds SV Angel (CrunchBase entry for SV Angel) and CrunchFund (CrunchBase’s entry for CrunchFund) did, along with Benchmark Capital (CrunchBase’s entry for Benchmark).

So, let’s dig into the hype and anti-hype and see if Ron Conway and Mike Arrington are going to either lose all their money or have just backed the next big thing?

There are a bunch of different ways to look at this:

1. Virality coefficient. How often is the user base doubling? How likely is it to keep doubling? (I was at the first party that Highlight was shown off at, back in December. I saw it go through almost an entire party in just an hour the virality coefficient was so high. It made such an impression on me that I even shot a photo of Paul showing it off.
2. Competitive pressures. Will a competitor kick their behind unexpectedly? Will philosophical choices its founders make derail it the way Gowalla was derailed by choices its founders made?) How is it differentiated?
3. Market window optimization. In this case, this kind of app will only do well in three places: San Francisco, New York, and SXSW. That means that if they don’t rock and roll at SXSW and their competitors do they will be at a HUGE disadvantage. Brian Solis (analyst and social media guru at Altimeter Group) just told me he’s picked Highlight as the app he’s going to use at SXSW. Many others are saying the same thing.
4. Haters. All good products have haters. Remember when Woz and Jobs started the PC business? Their bosses thought they were nuts. Even one of their co-founders thought they were nuts (he quit Apple after a few days and sold his share for a very small amount of money). Every good consumer technology has haters. Every single one. It’s a precondition.
5. Smartness of entrepreneur. I’ve spent time with almost all the entrepreneurs who are doing companies in this space and Paul has made a huge impression on me. So much so that I cancelled one evening of parties just to spend four hours with him at his offices in San Francisco one evening to get a better sense of what he is doing that the other entrepreneurs aren’t. This is an intangible that’s hard to describe, but I’ll try to in the rest of this blog.

I’ve been using these apps for a while now, and here’s how they will be judged. In other words, here’s how we’ll be able to track if Arrington and Conway screwed up by investing in Highlight. Others will announce funding this week, I’m hearing, by other investors. Two $64,000 questions for the investors:

1. Will this category keep doubling in users? I think it will. I’ll try to explain why later.
2. Will Highlight (or one of its competitors) dominate in such a way that it gets rid of all of the other competitors? I think so, more later as we dive into what I’m already seeing happen.

Some things. You might say it’s too early for me to call the game. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I’ve watched consumer apps on the Internet compete for quite some time (Israeli investor Yossi Vardi says I was the first person to have a website about ICQ back in 1996, for instance, and that was the hottest new consumer app of that year. It eventually sold to AOL for about $400 million — it had competitors, including one from Microsoft but because it was doubling in users every few days the others could never catch up. I predict that’s already happening in Highlight’s case).

Have you ever thought about a doubling penny. You know, today you have one penny, tomorrow, two, the day after that, four, and so on and so forth? I have. It’s how these things work. The first app to double 27 times wins the lottery. Everyone after that will seem lame in comparison. That’s true whether you are looking at Twitter (it had competitors), Facebook (it had competitors), Pinterest (it has competitors already), GroupOn (it has dozens, if not hundreds, of competitors). The first one to double and get into that “exponential growth area” wins. Period. It’s really hard to overtake the market leader once it has even a few “doubles” of lead.

It is especially true when you consider that users aren’t all the same. For instance, once you get someone like Dave McClure to join your service (he joined Highlight today) that matters a lot more than if someone who isn’t a well connected tech influencer in Silicon Valley joins). Just the facts of life. Twitter took off after Leo Laporte started talking about it (he’s on Glancee, by the way, which I noticed when I drove by Leo’s house in Petaluma last night — we were attending my son’s play at Petaluma High School. That makes sense cause Glancee is on Android and Leo is an Android fan. More on platform choices later, that could be one way that Arrington and Conway have screwed up).

So, let’s take on the five ways these apps will be judged by the marketplace.

