The Free Store

It’s not the famous Web 3.0 the semantic crowd has been lobbying for for years. It’s not the next big thing or even the next little thing, or whatever the Times touted when it went nuts for micromessaging today. It’s Web 2.2, and it stands for incremental improvements that, oh by the way, add up to a big leap.

I’m branding this as an homage to the latest iPhone OS 2.2 upgrade, which surfaced a few days ago with limited fanfare centering mostly around new walking and public transportation views in Maps and improved memory and stability. But the new realtime podcast support is a very big deal even in its carrier-crippled limitations. Apple has opened the doorway to free audio and video content direct to the iPhone over both WiFi and radio, leveling the playing field for these media types with the rest of the Web.

In order to protect AT&T from saturation of its 3G network, podcasts greater than 10MB will be queued for downloading the next time you enter WiFi range. You still have to use iTunes on the Mac or PC to subscribe to a show feed and automatically download each episode, but everything else is now open including streaming over 3G. I streamed this week’s Gillmor Gang, which runs a bit over an hour while on the road; it downloaded as soon as I got close enough to my house to switch to WiFi.

The Gang began just before podcasting became popular, and soon averaged double the downloads of streaming users. Of course, the iPhone and its radio access to the Web didn’t exist back then; hence the name podcasting. Direct downloading opened a small crack in the wall with the iTunes WiFi store, allowing direct purchase of songs over WiFi. Even 2.2 still won’t work with 3G, and of course streaming is not an option.

The election campaign brought new popularity to podcasting, as first Keith Olbermann and then Rachel Maddow made their MSNBC political shows available for download. I couldn’t stream Maddow’s video show over 3G but it displayed fine once downloaded, though videos from YouTube stream without issues. President-elect Obama has already started releasing his weekly Saturday addresses on YouTube, and promises press conferences and interactive Q&A’s over the Net.

Coupled with reports of a SlingBox-like iPhone Store approved application, YouTube Live’s streamcast via Akamai, and parallel development on Android phones, there’s plenty of incentive for Apple to keep open an avenue for realtime media. But where will this disruption spread next?

Many observers, and some platform vendors, believe Flash is the gateway drug for realtime streaming video. The logic goes that Apple’s refusal to open the iPhone to Flash will eventually help Android or even a Silverlight-enabled Windows Mobile break free and allow those devices to pass iPhone in adoption and developer buyin. But the rapid rise of micromessaging suggests another outcome. If Apple allows enough flexibility via direct downloading and streaming to shift the cost of live video and audio to a subsidized advertising model, then users will stay put.

Specifically, Apple has opened the architecture to allow the reboot of podcasting through its gated iTunes index. It’s logical that some set of API constructs that emulate direct downloading, streaming, and text linking will be made available to developers to allow them to link these capabilities into a single user experience. Apple could charge for such applications, or make available a version of the API for such controller applications that in turn sells user behavioral data to advertisers or even send interactive offers to iPhone users in return for such “free” services.

In this possible future, micromessaging becomes the controller for realtime rich media streaming. FriendFeed already aggregates my various channels, sending announcements of new posts (or podcasts) over the bridge to Twitter and any other service in the chain. If behavior from my Follow cloud suggests I might want notification of some stream and I’m in WiFi range, I can initiate a stream while the program downloads in the background.

If I’m traveling out of range, the micromessaging service can order the news based on my current schedule and mix streaming and downloading to fit the consumption window. Think about it: which radio service makes more sense, what we have today or one that mines the thoughts, citations, and behavior of hundreds of followed peers and tracked alerts? Services such as Live Mesh are designed to mine just such social data to optimize media and information based on location, business imperatives, and strategic triage of realtime information.

Apple’s move may turn out to be just a hint of things to come, or it may signal Steve Jobs’ sense that the timing is right for money to be made in the free zone of podcasting. As Jason Calacanis said on this week’s Gillmor Gang (around 1 hr 4 minutes in), if he was running Microsoft, he’d make a click ad network free for the first quarter million dollars that a publisher makes, and give every advertiser coming in on the first million dollars they spend an extra 200,000 and do that 10,000 times with all the best advertisers in the world.

Or write an iPhone app that uses GPS data combined with streaming and download playback data to connect the virtual and physical worlds at the time of potential purchase. Say you’re running low on gas, and the sponsor of the Gillmor Gang offers a 5 cent discount per gallon less at his station on the corner you’re at. Say you’re planning to watch a certain show tonight but your affinity group says forget it by bailing 5 minute in. Say you authorize access to that data in return for free popcorn at the movie you went to instead.

Both Jason’s and the latter strategy strike at Google’s potential weakness. Microsoft can buy their way in to challenge the black box of Google’s ad engine, while the iPhone’s Free zone can harness the unique power of a person’s affinity group to more efficiently find the most appropriate answer to a specific user’s question. It’s the locus of a gesture-based economy, where advertisers must align with a user’s requirements in order to get his or her attention.

The promise of podcasting was to provide an avenue for expression free of the tyranny of broadcast mediocrity. The promise of micromessaging was to create an open, living, breathing index to the realtime Web. The promise of the iPhone was to release us from the grip of the cartels and free our data to our own devices. We’re close enough to taste it now, and it’s giving us something fun to talk about again.