Convergence Will Be at the Data Level

Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior VP for Product Management and Marketing at Google, spoke at Claremont last week, and one of the things he said was that in the old days everybody thought convergence would happen at the device level. We’d have some super duper device that would do everything. Instead, as we all continue to lug around many different power chargers, it’s clear convergence will happen at the data level. Integration and global access to this data, then, will be a key challenge.

I’ve been thinking about this as I reflect on one of my 2008 goals which is to re-vamp the way I manage my address book and “social data.” The people I know and the relationships I have are important to me, yet the information I have about these people is scattered across many databases and services. This makes it difficult to know who I know, the last time I talked to them, what other services they use, their latest contact info, etc.

Currently, my base for social info is my address book which lives in an Exchange server that I access locally in Microsoft Entourage (the sucky Mac alternative to Outlook) and on my T-Mobile Dash. Within Entourage I do email, calendar, address book, and tasks — accessing this integrated data in one app is awesome. Thanks to Exchange, I enjoy real time sync across my local machine, mobile device, and webmail.

Then I have many fringe data centers. I have over 1,000 friends in Facebook. Hundreds in LinkedIn and Plaxo and other networks. I have a few thousand in my email newsletter database (MailerMailer). A few dozen in Salesforce.com Personal Edition (which I use for more conventional sales-type leads). And then the 1,200 contacts in my address book on Exchange. Some of these records overlap, some do not. Then there are even more fringe places like my 350 RSS feeds, IM, del.icio.us, Twitter, and other places where I have silos of contact data.

None of it is integrated. When I go to a city, I can’t quickly see who I know in the city. When I pull up an entry in my address book, I can’t immediately see when my last contact with that person was. I can’t easily see who I’m not connected to on a social network even though I know the person. As a Mac user, I can’t use plug-ins like Xobni or the Salesforce Outlook plug-in (and run a SFDC CRM system for personal use). Without a plug-in to my email workhorse, I’m screwed, because non-integrated web-based solutions such as HighRise require too much double-entry (though if anyone wants to persuade me otherwise, I’m all ears). And I’m not prepared to jump 100% into one social network – I’d prefer for my data to be on my own server and be platform agnostic.

Obviously, this is not just my challenge. Data convergence in the cloud, particularly around social information, is one of the primary drivers of the new wave of internet stuff being developed. If you hear the phrases “implicit web” or “defrag” or “social graph” – it usually refers to these issues.

One interesting result of this non-integrated infrastructure is that I’m not devoting much energy toward maintaining ties with people who don’t intersect with me on at least one level of my “social stack”. In other words, if I’m not reading your blog, not following you on Twitter, not friends with you on a social network, not following you on del.icio.us, if you’re not on my email newsletter: I forget about you. Moreover, when deciding whether to invest time in an old friend who isn’t engaging with me somewhere on this stack or in someone new who is engaging with me (reading my blog or del.icio.us or whatever), I’m inclined toward the latter. As my interests and life changes, I find I have a stronger connection with people who are following me in “real time.”

In an ideal world the technology would allow me to organize my social data in a global way and not discriminate against those who don’t care for blogs or Twittering. Alas, it’s not there yet, though any fellow Mac users who have clever strategies are encouraged to comment on this post! In the meantime, as I spend more and more time producing and consuming content on the internet, my real-life connections and social habits have changed accordingly.

9 Responses to Convergence Will Be at the Data Level

  1. Integration of data is definitely an uphill battle. I don’t think this problem will be solved for a while.

  2. Your ideal world may come to be when Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the semantic web is realized, and intelligent agents manage all those connections for you:

    “I think maybe when you’ve got an overlay of scalable vector graphics – everything rippling and folding and looking misty – on Web 2.0 and access to a semantic Web integrated across a huge space of data, you’ll have access to an unbelievable data resource.”

    How many relationships can a person manage intelligently, even if the heuristic algorithmic HAL is doing the grunt work?

    I dread too much integration, in a Luddite way– I think you reach a point where it begins to feel like self-annihilation.

    Of course, I suppose that’s what becoming one with the universe is all about.;-)

  3. Olga Loraine Kofman says:

    I, too, am craving the day when associated information is consolidated onto one source.

    But Ben, consider rereading your post, keeping in mind why you value your friends, and what it means to legitimately care about someone.

    Truthfully, you sound heartless.

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    Oh please, Olga……

  5. Cory Levy says:

    Great post, Ben! Was Jonathan Rosenberg’s speech recorded? If so, is it accessible on the web?

    I have a sort of off topic question, although, does kind of relate.

    What do you think the benefits of comments are? Both in your perspective as the blog publisher/moderator and to a blog reader?

    Thanks,
    Cory

  6. Meem says:

    This post reminds me of Meebo and how they integrate all my contacts for online messaging purpose. I think it’s brilliant what Meebo has done in that respect.

  7. Krishna Mony says:

    Noble thought, but Scoble got caught. Robert Scoble had quite some experience when he got his account suspended by Facebook for using an automated (Plaxo) script to harvest HIS contacts/ email addresses.

    Once you upload your contacts into a social networking site, you surrender your `rights’ over the data. It becomes theirs (you clicked `I Agree’ without a thought) to deal with. You can just access, use or delete it. You just can’t hyperlink or `port’ it. The engine that makes Facebook such a hot property — are the contacts and information belonging to people like Scoble. It’s obvious why Facebook would have such a rule: scraping data using automatic scripts not only puts a load on the site’s servers, but gives potential competitors the ability to potentially suck out the entrails of the social network and move them somewhere else.

    Data convergence initiatives question some basic business paradigms like competition and exclusivity. If I am allowed free access to your database, would I not just go monetize it – say by beaming ads on to specific targets?

    Convergence at data level is tough since it blocks monetization routes of so many. Imagine seamless linking from a Facebook to Twitter to Del.icio.us to Flickr to YouTube…? Why would Microsoft value Facebook (that loses a million $$ a day) at $15 billion if its database were to become open source for Google to exploit?

  8. Kathleen H says:

    Great post. As a Mac user, I have the same problem. The closest thing I’ve found to a solution (at least for Facebook) is FriendCSV – link to apps.facebook.com. It doesn’t import most e-mail addresses and doesn’t import phone numbers at all, though… but at least it’s a start. I always backup my contacts on gmail and then import to Address Book. Still, I’d love something universal….

  9. Miguel Cavalcanti says:

    Hello Ben, great post. I´m looking for something like that too.

    I didn’t find anything so far…

    Let us know if you find something good.

    Best wishes, Miguel, from Brazil

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