Theories about Google’s acquisition of Jaiku

Jaiku LogoI think it’s pretty interesting news that Google ended up buying Jaiku. Can’t say I saw it coming, and it’s unexpected enough to make things interesting for a bunch of us for whom such actions cause reverberations in our work and also give rise to fair speculation about why they did it and what it means.

So earlier I just so happened to be talking with Someone Who Shall Remain Unnamed and he put my mind into circles about this thing. He pointed me to some of dotBen’s ideas about the acquisition. While I’m not really sure about his geographic assessment (given that my old roommate and coworker Andy Smith is coming back to San Francisco, which kind of blows the London-relocation theory), I do share his (and others’) concern that this acquisition could spell the demise of Jaiku in priority of other more average-Joe services:

Did Google buy Jaiku for it’s engineering talent rather than for the product? I’m betting the engineering team is going to be siphoned off into the GPhone project.

At the same time, I think that Google’s play will likely continue to be software rather than hardware. Here’s why:

  • Google makes a lot of software, most of it hosted on the web.
  • Google doesn’t make any consumer hardware.
  • Google wouldn’t mind being in the wireless business, but probably not the handset business.
  • And, Apple already has a bunch of deals with the existing phone carriers.
  • Apple makes good consumer hardware.

Yes, those last two are about Apple. Because the deal between Google and Apple is sweetening every day. And Apple doesn’t really buy companies, Google does. So that’s why Google bought Jaiku today and not Apple.

But I digress. Let’s throw some more theories and extrapolations out there.

Ok, first and foremost, the browser. In one of my many unpublished drafts, I talk about how Steve was right about building Web 2.0 apps for the iPhone and why he’s even kind of right trying to prevent people from building so-called “native apps”. Sadly folks don’t really think about the web as a “native” environment yet. It’s got crappy access to hardware and some pretty weak tools for building rich interfaces so they stick with what they know rather than embracing the rough-and-tumble world of designing and coding for web browsers. What’s there to love, really?

Still, Apple (and moreso Google) already think of the web as their native turf. And where the battle for the future will be waged (which incidentally puts Microsoft at a huge disadvantage, since it’s been fighting against the web all along). And the browser is key to this equation, which is why Apple has a world-class (and getting better daily) open source browser that’s had an awful lot of attention paid to its compatibility with Google Apps lately. It’s also mobile ready, as demonstrated by how insanely well Safari works on the iPhone compared to any other mobile browser. I guess to some extent, one can forgive any misgivings Google now has about betting on Firefox, the little engine that could have and should have and then, well, didn’t, at least when it came to having a mobile strategy. But I digress. Again.

Take a look at the iPhone’s Maps feature. Yes, it’s driven by Google, but I didn’t have to tell you that. What’s missing? Well, besides GPS for yourself, it’s missing GPS for your friends and family. Yeah, that sounds a little creepy to me too, but don’t kid yourself, it’s coming. Us early adopters have been geoplotting each other for years now, on sites like Plazes, Jaiku and — oh yeah — before them, on another Google acquisition: Dodgeball. I mean, Google’s full of tenacity. It’s nutty to think that regular people will ever adopt the that we currently check in to these services with. After all, that’s what computers are for.

What Google keeps getting closer to with first its acquisition of Dodgeball a year ago and now Jaiku is the socialization of presence. That’s what it’s all about. That’s how they’ll increase the relevance of their ads in situ. That’s how they’ll improve the quality of their services (like Google Maps). Tim O’Reilly has for some time called for the development of the Web 2.0 Address Book. I think belying that assertion is the fact that more people need to get in the habit and mindset of maintaining their online selves — thereby making their status — or presence — more widely known and available.

The Web 2.0 Address Book isn’t really about how you connect to someone. It’s not really about having their home, work and secret lair addresses. It’s not about having access to their 15 different cell phone numbers that change depending on whether they’re home, at work, in the car, on a plane, in front of their computer and so on. It’s not about knowing the secret handshake and token-based smoke-signal that gains you direct access to send someone a guaranteed email that will bypass their moats of antispam protection. In the real world (outside of Silicon Valley), people want to type in the name of the recipient and hit send and have it reach the destination, in whatever means necessary, and in as appropriate a manner as possible. For this to happen, recipients need to provide a whole lot more information about themselves and their contexts to the system in order for this whole song and dance to work.

