Research Agenda of Larry Hawes, Lead Analyst

Greetings! As my colleague Stowe Boyd announced yesterday, I am part of a fabulous group of smart, well-respected people that have joined the rebooted Gigaom Research as analysts. I was affiliated with the original version of Gigaom Research as an Analyst, and am very pleased to be taking the more involved role of Lead Analyst in the firm’s new incarnation, as detailed in Stowe’s post.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve spent the last 16 years working as a management and technology consultant, enterprise software industry analyst, writer, speaker and educator. My work during that time has been focused on the nexus of communication, collaboration, content management and process/activity management within and between organizations ─ what I currently call ‘networked business’.
I intend to continue that broad line of inquiry as a Lead Analyst at Gigaom Research. The opportunity to work across technologies and management concepts ─ and the ability to simultaneously address and interrelate both ─ is precisely what makes working with Gigaom Research so attractive to me. The firm is fairly unique in that aspect, in comparison to traditional analyst organizations that pigeonhole employees into discrete technology or business strategy buckets. I hope that our customers will recognize that and benefit from the holistic viewpoint that our analysts provide.
With the above in mind, I present my research agenda for the coming months (and, probably, years). I’m starting at the highest conceptual level and working toward more specific elements in this list.

Evolution of Work

Some analysts at Gigaom Research are calling this ‘work futures’. I like that term, but prefer the ‘evolution of work’, as that allows me to bring the past and, most importantly, the current state of work into the discussion. There is much to be learned from history and we need to address what is happening now, not just what may be coming down the road. Anyway, this research stream encompasses much of what I and Gigaom Research are focused on in our examination of how emerging technologies may change how we define, plan and do business.

Networked Business

This is a topic on which I’ve been writing and speaking since 2012. I’ve defined ‘networked business’ as a state in which an interconnected system of organizations and their value-producing assets are working toward one or more common objectives. Networked business is inherently driven by connection, communication and collaboration, hence my interest in the topic.
While the concept of networked business is not new, it has been gaining currency in the past few years as a different way of looking at how we structure organizations and conduct their activities. As I noted in the first paragraph of this post, there are many technologies and business philosophies and practices that support networked business, and I will do my best to include as many as possible in my research and discussions.

Networks of Everything

This research stream combines two memes that are currently emerging and garnering attention: the Internet of Things and the rise of robots and other intelligent technologies in the workplace. In my vision, networks of everything are where humans, bots, virtual assistants, sensors and other ‘things’ connect, communicate and collaborate to get work done. The Internet, Web, cellular and other types of networks may be used in isolation or, more likely, in combination to create networks of everything.
I’ve had a book chapter published on this topic earlier this year, and I’m looking forward to thinking and writing more about it in the near future.

Microservices

How do we build applications that can support business in a heavily networked environment? While the idea of assembling multiple technology components into a composite application are not new (object-oriented programing and Service Oriented Architecture have been with us for decades), the idea continues to gain acceptance and become more granular in practice.
I intend to chronicle this movement toward microservices and discuss how the atomization of component technology is likely to play out next. As always, my focus will be on collaboration, content management and business process management.

Adaptive Case Management and Digital Experience Management

These two specific, complementary technologies have also been gathering more attention and support over the last two years and are just beginning to hit their stride now. I see the combination of these technologies as an ideal enabler of networked business and early exemplars of component architecture at the application level, not the microservice one (yet).
I’ve written about ACM more, but am eager to expand on the early ideas I’ve had about it working together with DEM to support networked business.

Work Chat

Simply put, I would be remiss to not investigate and write about the role of real-time messaging technology in business. I’ve already called work chat a fad that will go away in time, but it needs to be addressed in depth for Gigaom Research customers, because there are valid use cases and it will enjoy limited success. I will look at the viability of work chat as an extensible computing platform, not just as a stand-alone technology. Fitting with my interest in microservices, I will also consider the role that work chat can play as a service embedded in other applications.
Phew! I’m tired just thinking about this, much less actually executing against it. It’s a full plate, a loaded platter really. The scariest thing is that this list is likely incomplete and that there are other things that I will want to investigate and discuss. However, I think it represents my research and publishing interests pretty  well.
My question is, how does this align with your interests? Are there topics or technologies that you would like to see me include in this framework? If so, please let me know in a comment below. Like all research agendas, mine is subject to change over time, so your input is welcomed and valued.