Virality. I’m watching all of these apps in a very specific market: San Francisco. In my experience if you do not win San Francisco’s geeks you won’t win the world-wide marketplace. This is true of nearly every interesting consumer app that’s come along lately, and explains why even Spotify, which was started in Europe, handed out beta codes to lots of San Francisco insiders nearly two years before it launched in the United States. In this case Highlight is winning. It is spreading faster, and quicker, through the influential San Francisco crowd than any of its competitors are. Now, I’m sure that Banjo and Sonar will cry that I’m forgetting about them. No, I’m not. Those two aren’t really the same kind of app that Glancee and Highlight are and, anyway, those two are NOT getting the insiders excited and are NOT seeing growth that Highlight is amongst the insiders I track. They do have more users (about 600,000 vs. about 20,000) but Highlight is doubling a lot faster and is getting everyone energized. There’s a whole bunch of reasons for that that I’ll go into in a sec.

Competition. Here I look at the philosphy of each product. Sonar, for instance, shows you a list of every place near you and shows you how many people have checked in on Foursquare at each place. Useful, but not nearly as useful as Highlight. The reason I called Brian Solis tonight, for instance, is because one of his checkins were shown on both Sonar and Banjo. The problem was that he was back home. This does not happen on Highlight since Highlight ONLY shows me when someone is within 50 yards of me and only in real time. Also, Highlight shows a little map of where I was when I crossed paths with someone, which again verifies what time and what place we were at. This is a HUGE differentiator. Compare to Kismet and Glancee. They feel that people will be freaked out by seeing where they met someone. In my experience they have made the wrong philosophical choice in order to cowtow to perceived market “freakedness.” Here’s the thing these entrepreneurs didn’t count on: users will change their behavior if they are given something in return. They will, gasp, even choose to do something “freaky.”

In Kismet, and Banjo’s case, they show people who have explicitly checked in, either on their service, or on Foursquare, in Banjo’s case. But this is actually more stalkerish than the “scarier” Highlight. Think about it. If you are a woman and are scared about being stalked by someone, Highlight only shows you to people who are already within 50 yards. The others show you to people miles away who might all of a sudden start “following” you online. It’s amazing how easy it is, by the way, to follow someone and figure out where they are by what they Tweet, Foursquare, Facebook, or put on services like Foodspotting or Yelp.

Highlight, even though it “seems” more “freaky” when you first hear about it, is the least freaky of the group. After spending time with Paul Davison, I got why: he spent a lot of time making sure that women feel comfortable on the service. Indeed I’m seeing quite a good percentage of women on the service and the ones I’ve asked say they enjoy it so far. Techcrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis backs this up, too, by saying “I like it” even while writing some feedback about how it could be made less freaky.

It is my experience that Highlight is beating the competition EXCEPT in one way: cross platform availability. Android users are pissed that Highlight isn’t available to them and are pushing Glancee, which is available on both iOS and Android. The problem for me is that Glancee is SLOW to startup. On Friday I was out to dinner with ShowYou’s CEO, Mark Hall. I started both apps up from a cold start. Highlight started in 1.5 seconds. Glancee took 15 seconds. This dramatically makes me dislike Glancee. To be fair, though, Glancee says they are shipping an update that will improve this tomorrow. I’ll test it out again then.

Glancee, though, doesn’t have the same feed features that Highlight does (Highlight keeps track of where you met someone, how often you met them, and WHERE you met them. I believe the three together put into a feed that you can scroll all the way back through is a KILLER FEATURE and one that the others are totally missing).

That said, everything I write tonight about the competition will probably change this week. At least one competitor is coming out with a killer feature of its own (I can’t talk or reevaluate the field until that competitor ships later this week — although I still believe Highlight will be ahead, even then).