If you think far enough into the future, and realize that the iPhone is essentially the Sputnik of next generation of computing and telephony, you’ll realize how important the development of presence technology will be in light of the 2.0 Address Book. Sure, the VoIP folks have known about this stuff forever, and CISCO even has a few decent products built on it, but I’m not talking about IP-routed phone calls. I’m talking about IP-routed people. Believe it or not, this is where things have to go in order for Google and Apple to continue their relentless drive towards ease-of-use and clarity of design.

In the future, you will buy a cellphone-like device. It will have a connection to the internet, no matter what. And it’ll probably be powered over the air. The device will be tradeable with your friends and will retain no solid-state memory. You literally could pick up a device on a park bench, login with your OpenID (IP-routed people, right?) from any number of service providers (though the best ones will be provided by the credit card companies). Your user data will live in the cloud and be delivered in bursts via myriad APIs strung together and then authorized with OAuth to accomplish specific tasks as they manifest. If you want to make a phone call, you call up the function on the touch screen and it’s all web-based, and looks and behaves natively. Your address book lives in Google-land on some server, and not in the phone. You start typing someone’s name and not only does it pull the latest photos of the first five to ten people it matches, but it does so in a distributed fashion, plucking the data from across the web, grabbing both the most up-to-date contact information, the person’s availability and their presence. It’s basically an IM-style buddy list for presence, and the data never grows old and never goes stale. Instead of just seeing someone’s inert photo when you bring up their record in your address book, you see all manner of social and presence data. Hell, you might even get a picture of their current location. This is the lowercase semantic web in action where the people who still hold on to will become increasingly marginalized through obfuscation and increasingly invisible to the network. I don’t have an answer for this or a moral judgement on it; it’s going to happen one way or another.

In any case, Apple will make these ultra-slim, literally stupid devices that don’t do anything but sport a web browser, a scratch-resistant surface and some RAM (and show off ads really crisply). And these devices that are popular today with 40, 60, 80GB will become our generation’s Edsel, when the future music device will be able to access all music from all time on demand, in crystal clear streaming vinyl-quality. Oh, and we’ll have solved Network Latency by turning every single device with any kind of antenna into a network repeater. Scratch that, we’ll turn every human into a repeater. And yeah, we’d have figured out the collision problems that might come with such a network as well.

Ok, all nice and fine. It’s coming and it’s not even that far off so I shouldn’t congratulate myself about being too prescient or anything.

But I do think that there’s a framing here that’s being missed in gawking over the acquisition of Jaiku.

In the scheme of things, it really doesn’t have anything to do with Twitter, other than that Twitter is a dumb network that happens to transport simple messages really well in a format like Jaiku’s while Jaiku is a mobile service that happens to send dumb messages around to demonstrate what social presence on the phone could look like. These services are actually night and day different and it’s no wonder that Google bought Jaiku and not Twitter. And hey, it’s not a contest either, it’s just that Twitter didn’t have anything to offer Google in terms of development for their mobile strategy. Twitter is made up of web people and is therefore a content strategy; Jaiku folks do web stuff pretty well, but they also do client stuff pretty well. I mean, Andy used to work at Flock on a web browser. Jyri used to work at Nokia on devices. Jaiku practically invented the social presence browser for the phone (though, I might add, Facebook snatched up Parakey out of Google’s clenches, denying them of Joe Hewitt, who built the first web-based presence app with the Facebook iPhone app). If anything, the nearest approximation to Jaiku is Plazes, which actually does the location-cum-presense thing and has mobile development experience.