The Return of Middle Managers

“That experiment broke. I just had to admit it.” — Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse Island, on his attempt to run the company without managers

There is currently a widely-held view among organizational design experts and pundits that managers, particularly middle managers, are a harmful artifact of hierarchically-structured, command-and-control organizations. Conventional wisdom holds that middle managers, and their responsibilities and stereotypical behaviors, are outdated and severely constrict the speed at which a business can operate. Flat, democratic organizations made up of loose, recombinant relationships have gained favor in the org design world today because they enable agility and efficiency.
There’s just one problem with that view – it’s not entirely accurate. It represent an ideal that may be right for some organizations, but very wrong for many others.
Carson and Treehouse Island’s failed experiment was one of the examples given in a recent Wall Street Journal article (behind paywall) titled “Radical Idea at the Office: Middle Managers”. The common thread between the companies mentioned in the article was that the elimination of bosses had the opposite effect of what had been envisioned. Productivity decreased because workers weren’t sure of their responsibilities and couldn’t forge consensus-based decisions needed to move forward. Innovation also waned, because new ideas went nowhere without a management-level individual to champion and fund them. Employee morale even took a hit, because no one took over the former middle management’s role of providing encouragement and motivation when they were needed.
Research of over 100 organizations conducted by an INSEAD professor led to this conclusion, cited in the WSJ piece:

“Employees want people of authority to reassure them, to give them direction. It’s human nature.”

Enabling Technologies that Don’t

Another problem experienced by many of the organizations mentioned in the WSJ article was that technologies meant to enable employees to work productively in a manager-less workplace failed to do so. Enterprise chat systems were specifically fingered as a culprit, for a variety of reasons.
At Treehouse Island, which had never used email, decision-making was severely compromised by employees opining on chat threads when they had no expertise on the given subject. This led to “endless discussions”. The chat technology drove conversations, but ideas rarely made it past discussion to a more formal plan. Work tasks informally noted and assigned without accountability in the chat application mostly got lost in the shuffle and weren’t completed. Treehouse Island eventually turned to other communications channels and even acknowledged that email has valid uses.

Worker Education and Training, Not Managers, Are the Problem

While I agree with the assessment that human nature is a barrier to effective manager-less workplaces, I also think that our base impulses can be minimized or completely overcome by alternative, learned attitudes and behaviors. Society and institutions in the United States have programmed multiple generations to submit to authority, seeking and accepting its orders and guidance. Our educational system has largely been designed to to produce ‘loyal and reliable’ workers who can thrive in a narrowly-defined role under the direction of a superior. Putting individuals who have been educated this way into situations where they must think for themselves and work with others to get things done is like throwing a fish out of water.
As for enterprise chat technology, it has seen documented success when deployed and used to help small teams coordinate their work. However, most of those teams working in chat channels either have a single, designated manager with the authority to make things happen, or they are able call upon a small number of individuals who can and will assume unofficial, situational leadership roles when needed. Absent people to act with authority, chat-enabled groups become mired in inaction, as document in the WSJ article. As I put it in my recent Gigaom Research post on enterprise real-time messaging,

The real reason that employees and their organizations continue to communicate poorly is human behavior. People generally don’t communicate unless they have something to gain by doing so. Power, influence, prestige, monetary value, etc. Well-designed technology can make it easier and more pleasant for people to communicate, but it does very little to influence, much less actually change, their behaviors.”

We will see more experiments with Holocracy and other forms of organization that eliminate layers of management and depend on individuals to be responsible for planning, coordinating and conducting their own work activities. Some will succeed; most will fail. We can (and should!) create and implement new technologies that, at least in theory, support the democratization of work. However, until systemic changes are made in the way people are educated and trained to function in society and at work, companies without managers will remain a vision, not a common reality.

