Down by the old MillStream

i4mtI was hoping to get down to the 140 Twitter conference today in Mountain View, but FriendFeed proved too efficient at carving up today’s developments in realtime. Robert Scoble’s live microblogging suggests Twitter is feeling the heat from Facebook and FriendFeed, but the Track report was murky, with no chance of rain anytime soon.

Track is coming back, but not from Twitter anytime soon. It’s coming from FriendFeed, and it’s coming in weeks not months. Track is realtime search of the present, not the past, and FriendFeed has most of the ingredients already in place. You can monitor the flow of various users (essentially the Group function Twitter has been talking about and various clients have been providing) in a realtime flow. A new AIR-based notification service acts in concert with the main flow, allowing you to monitor incoming while moving back in time to catch up.

FriendFeed’s realtime search already provides immediate filtering around keywords, but because it’s not yet realtime in display it doesn’t allow conversations to spring up between people outside of existing conversation threads. Once the conversation is engaged, the interface updates immediately in context, enabling the kinds of swarms that have grown around Gillmor Gang recording sessions. But finding these swarms requires an overt search or the serendipity of a Tweet. As I said, a realtime stream of such a search will be available within weeks.

The next step is to enable users to effectively splice Track streams in with the main flow, or specific groups, or even multiple filters. That will come soon but not at the same time, though the two technologies are apparently proceeding on parallel tracks, pardon the expression. While some services have already delivered something similar to this, they are leveraging the Twitter search functionality along with its much larger cloud, attendant scaling issues, varying business relationships, and rate limiting. FriendFeed Track is a superset of those Twitter subservices, failing as other services do when Twitter stumbles but offering a constant realtime conversation regardless.

Track solves several problems in this hybrid world of cross-cloud communications, making it irrelevant what version of @reply functionality is in place by tracking usernames as a replacement for following mass numbers of people. FriendFeed conversations encourage discovery of new participants by including anyone regardless of subscription status, and Tracking lets you discover conversations of interest outside of your existing threads. Stream splicing closes the loop by interleaving both kinds of discovery, most likely with some form of visual cue to indicate what the context is.

Blending streams and Track also provides some aid to the problem of disconnected FriendFeed conversations, first by alerting you to the existence of those threads by Track and then by encouraging the participants to consolidate around one or several. It’s conceivable that a Track filter with several thread IDs would make it seem like one conversation regardless of the originating streams, and that kind of view will grow popular and perhaps encourage FriendFeed to create intelligent filtering features attuned to the popularity for such mults.

As Twitter’s leaders have suggested, the service’s rapid growth is a double-edged sword. It may be that the company has been able to regroup by crippling features that don’t work at Oprah scale, but it’s another story to revamp the architecture sufficient to match what FriendFeed can do with Track plus splicing, or other capabilities such as a more granular Like at the comment level. It’s comparable to Microsoft’s dilemma with Windows, where moving its huge installed base into the future that’s been carved out by OS/10 is gated by the size and downlevel constraints of its target machines and peripherals.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Twitter’s team and find comfort in their difficulties with transparency and developer trust. The company clearly understands where nimble competitors such as FriendFeed and well-funded engines such as Facebook and Google are ahead in flexibility and resources respectively. Like Twitter, these companies are not in the market for acquisition. Each company’s customers may overlap, but in important ways they have specific strengths that protect them from each other. And together, they appear less vulnerable to a Microsoft counterattack or one or the other pulling out of the pack.

With these forces in counterbalance, FriendFeed remains in a very powerful position to define the leading edge of the realtime platform. Whether this will result in the kind of hyper-growth of the others is up in the air, but what is not is the effect FriendFeed’s success has and will have on its competitors. By offering a better, more efficient experience for power users, Twitter is encouraged to keep itself open enough to keep its third parties from leaving. If they were to start drifting, it would accelerate Facebook’s investment in a similar open platform as well as provide Google more time to rework RSS properties like Google Reader, Feedburner, and YouTube as stream-ready.

By next week we’ll know where Apple is going with the iPhone platform, with pressure from the G1 and the Pre potentially forcing the 3G hole open a bit more. Already, it’s easier to stream video to the phone in lieu of syncing via enclosures. Perhaps Apple will expand iTunes to accept Twitter urls as direct links to stream content, keeping control of the pipeline for its installed base while going realtime with a behavioral contract with users. Amazon may do the same with the Kindle. Microsoft stands ready with Silverlight and its IIS Media Services on top of Azure.

In the weeks since I published my Ode to RSS, I’ve seen a rapid shift in understanding about the nature and speed of this transition. Even if we factor out the disagreements over the degree of the upheaval, we’re still looking at a wave of innovation and public engagement unlike anything we’ve seen in years. As I type these words, an Evan Williams snapshot of backstage at the D conference flashes on my screen, followed by Dan Farber’s quote about Rupert Murdoch calling a “huge turning point for media and the world” followed by Dave Winer saying that “In the end, whether Ev, Biz, Jack, Bijan and Fred like it or not, Twitter is going to belong to the people, not the celebs.”

And yet, here I am on this newfangled CB radio of the future, watching and interacting with the stream as it plays out on the elegance of the MacBook Air. The littlest player and the biggest, the In crowd and the outliers, the old and the new, all acting in a collaboration that rewards us with a box seat in the Big Show that is the realtime moment.