The Swarms of Summer

heavyweatherWhile we continue to debate the Death of RSS, another more interesting battle is taking place inside the walls of some important companies about the shape of the new realtime network. Though Google has seemed to capture the imagination of the Valley and the respect of Microsoft, it is Redmond where the impact of realtime is most sharply felt.

Google’s 20 percent project has finally reached official mainstream status: Google Apps, Gmail/Chat/Reader, and its attendant Open Social constructs are sufficiently mature to garner structural attention within the search giant. Loss leaders including Android/Chrome and YouTube are about to pivot from bottomless pits to viral attention farms. YouTube in particular is poised to capture the lion’s share of realtime video as it becomes the hard drive for the Twitter DVR.

How a virtualized media network transforms our usage patterns is already understood by the networks and their more aggressive forward scouts such as the New York Times. Many see this period as the death of the newspaper, but watching how the Times and Murdoch’s Journal are crushing the second tier of almost-but-not-quite national publications suggests the papers are girding for battle not with each other but with the cable networks. It may look like a collapse, but who better to compete with for the attention of news-hungry desktop and mobile users.

These are the same users who’ve been fleeing RSS for Twitter in recent weeks as the message bus gets clogged with old-media marketing crud and Brittany trivia. Users still want their gossip and such, but they want it prioritized behind any significant realtime information that can help them save/keep/find revenue and outlast Depression 2.0. It’s not that RSS has suddenly stopped working; it’s just that realtime is faster, and it increasingly is using custom transports that are more socially attuned. The results of an affinity cloud increasingly trump other notification engines.

With high priority signals clamoring for position at the center of the desk/phone top, those networks with pole position will push out the rest. If it’s video, it’s YouTube. For that matter, if it’s audio, it’s YouTube. Podcasts? Sorry. Streaming notified over the realtime bus. H.264 across the iPhone and Silverlight. The rest will follow. Notice for the first time I include a Microsoft pole position. Google builds the standard, Microsoft ratifies it.

Microsoft must move quickly in this environment to align with winners in the message bus prioritization queue. I’m not talking here about Silverlight v. Flash adoption; that’s marketing blocking and tackling while waiting for the viral events that fuel the rollout, what John Borthwick calls bursts and what Ray Ozzie discovered in the swarm accelerator he called Groove. We don’t know what those swarm events will be, but we know what they look like when they materialize. And those technologies that accelerate swarms will also proliferate, and in the process overwhelm and dominate the attention of developers, innovators, entrepreneurs, money, and the media.

Swarm technologies thrive on the extended efficiency of social properties. Take links, for example. Swarm technologies depend on speed and economy of gestures, or actions. If I have to choose between a static link that appears embedded in a document and a dynamic link emanating from a tweet, I’ll choose the combined authority of the original author plus the tweeter (who I’ve followed or tracked). Likes or retweets accelerate the swarm further with additive or iterative influence. This is why Twitter’s @reply attack strikes at the heart of idea discovery too. A link to someone not followed from cross-talk with someone I do follow is a strong signal of potential value. The cross-talk may seem diffused, but users will migrate to tools that let them make the most efficient assessment of value.

If Microsoft wants to engage with realtime prioritization, what assets does it have? Office, for one. If we follow the logic of swarm economics, it’s not a contest between Office Live and Office Dead, but between Office Static and Office Dynamic. Since Office 2010 is already in BitTorrent release, there’s not a lot of time to jump into the stream. Where is the entry point? A quick look at Google will tell an interesting tale:

Email? Gmail didn’t incorporate Google Reader, because RSS is static not in design but in contrast to realtime streams. Instead, they integrated chat over XMPP, which was then bootstrapped by Twitter for 2 way Track until it was withdrawn from circulation. By tracking my user name (stevegillmor without the @ sign) I set up a notification point for anyone to signal that I might be interested in a link, whether to a post or a person). These dynamic links quickly stole my attention because they were weighted with social gravity, not to mention the rest of the context and metadata embedded in the message.

I won’t examine the rest of Google’s Office because we already have the answer in the preceding sentence. The stream of social gravity, layered with context (the message) and (perhaps encrypted) metadata via the URL shortener gateway, becomes the rich center of the desktop and beyond. Google’s recent experiments with context switching and synchronization between desktop and mobile device can be seen as dynamic link conversion at their core. A search for a restaurant before leaving home is wrapped as clickable phone number or on-deman map while fumbling at a traffic light.

Microsoft has some significant skin in this dynamic on-demand link game, what with Mesh now a part of the Windows/Windows Live core. Silverlight is the wild card here, politically charged with its implications for a cross-platform Office. It’s also the likeliest host for a dynamic link hub utilizing Mesh’s social constructs and Azure’s scalable back end. On the media side, Microsoft competes with Apple and Amazon with the Kindle platform for the deep but frightened pockets of the record, movie, book, and magazine businesses. Look for those industries to collapse into one, starting with newspapers and magazines blurring into dynamic books. Imagine a FriendFeed realtime chat appearing inside a manuscript as it reacts to realtime events.

A quick check of the calendar reveals how quickly this will happen. Windows 7, Azure, and a mindshare edition of Office will ship by November. Track will reappear first on FriendFeed, then Facebook, and probably simultaneously in Twitter. Microclients will unpack dynamic links and present them for consumption and contribution, updating those dynamic links with contextual social gestures that will hit the prioritization engines and synthesize swarms. It’s gonna be a hot summer.