Real-time Messaging in the Enterprise: Here We Go Again

There was a good Wired article, published yesterday, that bemoaned the rapidly-growing plethora of communication applications centered around real-time chat. Its author lists consumer-oriented applications to demonstrate the situation:

“I bounce through a folder full of messaging apps. I talk to a few people on Hangouts, a few others on Facebook Messenger, exactly one person on WhatsApp. I Snapchat all those people, too. I use Twitter DMs, GroupMe, HipChat, Skype, even Instagram Direct a couple of times. Livetext, Yahoo’s new app, is fun; I’ve been using that. Oh, and there’s email. And iMessage. And, of course, good ol’ green-bubble text messaging.”

The same problem is beginning to develop within businesses as their employees self-adopt enterprise-first chat tools from startup vendors that have been in-market for a while, including Slack, Hipchat, Wrike, Flowdock and others. Oh, and let’s not forget that many employees use the consumer-grade applications mentioned in the Wired article to conduct business, even if it’s against company policy.
Of course, all of these newer chat tools compete with IT-approved enterprise real-time messaging offerings for employees’ attention and love. IBM Sametime, Microsoft’s Lync and Yammer, and Salesforce Chatter are just a few well-known examples of longer-lived, enterprise-grade messaging applications and services that support real-time exchanges. To further compound the clutter, we are also seeing new chat offerings, from established enterprise collaboration software vendors, that mimic their consumer-oriented cousins. Jive Chime and Microsoft Send are real-time chat apps that have been released in the last four months to support organizations’ increasingly mobile workforces.
There are a few problems created by this overwhelming collection of enterprise real-time messaging options. First, these applications are largely siloed from each other, so employees have to remember in which one a certain conversation occurred or know in which application they have the highest probability of gaining a specific coworker’s attention. Second, some can interoperate with other enterprise applications via RESTful APIs, while others require more costly, time-consuming integration efforts. Third, some messaging applications support information governance initiatives such as records retention and disposal whereas other offerings essentially assume that chats are throw-away conversations that do not need to be archived and managed.
There are so many other issues that they will be better dealt with in another post. But they are bound by one clear fact: we’ve made all of these mistakes with previous generations of enterprise messaging technology.

The BIG Problem: Why?

The biggest problem facing the newest wave of enterprise chat tools is an existential one. It is not clear why they are needed when existing real-time messaging tools satisfy the same use cases. I voiced this in the following mini-tweetstorm on the day that Microsoft Send was announced. (read from the bottom of the graphic to the top)
Larry's Enterprise Chat Tweetstorm
That’s right. You can hold my feet to the fire on that prediction. Enterprise real-time chat is destined to quickly fail as a market segment and technology with significant, positive business impact. Just like the combination of status update and activity stream features in enterprise social software failed to displace email, instant messaging and other, well-established forms of business communication.
Insufficient technology is not the cause of poor communication within organizations. We have had at our disposal more-than-adequate messaging technologies for decades now. The real reason that employees and their organizations continue to communicate poorly is human behavior. People generally don’t communicate unless they have something to gain by doing so. Power, influence, prestige, monetary value, etc.
Well-designed technology can make it easier and more pleasant for people to communicate, but it does very little to influence, much less actually change, their behaviors. So the latest enterprise real-time chat applications may offer improvements in user experience, but they won’t measurably increase communication frequency or effectiveness in most organizations unless their deployment is accompanied by change management efforts that include meaningful incentives to communicate.
I intend to track and chronicle the rise and fall of enterprise real-time chat as part of my research agenda at Gigaom Research. Stay tuned over the coming months as we watch this drama unfold.
 
 

Open Garden’s hard sell: A world of shared radios

On the evening of Sept 28, Open Garden co-founder and CEO Micha Benoliel was on Skype call in a hotel room in Hong Kong complaining to his CMO Christophe Daligault that their new app FireChat wasn’t getting any traction in Hong Kong.

Benoliel wasn’t there on business or vacation. He was on his way back home to San Francisco from a conference in India, and he was forced into an overnight layover in Hong Kong. Shortly after he hung up with Daligault though, he saw something that made him change his plans.

Downloads of FireChat started skyrocketing in Hong Kong before his eyes, jumping from a few hundred to 100,000 Android and iOS installs in a single evening. What happened? Occupy Central protesters, fearing a government shutdown of cellular networks or blockage of social media apps, began turning to FireChat as a means of bypassing the internet.