Market window optimization. This one is a tough one. It means that there’s only a small “window” for competitors in a new field to launch effectively. Why is that? Because once networks of people decide to use one app, the competitors will never be able to “break those users free from the network lockin effect” and move them somewhere else. We saw this with Twitter. Lots of other competitors came along, many with better features, but because the users had decided to use Twitter it just was impossible to move them all to a new system. This will happen BIG TIME with this kind of app. Once I start using Highlight, and so do all my friends, there’s no way I’m going to move somewhere else unless you also move all my friends first. THAT is a HUGE amount of lockin and that lockin is happening in a MAJOR way with Highlight right now, at least amongst the San Francisco tech crowd. Now, in the past that crowd has predicted mainstream success later on. If you say it doesn’t matter what the cool kids in San Francisco have chosen, then you have a HUGE burden of proof to convince us of your point. Yes, you can point to some cases where the geeks didn’t matter. Pinterest. GroupOn are two. But they are hardly the kind of broad-based consumer things that Highlight and Glancee are. So, you’ll have to work extra hard to convince me that you can win, say, in Kansas without winning San Francisco first and that you can keep Kansas from switching. Remember, people used to say “Orkut is big in Brazil and Facebook isn’t.” I said that didn’t matter and I was right. Eventually Facebook got everyone to switch because even Brazilians have friends other places and the network effect of the rest of the world was too powerful to resist. Unless you have a firewall like China and Iran do. I bet that Facebook would take over those two countries within 18 months too, if the firewalls were removed.

That said, this group of apps will be decided in the next 18 days. Really they will be decided on by Friday and I can now make a good case that the prize has already been decided. That’s just the way the world works. It’s also why I say you shouldn’t launch at SXSW (read my advice on Quora for companies thinking of doing something so stupid). Highlight and Glancee both were out in the marketplace weeks ago. They followed my advice and are the leading ones in this new field because of it. Market windows are very important to pay attention to. You couldn’t launch a Windows XP app today, for instance, and get anyone to care about it. Launch a Windows 8 app, though, and everyone will check it out. Launch the same app in a year, though, and it’ll be a lot tougher to get anyone to care. This is why so many startups, from Flipboard to ShowYou are working long hours to get their apps ready for the iPad 3 right now and its high resolution screen. They know that if they are out in the first week after Wednesday’s Apple announcements that they will get lots of users. Announce three months from now? No one will care. Market window optimization is HUGELY important for entrepreneurs. Highlight is doing the best job here.

Haters? Oh, this whole category has them in DROVES. It’s actually the strongest evidence that there’s something to this category. Anytime haters come out of the woodwork it tells me that I should care about the category. This has been true for every single big paradigm shift I’ve been alive for. I still remember my coworkers telling me “why should I use email?” Or my fellow students at SJSU telling me that mice and windows were for kids who couldn’t use real computers. Or the folks who told me that instant messaging would never be used for “real business.” Or the folks who told me that Twitter was lame.

What should we watch when we see haters? Look for the doubling effect and look to make sure that the users are staying addicted. The stats on Highlight are so off the charts that Paul told me he doesn’t even believe his own server logs. I can tell you why: people are keeping this app on, and are damn addicted to it. Why? Because we like finding new things about the people who are around us.

Now, am I missing anything? Yes, there are lots of risks. What are they?

1. The doubling effect might stop for some reason. For instance, let’s say we all get home from SXSW and decide that these apps are just really lame, well, then the doubling effect will stop. If this happens you all will make fun of me and then we’ll go on with our lives looking for the next big consumer trend in tech, but it’ll mean that Conway and Arrington will be out their investment. SOme other reasons this might happen? If someone gets hurt because of these apps. If legislation gets passed that prevents these apps from working. If Facebook or Google start to really compete with these apps (I don’t believe they can, because their users won’t trust them with this kind of passive-sharing of location, at least not immediately. Keep an eye on Facebook’s Open Graph set of technologies, though, and they are the biggest competitor here. Zuckerberg has proven he’ll do things that freak out his users, as long as he sees the data that they will eventually be addicted anyway).

2. That these apps might get popular but might not be monetizable. Just because something is popular doesn’t mean that you can sell ads on it. Look at Chatroulette. Very popular but now doesn’t matter. Why? It had penises on it and advertisers stayed away.

3. Something even cooler and better might come along. Google is working on some glasses that will show stuff in real time about the world around you. If Google got very aggressive with this kind of stuff it might do something that is very popular and takes the oxygen away from these apps.

4. The category could get bought and shut down by competitors. Facebook, after its IPO, might buy these.

5. The “host” (in this case, Facebook, which Highlight and Glancee rely on) might shut down this category due to some reason like regulation or PR pressure.

