Aardvark Founders. Pic: Jim Wilson/The New York Times
I have written here often of how technology only shortens the distance between people on the social web. In other words, using social web tools to communicate with friends and family is an extension of our social activities offline. As I write this on July 5th, I recall yesterday seeing tens of thousands gathered on bridges in downtown Portland, alongside the lake in Lake Oswego and milling around in Tigard, Or, to watch the firework displays commemorating Independence Day. Families with kids, couples and teens all very comfortable with each other for a few hours; it is very natural for us to gather with strangers and witness a familiar event.
Opening a browser on a computer or a mobile device today means participation in the social web. Not just because of one’s involvement in social networks but also by letting your friends or family know of your geo-location by allowing a mobile device app to broadcast your whereabouts for instance. Emailing and texting friends, tweeting and updating your Facebook status all let those following you know of your involvement on the social web every day.
This is of course very familiar to us, we surf the web in our own familiar ways using social networking tools, yet companies that wish to harness the power to advertise to this web of millions of people have been stymied for some time, stuck in social media channels wondering how to budge these masses even a quarter of an inch closer to their products. The web and those using it don’t ever stop moving but you can’t simply plant a billboard alongside this viral highway – the billboard’s message will remain right there where it was positioned, as we all go about our daily electronic sojourns.
Rob Glazer of Real. Pic: Kevin P. Casey for the The New York Times
I recently discovered two articles in the Business section of the June 28th 09 edition of the New York Times. The articles cover two companies and their products – one is RealNetworks, a familiar face in technology, the other a new company called Aardvark. Real is featured for launching new technology for hardware devices and Aardvark for creating a social web service that helps you reach hundreds of your online friends and peer group for answers to any of your questions. Real brings us technology based on the premise that the company thinks we need their product and Aardvark brings us technology that embraces the social web by connecting us easily with people we trust to answer our questions. [I used Aardvark yesterday to ask a question of my followers - "who uses online music subscriptions, which one is better and why?" and I received 6 great responses, even one from a friend in Sweden who urged me to use a service called Spotify.] It works.
Aardvark doesn’t bother all of my 1700+ Facebook friends either. As the NYT article points out –
“Those friends-of-friends may turn out to be a great fountain of hitherto untapped information. For example, none of your 200 Facebook “friends” may have recently stayed in Napa and be able to recommend a bed-and-breakfast. But if each of their friends can be tapped, the pool of prospective wine-country authorities jumps from 200 into the tens of thousands.
You wouldn’t want to bother those thousands, however, with your question about Napa B.& B.’s. Aardvark has devised ways to drastically narrow the search, asking only those who are most likely to have an answer, and asking only a few of them at a time, protecting your network of volunteers from being asked too often.”
There’s more – “Having humans, not software, supply the advice is important. Max Ventilla, who formerly was at Google and is now Aardvark’s chief executive, said, “Often the most useful answers don’t answer the original question. Example: ‘You don’t want to go to the Caribbean now — it’s the rainy season — you want to go to Hawaii.’ ”
Aardvark has embraced the idea of the social web and crowdsourcing.
At the other end of the web [not that I'm saying the web exists on a plane with two actual 'ends'] RealNetworks delivered a new version of its Real Player software called Real Player SP. Real was once a pioneer in the online world of video and music delivery but as the NYT says – “.. the company has been largely eclipsed by rivals like Microsoft, Apple and YouTube from Google.”
In his NYT article, Brad Stone argues that Real has stuck to some of its technologies for too long. The new software for instance, allows user to move video onto smartphones like the iPhone and the Blackberry line, but with any mobile device able to stream video directly from the web, why would they want to? When it comes to music I’ve argued that mobile ubiquity and access from the cloud means never having to own music again if you choose to. Real is presuming that people want to ‘own’ or store video on their devices – that seems like an unlikely proposition.
In the same article, “Mike McGuire, an analyst at Gartner, … wonders whether Real is actually meeting new consumer needs, particularly since devices like smartphones are increasingly able to directly display Web video. “Sticking to your guns is one thing, but it’s another to say, let’s add features because we can, and because consumers should want this. Do we really know they do? Is anyone really asking for that?” Mr. McGuire said.”
Meanwhile Rob Glazer, Real’s chief says – “the human nervous system is wired to focus on new things,” like Twitter, and to dismiss the profitable stalwarts that have been around the block. With the new version of RealPlayer, he said, “we have made ourselves relevant again, or even more relevant in a new world.”
I hope that Mr. Glazer doesn’t really believe that notion..