A protestor texts on his phone during a demonstration outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on September 28, 2014.   (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

A protestor texts on his phone during a demonstration outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on September 28, 2014. (Photo by Xaume Olleros/AFP Photo/Getty Images)

One of the key features of the messaging app is its ability to create direct peer-to-peer links between nearby phones using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Protesters could use FireChat to communicate and coordinate even if mobile networks got congested or went down completely, and the next few days were a whirlwind for Open Garden.

FireChat had already become an underground success in tech circles, but overnight it gained international prominence. Benoliel was all over cable TV news and the media heralded FireChat as the newest tool for dissident movements facing repressive government regimes.

The odd thing is that [company]Open Garden[/company] never thought it would find itself in this kind of situation. When the startup launched at TechCrunch Disrupt 2012 it never intended to become a tool of political revolution. It was just looking for a way to get people to share their internet access.

Why the mesh matters

Open Garden is still in the early stages of its startup life. It’s raised a $2 million seed round, and it’s still a small operation in the most unlikely places among the Bay Area’s numerous tech corridors. Surrounded by boarded-up naval barracks, Open Garden occupies a warehouse on Treasure Island behind a chain link fence with a sign that says “Hardhat Required.”

Open Garden founders Hazel, Benoliel and Shalunov

Open Garden founders Hazel, Benoliel and Shalunov

Benoliel comes from a telecom background, having worked with Skype to launch Skype In and Skype Out as a means to connect to traditional telephone networks while Stanislav Shalunov and Greg Hazel came over form BitTorrent. While working at academic network consortium Internet2, Shalunov created LEDBAT, an algorithm used heavily today to manage congestion on the internet. Hazel led development of the popular BitTorrent file-sharing client µTorrent.

Open Garden started as a conversation in a San Francisco Thai restaurant between Benoliel and Shalunov about the proliferation of smartphones and what it would mean for the future of networking if everyone toted about a connected computing device in their pockets and purses.

[pullquote person=”Stanislav Shalunov” attribution=”Stanislav Shalunov, CTO, Open Garden” id=”899764″]“We took the principle of the internet and applied it to the edge of the network.”[/pullquote]

Smartphones have always been considered endpoints of the internet, where traffic began and terminated, but they haven’t been thought of as way stations within the network itself. Shalunov and Benoliel wanted to change that by making smartphones and other mobile devices nodes within the network capable of connecting to each other and passing along traffic. Open Garden was born shortly afterwards in 2011.

Open Garden’s first eponymous app basically allows nearby devices to connect directly through Wi-Fi forming vast mesh networks where they can crowdsource their internet connections. Typically our devices rely on a single link provided by your mobile carrier or ISP to ferry your traffic back and forth to the internet. But Open Garden proposed to overturn that notion and build an access network of myriad links, where devices could coordinate and optimize the flow of their collective traffic over the most efficient – and often the cheapest – connection available.

“We took the principle of the internet and applied it to the edge of the network,” Shalunov, who is the company’s CTO, told me in a recent interview at Open Garden’s Treasure Island offices. You can think of the links Open Garden forms like the peering agreements that ISPs negotiate to connect their networks together – just at a very accelerated and very individual level. “It takes months for ISPs to negotiate these [agreements],” Shalunov said. “Individuals can negotiate these things in seconds.”

Basically Open Garden was pushing the idea of a broadband commons, in which everyone cooperated by sharing their bandwidth, and everyone stood to benefit. Instead of buying a mobile data plan for your tablet, you can hook into the local Open Garden network and use your neighbor’s smartphone connection. In turn, that smartphone could connect to a neighboring laptop and ride its faster, cheaper wired internet connection.

There was only one problem. The Open Garden app was mainly gaining traction among a tech-savvy set.

“It’s too abstract a concept for many people,” Benoliel said.

Making the mesh social

Open Garden originally developed FireChat as a proof-of-concept, not intending it would become its primary application.

Micha Benoliel Open Garden Sascha Meinrath New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute Steven van Wel Karma Mobilize 2013

Micha Benoliel (second from right) speaking at Gigaom’s Mobilize conference in 2013

“We saw the limits of the Open Garden app,” Benoliel said. “We launched FireChat to demonstrate the power of our technology.” If people were presented with a concrete use case that showed the advantages of linking our devices into a constantly morphing mesh network, then maybe convincing them that other applications like bandwidth sharing weren’t such a strange idea, Benoliel said. The obvious application to start with was social networking.

