Hauling bits around

I’ve probably known Bob Frankston for far too long. Actually I don’t think that’s possible; along with Dan Bricklin, he has been a fantastic foil, sounding board and mentor over the years. My trips to Boston would not be the same without my meetings with the two of them.

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This particular post, however, is heavily influenced by discussions I’ve had with Bob, who is the only man I know completely capable of interrupting himself, and doing so with panache and flair.

Of late I’ve been having some interesting experiences with Twitter, particularly in the context of being able to acquire things remotely and getting them sent to me.

First off, some weeks ago, I was trying to source a hard-to-get CD. I have this strange fondness for Canadian folk/rock, the consequence of growing up at a time (early 1970s) and a place (Calcutta) when Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and The Band were part of every respectable music listener’s staple diet.

With that sort of upbringing, when I read about a new star on the horizon, Taylor Mitchell, I planned to listen to her. After hearing a couple of songs on her MySpace site, I tried to buy her album, but it was not available online anywhere. Then I found out, only a few days later, that she’d died, in very tragic circumstances.[Please do consider contributing to her memorial fund, which you can do here.]

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Now I was even more determined to acquire her CD and listen to it, my own way of paying homage to her undoubted talent. But I was in Windsor, UK and the only shops that sold it were in College St in Toronto. So I tweeted it. Were any of my Twitter friends in Toronto that day? Were they prepared to do me a big favour and sacrifice time and effort to get me the CD?

Yes. Unbelievable, but it happened. Someone I only knew via Twitter, a New York resident, was in Toronto that day, saw my tweet, went to the shop, bought the last copy. And managed to get it to someone else who worked 100 yards from me in London.

More recently, some weeks ago, I was thinking and praying about my godson Noah. I was going to see him just before Christmas, and I wanted to get him something special. I’d already spoken to his mother, and I knew that he was in a creative Lego mood. But which kit? And what could I do to make it memorable and different?

The answer came serendipitously. I was scheduled to have dinner with Cory Doctorow and his wife Alice, and I was idly catching up on his Boing Boing writings while waiting for them at Saf last week. [Excellent company, excellent restaurant]. And then I saw this:

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So I read the story. And I knew I’d found the perfect present. But could I get it anywhere online? Nope. Only available bricks and mortar in Japan.

I tried for a few days, and then yesterday I tweeted my need. Anyone in Japan right now and likely to get back to the UK before 17th December and willing to acquire the Muji-LEGO mashup? Answer came there one. And wonderfully, magically, the present is now winging its way to me.

These are just instances. What really matters is the emerging business models. how people are innovating in this space. Over the last fortnight or so I’ve learnt about a couple of examples:

Lug-it, a cloud-based physical haulage system: “a P2P package delivery system on top of your extended social network”

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SendSocial, which promises to let you “send anything, anywhere, without an address”.

logoWhich brings me all the way back to Bob Frankston and the reason for this post. Bob’s always drilled into my head the concept that the addresses and numbers we use should never be considered routing; instead, I should consider such things to be nothing more than hints, clues as to the best way to get something to someone. Reading about SendSocial reminded me about his dicta, with their focus on getting things from person to person without an address.

Similarly, seeing what the people at lug-it were doing also filled me with glee. There was something so tellingly small-world-experiment about it, something intrinsically valuable about social networks and their P2P characteristics.

So now I have cause to think. About what this means for social networks. About what this means for digital communications.

And I have cause to celebrate. About the beauty and simplicity of the ideas that are blossoming in this space. Lug-it, SendSocial, I hope you succeed.

8 thoughts on “Hauling bits around”

  1. One more example of the generalized move towards distributed, complex adaptive systems – massively multi-parallel (human) processing supported by the technological substrate of the web. While in a completely different industry, here is another great example of how disruptive innovation can really only bubble up at the edges… I would hope that Royal Mail (and Fedex, UPS, USPS, DHL, etc. etc.) executives are paying attention. The problem is (at the risk of being presumptuous) that even if they are, I suspect they would see these kind of initiatives as one or all of the following:

    irrelevant: tick on an elephant type stuff
    threatening: crush the tick (mimic your favorite record company executive)
    incomprehensible: the world just doesn’t work that way, no way this could ever compete with the multi-billion dollar logistics systems we have built.

    When the correct approach would be to embrace it as symbiotic, analogous to say PayPal (and other payment operators) riding on the banking clearing platforms. At the risk of being a broken record, like banks, like telecoms, like most any large network infrastructure provider, I think the (brightest) future of these big incumbent logistics/delivery companies lies in embracing a ‘horizontal’ platform strategy (and not, or only selectively a ‘vertically integrated stack.) See my eComm presentation for a 20min elucidation on this thesis.

  2. You’re absolutely right; the “irrelevant, threatening, incomprehensible” objections are the classic ones. Infrastructure players are finding it hard to come to terms with the ease with which “over-the-top” plays are made possible, with more agile competition entering the fray.

    The enlightened response is to take the symbiosis approach, but it is rare to see an incumbent accept symbiosis with a disruptor. You should know!

    There is also one other response. Head in sand. Fiddle while Rome burns. See if you can avoid the cataclysm happening on your watch.

  3. hey,
    Lug-it is my friend Sai’s idea and I designed that orange logo!! This is soo cool…Thanks for putting it out there.

  4. Hi Prutha, it was my pleasure. I loved Sai’s idea, so I had to tell people about it. Small-world experiments brought to life.

  5. Great idea to tweet your needs. I might start thinking about that for a Tom Robinson CD or MP3 I want to get hold of…
    I suppose the results would vary according to your reach on Twitter. This might be the only reason i have heard for getting a huge Twitter contact list

Let me know what you think