It dawned on me recently that, not only are we in a period of great change and transformation, but that those of us who have been working on the web to make it a more social and humane place have only barely begun the process of taking the “personality-ization” (not “personalization”) and connectedness that we take for granted on the web into the offline world.
All at once, my sense tell me that things coming to a head, and, as Om Malik pointed out, we are at the end of an era. It’s anyone’s guess how the next chapter of the social web will read, but a few experiences lately got me thinking.
A connected Apple experience
I first saw a glimmer of this when in Boston, shopping at the Apple store for a USB charger. Upon checkout, I was asked whether I wanted a print copy of my receipt or to have it emailed to me. Reluctant to explain the “+apple” in my email address, I hesitated for a moment but submitted: “by email.”
The Apple employee looked at his screen, read back my email address and said, “Is that correct?”
“Yeah…” I stammered, somewhat surprised. “It is.”
Of course all they did was correlate my credit card number to the email address I’d previously had my receipts sent to. When I was shopping in San Francisco. Here I was in Boston!
Apple had recorded my email, associated it with my credit card (perhaps more than one), and then shared it with all their stores, providing me with a specific kind of convenience that few other stores — at least that I know of — have attempted. (Aside: And don’t give me any buts about privacy and correlations and any of that bullshit. Privacy has a certain kind of value and importance, but I’ve heard so little vision out of privacy zealots that it’s time think about the other side of the coin.)
Now, that small example of convenience may not seem significant on the surface, but it does suggest that new connections — between the world of brick and mortar identity and the realm of digital identity — are emerging, creating new opportunities for creative commerce.
Comixology and Isotope
My favorite comic book store is located in Hayes Valley in San Francisco. It’s run by James Sime — someone who belongs in comics, much moreso than he belongs selling them. His shop is called Isotope and every month or so, as time allows, I stop in to pick up my “subscriptions” — known in the comic book universe as my “pull list”.
The pull list is a simple concept, essentially a list of comic books that I want to set aside on an individual or ongoing basis — that I’ll come and pick up later. Since new books arrive every Wednesday, it’s not terribly efficient for me to drop in just to pick up one or two issues, so the pull list is the best way to make sure I don’t miss an issue while stretching the time between visits.
The pull list is also a kind of personal relationship: I trust James to not only grab the titles that I’ve explicitly asked for, but to also suggest new books that I might not otherwise learn about. He also has to set aside inventory that might otherwise be made available to his walk-in patrons — even though I might ultimately decide, “Y’know, I think I’ll pass on this one”, so in that way, he’s trusting me to be a reliable patron.
Some time ago, James told me about a dashboard widget that he had discovered that let him see what comics were coming out soon. I checked it out — but then forgot about it — preferring the high touch relationship I had of visiting the store and browsing the shelves.
On a recent visit, James told me that he’d actually been in touch with the makers of the widget and that they were collaborating on “something big.” Having personally introduced James to both Twitter and Foursquare, I was intrigued… I mean, James has long had a blog, has presented at a BarCamp — as comic book retailers go, he’s about as 2.0 as you can get. And since he knows what a big web dork I am, his excitement told me that he was indeed on to something.
“They have an iPhone app,” he began, “called Comixology. It’s like the dashboard widget, but get this: I’ve been working with them on a pilot to hook up my store to their website.”
“Ok,” I said.
“So go to their website and create an account. Then search for my store. You’ll see a button that says ‘connect’. Hit that. From then on, whenever you add something to your digital pull list on the Comixology service, I’ll see it and add a copy to your stack.”
“Wow,” I thought, “this changes everything.”
Connected commerce, activity streams and the point
It isn’t that my Apple experience or the Comixology service is the answer to question “what is the future of retail?”, but they outline the contours of the nexus between the social web and the real world.
Given what I’ve been working on in a round-about way on the DiSo Project, it is so patently clear to me that where Apple connects a credit card number to an email address, I see an OpenID associated with a payment gateway and a transaction dropbox that happens to be hosted by Google (that is, my email); where James and Comixology see a contextualized relationship management and inventory tool, I see an iPhone application that lets me buy physical goods, connect to a real life merchant of my choosing (based on his high-touch service), and then communicate my tastes and purchases to my friends and fourth-party services through activity streams.
Imagine: after a month of so assembling a good sized pull list on Comixology.com, I visit Isotope and James presents my selections, suggesting a few new books I might be interested in. I agree to give them a try, he updates my pull list on his Mac through the Comixology site, immediately updating on my iPhone. I review the list — everything looks good — and tap the “checkout” button in the app. Pre-loaded funds are immediately withdrawn from my Apple iTunes account; James receives an instant payment confirmation and I can take my comics to go without having ever reached for my wallet. Walking out the door with my nose in my phone, I uncheck a few comics from my transaction history and send the rest to my activity broker — which in turn pushes updates out to Facebook, FriendFeed, and to anyone else who is subscribed to my comic book purchases (yeah, like two people) — and in turn, they take my social recommendations, applying James’, and add some of my picks to their respective pull lists.
The whole thing takes about three minutes, with room for salutations.
This is buyer-mediated commerce (contrary to vendor-mediated), or what I might call “connected commerce.” This is one potential future for platforms like Facebook Connect to get real, and where I think identity, social, commercial and location technology will begin to hit their stride.