In its global mode, FireChat looks like dozens of other chat apps, allowing people around the world to communicate in rooms over an internet connection. But FireChat could communicate directly through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections like Open Garden’s bandwidth sharing app, and it immediately stood out from other messaging apps. By letting its users connect their devices directly, they could not only communicate off the grid but they created a new social context for that communication.

FireChat created hyperlocal networks where everyone in the same vicinity basically wound up in the same chatroom. There are other apps that follow similar hyperlocal principles ranging from Foursquare’s Swarm to Yik Yak, but none of them bring quite the same sense of communal chaos as FireChat. FireChat isn’t a virtual bulletin board or a way to coordinate with friends. It basically brings together a bunch of strangers that happen to be within Bluetooth or Wi-Fi range of one another to anonymously share their random thoughts.

“When it first launched people immediately grasped the concept,” Benoliel said. There weren’t any abstract ideas like shared bandwidth to explain, he added: “it was a new way for people to message each other without the internet.”

Of course, to make FireChat work on the hyperlocal level, you need multiple people in the same location so those ad hoc networks can form, and even if they do connect there’s no guarantee random strangers will find anything in common to talk about. So Open Garden started looking toward big events like rock festivals where it could get large group of FireChat users together as part of communal experience.

An example of how FireChat's ad hoc networking connects attendees at Burning Man (Photo credit Steve Jurvetson. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Modified by Open Garden.)

An example of how FireChat’s ad hoc networking connects attendees at Burning Man

In September at Burning Man, 5,000 burners came together to use FireChat as a communications and logistics tool that could overcome the spotty cellular coverage in the Nevada desert. And last month bands at India’s largest music festival NH7 began using FireChat as a means to communicate directly with the fans surrounding them at the event.

But it was among protest movements that FireChat really came into its own.

Occupy Central and Firechat

Just a few weeks after its launch on iOS, FireChat shot to the top the iTunes messaging app charts in Taiwan surpassing even messaging local leader Line in the rankings. The app was embraced by Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, which was protesting new trade agreements with China.

But in September the world definitely noticed FireChat after the Occupy Central movement made it a core organizational tool. Benoliel, who spent 10 days in Hong Kong observing the protests, said he believes FireChat’s phenomenal growth among the protesters was due to several reasons. First, Hong Kong not only has one of the highest density’s of smartphones in the world, it also has one of the highest population density’s in the world, making it much easier for FireChat’s hyperlocal networks to form.

[pullquote person=”Christophe Daligault” attribution=”Christophe Daligault, CMO, Open Garden” id=”899765″]“I slept 12 hours that week, and I got more sleep than our developers.”[/pullquote]

While the Chinese government never shut down cellular networks during the protests, there was plenty of fear that it would. And in places like Central and the Admiralty, there was such a density of protesters that cellular networks become too congested to be used reliably, Benoliel said. Finally, protesters latched onto FireChat’s anonymity.

Users registered under pseudonyms and fake email addresses, and by using local mesh networking they were basically able to keep their communications below the internet’s radar. There was no way to centrally track a user or censor the app or any messages. Not even Open Garden could see these hyperlocal conversations because those communications never hit its servers. The messages would proliferate directly from phone to phone and then just disappear.

FireChat, however, isn’t a secure communications tool. It’s designed to show all messages to anyone who happens to be in range to see them, which makes it great for open social networking. But it also means that it’s just as easy for a government agent as it is for a protest organizer to see or participate in a conversation as long they’re part of the same ad hoc network.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AT1j8V-P1PQ]

During the weeks of the Hong Kong protests, Open Garden’s developers started adding new features like verified IDs, which allowed trusted voices like journalists to sacrifice their anonymity to deliver more reliable information. The startup’s devs also began tackling the more difficult task of building encrypted direct messaging channels in the app, which can still be used over local peer-to-peer connections.

