Thoughts on technology and social web

June 14, 2009

Ubiquitous, rich and real-time – the future of communication

Filed under: Social Networking — Ravikant Cherukuri @ 11:47 pm

Communication models on the internet have been changing at a good pace in the last 20 years. This pace has picked up quite a bit lately and a new model is emerging. Based on federation, content models and the real time web, the near future promises great innovations in this space. Faster machines, unlimited bandwidth, cloud computing and the faster more agile mindset of developers will hasten these changes and the gold rush is on to get there. Social streams, Google wave, web integration of instant messaging, Open ID/OAuth are all driving this change. Google Wave in particular is ambitious in getting to the next paradigm. Some of what I discuss below is already in the realm of what google is going to release this fall.


Ranging from BBS, news groups, e-mail, instant messaging, SMS and lately social streams (from myriad social networking sites), each of these services provide some niche service and have their entrenched users. More users are using more than one of these services and the integration between these is in minimal and piecemeal. Aggregation services (like friendfeed) are going to play a big role going forward. Unifying these means of communications so they seamlessly inter-operate is a challenge not yet solved though many companies worked on this for decades. With web (HTML / HTTP / javascript) being the point where different technologies and platforms merge and gel together, this is more possible than ever. The race to be the frond-end where the users look to consume all this data is on. Facebook, friendfeed, google, microsoft are all looking to retain their users by bringing in all the users data into their presentation realm. Federation with other services is imperative in this more nuanced version of walled gardens.

Being ubiquitous is being able to roam your identity across several technologies (this is becoming a reality with wide spread acceptance of OpenID/OAuth). But perhaps more subtly, it also means that your conversations roam with you. For example, you should be able to continue a conversation you are having on a blog, on twitter. You should be able to reply to a comment on your facebook wall via an instant messaging conversation window. Taking this one step further, you should be able to take your conversation into the context of any web resource that you are browsing. Being ubiquitous also means that on my cell phone I have just one app that gets me all my communications. One push interface that gets me my information from all my channels. One UX for me to look at everything.


What else can make this communication bus more effective? Most information shared and exchanges in the older models (like e-mail) is mostly text with some urls and images. The tools to express yourself are evolving. I can share much more than text and links in my facebook feed. I can share richer application specific posts with which my friends can interact easily. Still what I can share and how easily I can do it depends on a lot of factors. Being able to share from desktop applications and web sites to any of my streams at different venues (hotmail in-box, facebook news-feed, twitter feed etc) easily and uniformly  is the next big step. What I am sharing has to be decoupled from how I am sharing it. That is, the technology that knows about what I am sharing needs to inter-operate with the technology that is the transport that gets the shared information from one place to another. With the complexity and richness of today’s (and tomorrows) apps and the simplicity of SMTP. Being able to embed objects into conversations, gives context and enhances the value of the communique to the users.

Another aspect of richness of communication is persistence and the conversation object model. Let me explain a bit here. Lot of today’s technologies are basic transports. They just get the information that you share from you to your buddy. Most of the semantics of the conversation is lost. Today, in case of email, you can  manually organize your mail into folders and make it easy on yourself.  Gmail broke this paradigm by making mail searchable (which works very well for me). Google Wave promises to bring a wiki like collaboration model to the mix. IMHO, this is a big step. Being able to have the information exchanged in a group conversation automatically available and organized for future reference is big. Today, most of the technologies, model the user and the buddies as entities that you can interact with. But conversation content is not treated that well. Its mostly treated as blobs passed between users. If the semantics of this conversation is understood and included in the object model of the application, a lot of possibilities open up. Semantic web itself is progressing (with micro-formats and now common-tags) in the direction of empowering the users to define semantic concepts within the context of their content and link it to the greater web. The same could be done with conversations too. Tools for the participants to organize the ideas and concepts in discussion would help.


In most of today’s communication applications, real time integrates as an after thought. Like integrating instant messaging into e-mail. You still have to distinct apps here, its just that you can access them from one UX. This is often overlooked because a few minutes delay (as in e-mail) doesn’t sound that bad for most conversations. Also, we are used to technologies that poll and pull data for us. But the real time aspect with protocols like XMPP are the new gold standard for responsiveness and interactive nature of collaboration. Being able to collaboratively edit a document (floor-plans/blueprint/health records) and see each others changes in real time, reliably is vital. As important is the ability to preserve this data in the rich conversation repository that can be edited and enhanced later.

There are several products today that provide a complete stack for real time collaboration. The problem with these is that they are constrained to their domain and are not built for building upon. They are not built as a platform. By far, XMPP has evolved into the most extensible and standards based real-time transport. This should be treated as TCP was for the network and as HTTP was to the web. Application level protocols are being built on top of XMPP as extensions (jingle is an XMPP extension for voice for gtalk). Rich and real-time should be built on such standards based stack to be able to scale and federate with the myriad technologies and social networks.

Real-time takes some effort out of following all the information you are interested in on the web. You can rest assured that if some thing happens you will get to know and you will get to know as soon as it happens. You can put the tired F5 key to rest. Real-time also takes some effort out of what the services need to do to keep you updated. Polling takes a lot of resources, especially at web scale. Imagine 50 million people each following a 100 object on the web and each want to know the moment they object changes. Here is an interesting presentation of how friendfeed crawled flickr 3 million times for 45000 users, only 6K of whom were logged in.


1 Comment »

  1. Great post & well researched too, thanks for sharing this.

    Comment by Shekhar — June 22, 2009 @ 2:38 am

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