6. I might be reading the signals wrong. Maybe San Francisco really isn’t in charge of the consumer world anymore. If that’s the case, maybe this whole category doesn’t matter the way I think it does (and the way others think it does). That said, I’m seeing enough tech passionates around the world agreeing with me that I don’t think I’m reading the signals wrong.

Anyway, add all this together and I’ve come to the conclusion that Arrington and Conway have made a smart investment and have not screwed up big time. It’ll be interesting to see just how fast this category of services grows. I predict that a company in this field will be a multi-billion-dollar company in market cap within four years. I’m betting it’s Highlight, but who knows? That’s what makes this industry fun, the whole thing could change by Friday and probably will.

Do you agree or disagree?

By the way, hear about the two best companies so far in this field from the execs themselves:

Highlight’s founder talks to me about his app:

Glancee’s founder talks to me about this field.

By the way, I’ve been posting a lot of stuff about startups to my Google+ feed. If you aren’t following me there or on Twitter, you are missing out! That’s really where a lot of stuff gets shaken out and turned upside down. My blog will evolve as a place where I do longer thought pieces once in a while.

Scoble: hit man of Silicon Valley?

Today a “journalist” (Dan Lyons) says I have been hitting up VCs to start my own fund.

Really? I didn’t know that!

For the record, I’m not raising a fund. This article is NOT accurate.

But, it sure comes up in conversation a lot. At two events tonight it came up. First, I was interviewing Wealthfront’s CEO Andy Rachleff. That interview is here and it’s an interesting business which is helping people with their investing in a new way (everyone who has $5,000 and up, that is). At that interview we talked about what being an investor is all about and after the interview was over the question about whether I would do my own fund came up. Andy has been a VC for a long time, so I listened to his advice, which he offered.

Later I was at a business school event at Stanford where there was a panel of venture and angel investors. Afterward they crowded around me and asked me why I haven’t done a fund yet.

Truth is my life rocks and I am not sure I want to screw that up. See, investors do a lot of the same things I’m doing (networking, watching how things spread, and hear lots of pitches) but they also do a lot of things I don’t like (board of directors meetings, negotiating, saying no, etc etc). I’m not sure I want to give up my great life where I do almost only things I love to do (which is talk with people about technology, innovation, and their companies) just for a chance to make some real money. So far I’ve resisted that path, even turned down $500,000 to start my own business last year.

Anyway, I’ve written tons about this issue on Dan Lyon’s Google+ account. If you care about what happened, and the way this “journalism” got reported you can read these posts:

1. Dan Lyons claims I have a fund and am hitting up VCs to join it. Dan wrote a followup post that he was taking heat from commenters.

2. Dan wrote about my correction to his story and that I claimed it wasn’t true. It wasn’t. In the comments there I further explain myself.

3. Dan apologized to me and tried to explain more about his source’s claims (which are bull, I’ve never had a fund).

Anyway, it’s sort of flattering to have everyone thinking I’m doing a fund. Maybe I should take Mike Arrington out to dinner and learn what it’s like…


One other thing. Someone asked me what I thought of what Mike Arrington is doing with his CrunchFund.

I think it’s great. It’s also great that he gets to tell me what companies he’s interested in.

I know where his conflicts come from. I’m an intelligent reader. If he pushes a company I know that it might be because he has a financial stake in the company. I’m totally not bothered by this. If you are, there are PLENTY of other tech outlets to read. I have a Twitter list with almost 500 tech news brands in it. In fact, Arrington and his blog aren’t in there because I don’t look at Arrington as a news outlet, although I do look at investors as interesting people to watch. I have a separate Twitter list of tech industry investors.

Seems to me it’s pretty easy as a reader to get lots of news, both biased and unbiased, so it’s not something that keeps me up at night.

My contract with you is that I will tell you when I have conflicts of interest and then you’ll have to decide which list you put me on, or even if you keep listening to me. Fair enough?

UPDATE: Dan just wrote another article, which got me to respond again over on Google+. This will be my final comment on the saga.