“I slept 12 hours that week, and I got more sleep than our developers,” CMO Daligault said. Open Garden wasn’t just experimenting with social networking anymore. It was actively trying to optimize its app so it could be used as a protest and political organization tool.

Coming full circle

Open Garden is in a rather odd place. It was founded as a startup trying to change the way we think of internet access, but today it finds itself a social messaging company.

Benoliel readily admits the focus of Open Garden is now squarely on FireChat. The company is trying to find more contexts for which its app will be useful behind protests and public festivals, so it can grow its user base (Open Garden isn’t releasing any specific numbers on FireChat subscribers though it said it has now seen 8 million downloads of all of its apps).

Open Garden will put its bandwidth sharing apps on the backburner, but it’s not abandoning them. In fact, the bandwidth-sharing app and FireChat have a lot more in common than you might think.

Ultimately Open Garden is company trying change the architecture of the internet by turning the billions of devices that connect to its fringes more than just endpoints, CTO Shalunov said. Bandwidth sharing and off-grid messaging are just two examples of applications that can make good use of that architecture. Open Garden’s mistake, Shalunov said, is that it started with the wrong application.

Open Garden, mesh network

Open Garden plans to build more apps on its mesh technology, and in fact, its business model depends on it. It makes no revenues from any of its apps today, but in the future it plans to sell access to its APIs to developers. It’s already laid the groundwork for this with a small company called TrackR, which builds Bluetooth tags that let you keep tabs on your valuables. TrackR is using Open Garden’s growing FireChat network to scan for lost items, effectively putting millions of smartphones to work monitoring its tags in the internet of things.

Eventually Open Garden wants to license its technologies to mobile carriers and ISPs. That idea might sound a little far-fetched since it would require competing operators to share their bandwidth with one another. That’s a hard concept for an operator to wrap its mind around, said Don Hutchison, former GM of cable broadband company [email protected] and one of Open Garden’s seed investors, but Hutchison said Open Garden convinced him that ISPs and carriers will eventually start looking at such shared networking models. It’s just a more efficient way to use a finite broadband resource and deliver connectivity to the masses, Hutchison said.

“If it’s going to happen at all, it’s going to be a third party like Open Garden that will engender it,” he said.

Open Garden has a lot of potential, but there is no proverbial low-hanging fruit for this company. If it wants to sell access to its network, it needs to build that network to a grand scale. You can’t sell hyperconnectivity and hyperlocation if there aren’t enough users to actually form a network at any given place.

And the carriers, well, they’re carriers. Their networks are their most valuable assets. Sharing them just isn’t in their DNA. Even Hutchison admits it will be tough to convince them Open Garden’s technology is in their best interests.

But apart from the operators, Open Garden also will have to convince consumers to share their devices’ radios and internet connections. We’ve come to think of our home and mobile connections as our own private driveways onto the internet, but for Open Garden’s model to work we’ll have to think of our devices as part of larger network. Our neighbors will have just as much right to access our radios — if not our actual data plans — as we will. That’s going to be a hard sell.

But Shalunov thinks that’s a cultural hurdle society will eventually overcome once the benefits of forming these grand meshes are fully explained. People who use FireChat, for the most part, understand that their devices are all creating a communal communications network and that they’re better able to chat because of it. It’s not that much further of a leap to get people to accept the idea of sharing their actual internet connections, Shalunov said.

“Technical limitations form our cultural expectations,” Shalunov said. “Once you remove those technical limitations then cultural expectations change.”

Firefox’s built-in Skype rival begins to evolve

Firefox Hello, the WebRTC-based video-calling feature that Mozilla and partner Telefónica revealed as a beta feature in October, hit the mainstream — sort of — with the full release of Firefox 34 earlier this week.

It’s still very much under development though, being currently tucked away under the “customize” section in the browser’s settings menu. And, as of Thursday, those who download the beta of Firefox 35 can test out a few improvements.

The big changes are in the account-less call mode, which is moving towards a [company]Google[/company] Hangouts-style room model. When you initiate a call – something that’s done by sending a link to the person you want to talk to – Firefox Hello will now show you your own camera feed before your partner joins the call. The call begins as soon as the person you’ve called joins the conversation, whereas before they would have had to initiate a callback which you would have had to answer.

