With 40% of the online population now having always-on, broadband connections, new types of tools are needed for consumers to better manage the online information that flows through such connections. One such tool that is needed I will call an inter-personal information manager (iPim). Before delving into what this tool does, let me speak first to what the tool does NOT try to do; namely, re-create the wheel. Therefore, where an existing piece of the information management pie is “good enough,” the design goal of the iPim is to find a way to hook into it - whether that means through an RSS feed, via screen scraping or a full-blown web service.
This iPim has seven key functions: search, save, organize, share, publish, play and transact. As we all know, searching is a cornerstone of the online experience. Fortunately, search is pretty darn good from the standpoint of Googling for information, and Google provides APIs for programmatically accessing the Google-dom, although Google’s API efforts are half-hearted to date. (A note aside, if you haven’t downloaded the Google Toolbar 2.0, you are missing out on a high utility offering.) But, search can deliver more, as evidenced by the increased industry focus on extending search support to local business listings, products, and pricing and purchasing information. On the product search front, if you haven’t checked out Amazon’s new book text search function, do so soon. It definitely adds another dimension to search (related note: there is also a good Wired article on Amazon’s support for this functionality).
But there’s one fundamental flaw to search from an information management perspective, and here is an area where the iPim fills the gap. By design, search-related activities end up in the ‘get it and forget it’ bucket, meaning that found information, if it’s really useful, has to be re-searched a second and a third time. For the most part, this is no big deal since the cost of a new search is so low. Sometimes, however, you find stories, reviews, consumer opinions and online postings that inspire you or are relevant to an interest that you want to cultivate. Perhaps you encounter products that you are thinking of buying, come across information relevant to places you frequent and trust, or hear good things about products or places from others. How do you plug that type of information into your online workflow and make it persistent? Similarly, how do you represent the character and tenor of the personal and business relationships that you want to maintain and/or improve? Related to this one is the fact that from an operational perspective, there are some times when you are in a formal research mode (e.g., researching a trip - hotels to stay at, airfares, sites to see, places to eat), while others you simply discover a piece of information that you don’t want to forget or have to re-find again.
Simply put, saving online information is messy today - do you bookmark it, email it to yourself, do a “save as,” or a copy and paste? It’s all very ad hoc, suggesting that the vehicles for saving online information and importing shared content have to get better, and that a key driver of Microsoft’s success with Longhorn will be whether they get this piece of the puzzle figured out. One thing is for sure. If you use the iPim system regularly, it will grow to many hundreds of megabytes of information - no big deal if you are accessing this information locally on your PC, but a showstopper if you are saving it all remotely. To frame this one, my Microsoft Outlook PST file is more than 900 megabytes.
So how should you go about organizing your online information? A basic premise is to support as many different types of digital content as possible. What are the content types that stand out? Clearly, there’s lots of email and web content that we generate, view and/or receive from others on a daily basis. Also, most of us have hundreds of Office and Acrobat files. Then there are your libraries of pictures, MP3s, and digital video content. You can factor in postings (both yours and others), personal and business contacts, products, news feeds, classified ads and job listings into the information management mix as well. Ideally, the iPim can support traditional discussion-style threads, maintain associations between related content items (e.g., a product in your wish list and the article that inspired adding it), generate a map of the inter-relationships between people, their common interests and the specific content that inspires them (this is where social networking players like Friendster, Live Journal, LinkedIn and Tribe.net are heading). I am highly biased on this one, but the iPim must support near real-time filtering of information to quickly enable me to drill down to a specific subset of information (through text strings) that I am looking for. As someone once said to me, “How can Google search the entire Internet in under two seconds, but to find the stuff on my local hard drive takes five minutes and too often doesn’t return what I was looking for?” To me, this suggests that there are strong synergies between how many different content types the iPim supports and how unified the meta-information model is across types. Such is the core of the iPim; namely, facilitating new ways of organizing content and information.
How the system makes sharing online information simple, yet functional is dependent on whether the iPim is built around a peer-to-peer, web-based or email-based application model. Each approach has its advantages. Peer to peer can scale to support full workspaces and tightly aligned functionality (in the case of Groove). Web browser models are platform independent and ubiquitous. Email is also ubiquitous, bi-directional (supports send and receive), can support payloads, store and forward connectivity and is multi-modal (think: application based email, browser based email, email enabled mobile devices). The bottom line is that the iPim needs to make it single click easy to share information as an email, RSS feed, web page or native attachment, as this enables the same piece of information to be used in many different contexts.
One of these contexts is publishing. This can take the form of publishing information to a web site, syndicating it to an RSS newsreader, posting it to a blog or writing an online review. An open question is whether the best approach here is to handle such functionality in line (i.e., within the information manager), or out of band via an API to the content creator’s favorite publishing tool. Basic publishing support within the information manager seems like a requirement, as it allows private information to easily be converted into public data without changing environments.
The question of inline versus out of band presents a fork in the road of sorts; namely, how far does the information manager need to go as an execution environment for “playing” different types of digital content? Does it need to be an “uber-browser” that can play all sorts of content types? While that seems to be a recipe for being a jack of all trades, master of none, kudos to Apple for what they’ve done so far with the amalgam of iLife, .Mac and the iPod. My knee jerk on this front is that there’s a big difference between robustly dealing with the structure of information and needing to be the display environment for it. Thus, the information manager, must be able to recognize the structure and applicable contexts of all sorts of listing types (e.g., grab all of the for rent listings that fit my price/location parameters on craigslist), enable me to organize my local content store into lists, provide style sheets for different presentation templates and reports (e.g., show the different elements that led to a buying decision on a product) and generate maps that provide graphical views of the information being organized (Groxis is an early leader in the information mapping arena).
The circuit closes at the transaction. We all know that Amazon and eBay have come up with transaction models that work, are customer facing and logistically effective. Even better, both provide web services for interfacing with their functionality. Also, in case you haven’t been paying attention, Yahoo has rapidly been putting the end-to-end pieces together to pursue a greater piece of the online transactions pie - from pay per click ads to premium online services to Yahoo stores. And InterActiveCorp is singularly focused in this domain with Expedia, Hotels.com, LendingTree, Match.com, Ticketmaster and Citysearch.
Someone is going to come up with a set of online tools that addresses the iPim space. Me personally, I want one yesterday. And I haven’t even broached the topic of how all of this information ties in with both my mobile devices and the equipment in my smart, connected living room. I’ll save that one for another post.
Are there products in this area that you consider standout? Does search, save, organize, share, publish, play and transact adequately describe your online information management needs?