That’s enough for now. I’ll stew on the Google-Apple-iPhone-gPhone-Presence-Jaiku-Dodgeball-Address Book-Maps a little more. But this should give you some fodder to contemplate in the mean time.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

24 thoughts on “Theories about Google’s acquisition of Jaiku”

  1. not much to say other than, yup.

    i can also remember talk from Intel about the personal server. an ipod like device that was screenless, no buttons, no interfaces, but just communicated with all your devices and then acted as a bridge to the internet.

    very cool idea, perhaps ahead of it’s time, perhaps actually soon to be reality with iPhone gen 3 or 4. except with the screen and stuff.

    i also happen to agree with steve about web apps on the iphone. it does make sense for average users. no upgrades, you just visit the app as usual. no phone-killing bugs. etc etc..

    one thing that strikes me is that hardly any of the iphone reviews i read talk about how well the iphone works as a phone. is that because it-just-works and therefore doesn’t even need a mention, or because nobody is using it as a phone 🙂

    i’m hoping the jaiku team doesn’t just disappear, i like the app. but i’m not sure where it was heading, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens. it seemed to have got as far as it was going to.

    great post, cheers!

  2. Pingback: Preoccupations
  3. Your post makes it sound as if Dodgeball is still a going Google concern – but the founders left the googleplex, complaining in clear language about completely absent support for their idea within Google. So Dodgeball now has no idea people and probably few to no engineers.

  4. Re: the idea of transparent multichannel communication — I had a taste of how horribly wrong such ‘digital bloodhounds’ could be — I remember a product some years ago back in hometown New Zealand that did ‘telepresence’ — called Bloodhound actually — you would give it email addresses, fax numbers, phone numbers, and it would ‘be intelligent’ about contacting you.

    Except if you didn’t update your presence, you’d annoy an awful lot of people. The bloodhound was regularly behind, and one evening continued to ring this one guy’s parents place ever 5 minutes, all evening, trying to contact him with a voice mail message!

    Reality will always be slightly faster than the digital version. There’s a lot to be said in the ergonomics to, quoting a boss of a long time past — to make it easier to do right, than to do wrong, so that people don’t get in such a tangle.

  5. Quite good. The next to last paragraph is off a bit as Jaiku has a dumb network (akin to Twitter as a dumb network) sending dumb messages. But Jaiku has built insanely killer smart tools at the ends of the network. Jaiku has an insanely stable service that has scaled, they have the mobile app, which is a large reason why I bought a Nokia (as well as running real apps on my phone and not having to rely on flaky networks as I travel like the iPhone). Jaiku does some of the best management of management for people listening to lifestreams of other people they care about that is out there. These lifestreams can be delived to the phone (in addition to the dumb network messages mentioned). The web interface for Jaiku is one of the best around for similar tools.

    But, the killer bit on top of all the solid thinking before they built is the mobile application, which is one of the smartest pieces of digital glue I have run across. It can connect in ways no other services can in near range, if you want to be found. If I had an unlimited data plan in Europe I would have been living in Jaiku the past few weeks.

    You are right that Twitter and Jaiku are two different beasts. Everything I wish Twitter was, Jaiku is and more. Jaiku is stable, scales, has group directional messaging, and granular social interaction.

    My biggest fear is Google as they have tended to mangle privacy by ignorance and foolishness. I strongly believe giving up on privacy is for those who do not think we are smart enough to preserve privacy. When Google opened up Dodgeball access to gMail a person who threatened me personally was given access to my location. That was a dumb move on Google part and lack of good thinking about social interactions. I know Jryi understands privacy and respecting personal wishes in applications and I hope he can add those smarts to what Google is building.

  6. Just re-read this post now that I’ve got more relevant context. I wonder what Jryi is up to these days. I saw him at the Open Stack meeting the other night, hopefully he’s working on something cool and non-proprietary.

  7. Jyri is working on some interesting things — turns out he’s basically head of “Social” at Google, so he’s got his hands in plenty of interesting things.

    It’s funny rereading this post now, a little over a year later. I think I was right on the substance of the thing, but of course in the meantime, Google did get involved in hardware with the G1 (they were making appliance servers at the time) but I was right in that, AFAIC, the G1 kind of sucks (compared to the iPhone).

    Anyway, I still think that the socialization of presence is where it’s at — and clearly the current activity streams work factors directly into that!

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