Users will also now be able to create and name multiple conversations for people they regularly want to talk to, again without needing to create an account or sign in. Not only is this URL-based approach anonymous (theoretically at least), but it also makes it easy to set up chats with users of other WebRTC-toting browsers, such as Chrome and Opera.

Those who do set up Firefox Hello accounts can of course make more traditional direct calls, which don’t involve passing on URLs as a setup mechanism.

Mozilla and Telefónica are very much looking for feedback on all this, so if you try it out, be sure to give them your opinion on the changes they’re making.

Small talk is big again: Talko launches, Zeetl acquired by Hootsuite

Looks like voice communication is coming back. Well, not in a huge surge, but there’s some recent splashes that suggest voice still has a role to play.

Ray Ozzie, the brainiac behind Lotus Notes and Groove, and the former Chief Scientist of Microsoft, has launched his new startup, Talko. And it’s centered on voice communications. His premise is that we are not taking advantage of the possibilities for voice, despite the fact that we are walking around all day with a smartphone that allows us to express ourselves much more succinctly and easier that texting or emailing.

Talko is not just a phone app: it allows for asynchronous voice communications — audio chat, if you will — as well as synchronous. All the audio is recorded, and tags can be dropped on the stream to indicate that an important comment was made or a decision was reach, so it can be randomly accessed later on. Photos can also be dropped into the stream, as well.

2014-09-25 10.43.23

The value proposition for the tool is small group communications, especially for mobile groups, I think. Although I would like to see a Siri-like transcription, as well.

We’ll have to see where this goes, but I have to admit it seems like a feature not a business. If I am in a team that has been using Slack or Hipchat, I’m not sure I would switch to Talko for voice. But I might ask the makers of my favorite tool to include audio messages, too.

Interesting that Talko is currently available on iOS only, and not Windows. But then, Ray is a smart guy.

One area where voice is still incredibly relevant is customer care. That may explain why Hootsuite acquired Zeetl, a social telephony platform for customer support. This acquisition was announced as part of a funding round, in which Hootsuite raised $60 million, following $165 series B last August. Hootsuite reports that it has 10 million customers, up from last August’s 7 million.

The idea is to integrate Zeetl into the Hootsuite experience, so that a customer complaining on Twitter could be sent a link to a Zeetl voice account, and the interaction could go off line and be resolved.

Looks like voice is going to be sticking around for a while, at least.

There’s a quiet revolution pulling some numbers down

Steven Rosenbush and Clint Boulton of the Wall Street Journal did some interesting analysis of the social business — or work technologies — market recently, and determined that various analysis firms have been dropping their estimates of the size and growth of that market, quite considerably.

For example, they report that IDC said in 2012 that the market would have a five-year compound growth rate of 42%, hitting $4.5 billion by 2016. But the firm has cut that back, now saying the growth rate is only 23%, and will hit $2.3 billion in 2018.

They quote Vanessa Thompson, an IDC research manager,

One reason for the change, according to Ms. Thompson, is that social and collaborative elements will be embedded in all manner of applications and tools, reducing the reliance on standalone software. “But that will take a very long time,” she said.

I think that Thompson and the authors are half right. The sales and adoption of the now-mainstream social collaborative applications — Yammer, Jive, IBM Connections, Chatter — has slowed.

That slowing is in part because the productivity claims of that class of software have not been met. However, the reasons are complicated.

First of all, these tools are the reflection of an idealized company: the company intended to use such a tool. And I believe that this idealized company is a poor match with today’s business (and perhaps it never existed at all).

One way to think about the gap between this idealized company and today’s reality is this chart, which I borrowed from a recent presentation by Mary Meeker.

contextual conversation chart 1

She’s making the point that we are witnessing a transition on the consumer web from apps like Facebook and Twitter, toward chat-based apps like HipChat and Snapchat. In the chart above you can see that this is a movement away from communications in a ‘scene’ — a large number of contacts that communicate infrequently — toward communications in ‘sets’ — a small number of contacts that communicate frequently.

