Contextual Location (and Echoecho Redux)
I recently wrote about echoecho, an SMS based location sharing service and rather dismissed it as another PlayTxt or DodgeBall, both of which are now shuttered, and argued that EchoEcho fails my Theory of Stuff.
Nick Bicanic, the CEO of Purpose Wireless, the company behind echoecho was good enough to look me up and drop me a long email commenting on my blog post and -- very politely -- pointed out that I might want to revisit my opinion of the service. An edited version of that email to me formed the basis of his latest blog post on the topic of location as a context.
(intriguing aside 1: it's a novel experience to have to install onto two devices to test out a service. Not a bad thing. Just different).
As Nick pointed out "it's not all that fair to describe a new service by saying what it isn't - so let me tell you what it is. echoecho allows you to ask and answer the question where are you? as easily and simply as possible ... that's it ... think of it as a cross between a permission based SMS and a tweet - the idea is that it becomes as easy and ubiquitous as SMS."
After playing with echoecho (and according to Nick it is all lowercase and not WikiWord style) I really like the service. It's simple, it's elegant, it's very easy to use and I can see myself using this with friends and family. Heck, if my Mum actually remembered to turn her mobile on then she could use this and use it easily. Yes, it's restricted to a range of smart phones (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and so on) but the same applies to a whole plethora of LBMS.
(intriguing aside 2: the installation on my BlackBerry kept on repeatedly prompting me to view permissions and once viewed and saved prompted me to view and save permissions. Repeat until bored. A hard reboot of the handset fixed this finally. I don't envy people doing BlackBerry development). But let's go back to the Theory of Stuff for a moment; where does the money come from? It's a free service so you can't (directly) monetize the People. You're not tracking your audience's location (and Nick assures me they're not) and there's no additional data to derive, such as local business listings or a set of geotagged POIs, which is a (mostly hidden) side effect of FourSquare and Gowalla who seem to find themselves the poster-child(ren) of LBMS at the moment.
So at face value, much as I admire the simplicity of echoecho, I initially came to the conclusion that the service fails the Theory of Stuff but with a caveat. If there's something clever going on under the hood that's not immediately apparent to the casual observer or if there's a way of getting People to make Stuff through the service then echoecho might pass the Theory.
Nick agreed with me, "Clearly if the app is free then the money can't come from the app. But that's a failure only in the most immediate literal sense. By that logic every freemium model is a failure during its free stage".
All of the above has shown that there's a need for at least one caveat to the Theory of Stuff, which should state that the Theory should only be applied if there's an attempt to monetize. echoecho isn't and should, for the time being at least, be exempt.
But there is definitely something clever going on under the hood, a bi-directional open API location sharing service. It's that platform that echoecho is built on top of and it's that platform that I'm going to be watching very closely indeed to see what comes out of Purpose Wireless. And of course I'll be looking to apply the Theory of Stuff to that offering.