Hanging on for dear life

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trainWith the Gillmor Gang shut down, I’ve been shifting my attention to the Realtime Stream CrunchUp Eric Schonfeld and I are hosting July 10 at the Fox Theater in Redwood City. Growing interest from startups, bigcos, open standards developers, and investors augurs for a valuable event. I hope you’ll join us.

Some of the areas we expect to see explored include, obviously, Twitter, its ecosystem of third party developers and products, and the reactions of and interactions with other social media platforms. Facebook’s namespace rollout of the past few days is just one of the ripple effects of Twitter’s surge. Others include FriendFeed’s realtime services, live video streaming and low cost digital production, Google’s Wave project, smartphone platform strategies, Robert Scoble’s Building 43 community, and the battle for control of the center of the Web OS desktop.

Stringing these technologies and brands together highlights both how early and how late we are in this cycle of renewed innovation. Just a few short months ago, we were debating if Twitter would survive, whether Facebook would open up, why Google and Microsoft would see realtime as anything more than a distraction, and the eternal where’s the money. Today, the answers to those questions are clear: Yes, As quickly as possible, Because they have no other real competition than each other, and Right where it’s always been — the enterprise.

With Oracle swallowing Sun, the enterprise dynamics have swung hard to right, past cloud computing, and directly into the mobile identity landrush. It’s easy to pigeonhole smart phones as the latest version of Studio 54 society politics, but in fact our identities are being consolidated around the SIM chip, with our social graph around the Follow/Track architecture of Twitter and its subsidiaries. Today the switching costs from device to device are substantial, but Apple’s aggressive deployment of the iPhone and AppStore application divide are doing to the carriers what widgets did to Yahoo.

The razor blades are winning, gaining ground, and inexorably blacktopping the differences between service plans, mobile browsing, location-based services, and social graph (affinity) marketing. It’s a language the carriers understand: revenue per user divided by cost of customer acquisition. Feature comparisons between devices are not the defining metric for where the market will flow. Neither are broadband buildout, developer lock-in, or any other measure of value — except realtime elasticity.

If you look at realtime access as the most valuable asset we control, our phone number is at the top of the priority list. Starting from the bottom, Facebook lets us be pinged by semi-strangers without surrendering email address, symmetrical follow provides direct messaging assent on Twitter, IM and SMS we use to determine permission for realtime voice access. The interrupt moves from soft to hard, from intermittent to constant. The more complete, the more valuable. People guard their privacy. Smartphones allow the full panoply of options at all times. Now we guard our protocols like we used to guard our devices.

Abstractions such as Mesh and Gmail/Gchat/Gvideo are the new platforms, the new Office/OS hybrid. Realtime takes away the distinction between operating system and application services. To the iPhone customer, the device is simply an enabler of the new OS services that stream down to whatever client the user can afford; the most advanced services unlocked by the latest device are the upsell not so much for the device as the tariff negotiated with the carriers.

Put another way, I’m not paying 5 or 6 hundred bucks for video recording, I’m paying it for the (eventual) streaming video conferencing provided via the AppStore. I’m investing in pointing my phone at the Hot Chili Kit shelf at the Safeway and saying, “This one?” And soon I’m betting the Hot Chili Kit is going to look at my phone and say, “How about 10% off, Steve?” and “Oh, by the way, Steve, don’t forget the buns and you’re out of bacon, right TIna?” And the more Steve and Tina’s there are the faster these services arrive, which keeps us engaged and subsidized enough to keep the flow going.

At a macro level, the smart phone is setting up a widget platform across the Safeways and Targets and WalMarts that will be highly disruptive of their customer lock. They will not let this go lightly, just as the carriers are bending to Apple’s will one by one and then service by service and probably never device by device. The Pre and the G2 don’t have to match Apple to play in this game, but only Apple can run the table on the carriers. Whoever controls the ground game is likely to win. The ground game is user behavior. By moving the ball in realtime, in video, in a good enough latency to allow an adequate simulation of face to face interaction between charging stations, will take a bite about travel, entertainment, social gestures, political control. The Blackberry won the election.

In Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan talks about reading Kerouac:

Kerouac moves so fast with his words. No ambiguity. It was very emblematic of the time. You grabbed a hold of the train, hopped on and went along with him, hanging on for dear life. I think that’s what affected me more than whatever he was writing about.

Buried in the Realtime dialogue will be that notion of the hell-bent-for-leather nature of the social stream, that this is no way to spend our lives like rats pushing buttons for more pellets. Certainly I stop from time to time and wonder about my seemingly endless fascination with these machines and pulses of alleged information. It often seems so ephemeral, with a saccharine aftertaste and the bloated feeling of too many potato chips. But that’s not the sum of it, or even the meat of it. More and more I seek refuge from the stream, even as I crave its rushing waters. As Dylan sings:

Admitting life is hard, without you near me

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