I think the same shift is happening in the enterprise, a theme that I explored recently in a research note, Contextual conversation: Work chat will dominate collaboration. There’s enormous interest is solutions like Slack, Flowdock, and Hall. Slack just raised $43 million in April (see Work conversation tool Slack raises $43M), and founder Stewart Butterfield was profiled in a great write-up by Mat Honan (see The Most Fascinating Profile You’ll Ever Read About a Guy and His Boring Startup). Slack now has 120,000 daily users, and 200 organizations using it, including Expedia, Intuit, Dow Jones, eBay, Paypal, Mint, Citrix, Heroku, Happy Cog, Wall Street Journal, Motley Fool, The Times of London, Crossfit, MyFitnessPal, DailyBurn, Fitocracy, Rdio, Pandora, Nordstroms, Polyvore, Vinted, Urban Outfitters, Blue Bottle Coffee, GoDaddy, Urban Airship, Sony, Dell, AOL, ITV, NBCUniversal, Lonely Planet, TV4, Galen Healthcare, Shutterstock, SmugMug, Stripe, Venmo, Braintree, Airbnb, Adobe, Typekit, Behance, Foursquare, Yelp, WordPress, Moz, SurveyMonkey, Tumblr, Trunk Club, Seagate, Tibco, Trello, and HBO. Some serious names.

These tools are very different from the traditional social business platforms. They are based on a very different idealization of who would use them and how. It’s not a large company, not a scene of hundreds or thousands of users communicating, but small teams of intensely networked individuals.

Yes, of course people can work on many small teams, and teams of teams connect, too. But the big difference is that this generation of chat tools is focused on the small scale interactions of teams, and they aren’t trying to solve the bigger, top-down organizational problems that traditional tools seem focused on.

So, back to the projections: I think the analysis firms aren’t including the potential growth of firms like Slack. Note that none of the companies mentioned by Rosenbush and Boulton fall into that group: they are all more traditional social tools.

So it’s not that the enterprise won’t be spending money on work technologies: they will. But it’s going to be a different spread of tools, and ones that are based on a different conception of how to get work done. Namely, in small, intensely networked teams.

And of course, that can be going on quietly, possibly unobserved, even in companies where a corporate deployment of Jive or SAP Jam is in place.

Work conversation tool Slack raises $43M

Another indication that we are on the cusp of a revolution in work technologies: Slack, the work conversation app from Tiny Speck, has raised a round of investment of $43 million at a $250 million valuation. The investors include The Social + Capital Partnership, Accel Partners and Andreessen Horowitz, and a few angels, like Gigaom’s founder Om Malik, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, Squarespace’s Anthony Caselena, and Stripe’s John and Patrick Collison.
[Disclosure: Om Malik is the founder of Gigaom, and is a partner at True Ventures, which is an investor backing Gigaom.]
Slack only went live in February (see It’s getting even more real time: Slack and Skwiggle), and is the brainchild of Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder of Flickr. As I said at the time,

Slack is the conversational tool from Tiny Speck, founded by Stewart Butterfield of Flickr fame. He signed up 8,000 companies in the first 24 hours after the launch in August, and it is intended to be more than just a chat utility. It also serves as a file manager — based on its search, it’s much better than storing anything on your hard drive –and as a Yammerish work media tool. But his aspirations are greater: he wants Slack to be the social layer for a company’s information flow on tools like Dropbox, Zendesk, Heroku, and Helpscout, where the messages from those apps would surface in appropriate chats on Slack.

Slack is best compared to Atlassian’s Hipchat: they both have persistent chat histories, file sharing built in, and are strongly oriented toward the mobile experience. Accel is an investor in Atlassian, so they are really betting on work conversation tools.
My sense is that we are seeing the first signs of the next generation of work technology: context-framed conversational tools that break away from the mainstream, tired static ‘collaboration’ architecture based on top-down information sharing and archival, and instead support flexible and connection-oriented cooperative work based on bottom-up search.
We should see this sector heat up: Dropbox had been sniffing around Slack, but acquired competitor Zulip (see Dropbox acquires Zulip, readies two-headed client). We should see an closely integrated solution emerge there in short order. As I wrote that the time:

I am betting that they will build a Stream-like integration of that topic-based chat service right into Dropbox. (If you check out the Zulip features, you’ll see they have almost everything in hand.)

And they are keeping their cards very close to the vest, basically keeping what’s planned under the radar.