Category Archives: Web2.0

Idea: email as a platform

146354021_1c0f548dfe_m[1]Something has been bothering me for a while. I have a colleague that needs to post some files on a site every week, and she needs to do it via FTP. FTP is ‘geeky’ for most people. Their PC does not come with an FTP program installed, they never need it for daily web usage and they’re not sure how it is different from email/web upload. I ended up installing Filezilla for her and she manages, but it would be so much easier if I could tell her: just email it to XYZ@example.com and it will arrive on that FTP server. Sending email, everyone can do.

Another issue I had is that I would like to offer a service (that involves audio manipulation of WAV files) and I would like people to send an email with the file attached and I send back the result. In both cases, the problem is the same: email now arrives in a mailbox and is expected to be handled manually. I would like a platform service: I pay for the usage of an email address, and every mail that arrives there triggers a number of actions that are automatic.

Not just a service, a platform

Of course I’m not the first one to think of this. Flickr allows for posting pictures via email (I use that a lot), you can send your blog posts via email with Tumblr, Posterous and even WordPress. Customer support services allow auto-responding on incoming emails with suggestions for resolutions. It’s just that all these services are specific to the provider. To do it, you have either poll for incoming email (check your POP3 box every N minutes) or build/configure an SMTP server that handles incoming email. If you’ve ever encountered the black magic involved in configuring a sendmail/postfix/qmail server, you know that’s not for everyone. Me as a web developer/hacker, I want to configure: mails sent to XYZ@example.com are posted to my web page with the email body, sender, attachments (as URL), or published via a private RSS feed, and that’s how I get them into my workflow.

The funny thing is that a much more limited communication method, SMS/texting, has these platforms. There’s Twilio, Fortumo, Tropo, that allow you to receive text messages and make them trigger things. The US providers even allow for setting up automated IVR (Interactive Voice Response – a.k.a. “Press 1 for …”) application through these services.

So, the idea

So what could this platform look like?

  • I register for the service and I get the prefix ACME
  • I then start defining my services: acme.upload@example.com, acme.support@example.com, acme.register@example.com
  • I configure acme.upload to save attachments to an FTP server and send a confirmation email.
  • I configure acme.support to send a confirmation email with a unique number and forward the email with this unique number in the subject. Also, I get an SMS.
  • I configure acme.register to take .XLS files, convert them to TEXT and post them to a web service I have created. I also get the sent emails in an RSS feed.
  • I now create my ‘public’ addresses: upload@acme.com / support@acme.com / register@acme.com and forward these to the email addresses I created above.
  • I get daily/weekly reporting, spam detection, and unlimited scaling.

Do anything like this exist?

Fax 2.0: because fax won’t die in the internet age

In one corner of my apartment: my fixed telephone line. In another my printer/scanner/fax device. Challenge: run a wire from one to the other, every time you rearrange the furniture.

Recently I investigated web fax services like eFax, WebFax, RingCentral but for a low volume user like me they’re too expensive. You pay a lot of money for having a dedicated phone number for you, regardless of the number of faxes you send/receive. But I already have a dedicated telephone number, only it is completely disconnected from my ‘normal’ workflow: email, web, news reader. I would like to receive my faxes in my Gmail, because I never delete mails. With 7GB+ email storage, I don’t need to.

So what I would like to have, and what I don’t think exists yet: a Fax 2.0 device at home, let’s call it the FaxaPorta. It needs power and a phone connection, and … that’s all. So let’s make it look like this (not uninfluenced by the Apple Airport Express):

Faxaporta mockup

Here’s how it works:

  • You plug the Faxaporta in a power outlet and connect to the phone plug.
  • The device has built-in wifi and will connect to the internet in that way.
  • You associate the device with your account on the Faxaporta website.
  • Now you can configure how it is supposed to work:
    • Incoming fax: send it to an email address as a PDF file, print it (you can connect a printer to the USB port)
    • Incoming voice call: take a voice mail and send it to an email address as a MP3 file, forward the call via Skype
    • Outgoing fax: behave like a network printer, or you upload a PDF file to the Faxaporta web site (it is then downloaded by your own Faxaporta device and sent over your own phone line).
  • But because your fax is now part of your web-connected world you can do cool stuff like:
  • When you get a fax/voice call, the Caller ID (phone number of the sender) is being matched with your Google contacts to add name, company and email of the sender.
  • The faxes your receive pass through Faxaportas service and are OCR’ed so that you can copy/paste the text on it (cf. the ScanR service).
  • The voicemails are run through a speech recognition service so that you get a text transcript together with the MP3 file. (Google Voice has this)
  • The whole configuring of the fax/voice service is no longer done on a silly small screen on the fax machine with 15 cryptic buttons, but online, from anywhere you want. New response message? Upload the MP3 file! New front sheet for outgoing faxes? Create it in a WYSIWYG editor!
  • You have an RSS feed for your incoming fax messages, one for your incoming voicemails.
  • You could even make a ‘better’ (more expensive) service for companies:
    • try to route a fax to the right person (depending on who sent it, on names that were OCR’ed in the document)
    • set up a Interactive Voice Response system through the browser (“For Sales, press 1”).
    • create a searchable fax archive
    • How about a fax ‘out-of-office’ service?

    Does the Faxaporta exist already?

    Idea: preview service for URL shorteners

    I was using my iPhone to read my Twitter feed (Twitterrific) and Facebook and when comparing the two, I liked one thing about Facebook that Twitter/Twitterific does not have: when some one posts a URL, you get a preview icon and a short text. This way you can have a rough idea of what the link is about, and whether or not you’re interested to click it. In Twitter it is even worse, since the service uses URL shorteners (bitly, …) so that you don’t even have the original URL to guess what the link is about, like e.g. youtube.com/watch?… => it’s a video!

    So imagine that there is a service that accepts a URL as input and comes back with

    • a destination URL (the actual URL you end up on)
    • a summary text (short text) about this page
    • a preview (small image) of this page

    So for a YouTube video, it comes back with a video screenshot and the video comments, for a blog post that includes a video/image, it comes back with a thumbnail for that and the start of the blog post text.

    Most importantly, for shortened URLs, it comes back with a preview of the ‘real’, original URL.

    A Twitter client like Twitterific, Tweetie, Tweetdeck, … could use this service every time it encounters a (shortened) URL in a tweet, and add the thumbnail next to it, and maybe the summary text as a mouse-over window.

    Coming up with the metadata

    Creating a summary text: either based on the web page itself, the META description, if it’s a blog, the first X words of the RSS item in its feed that points to this page.

    Creating a preview thumbnail: for YouTube, DailyMotion, Vimeo: a video screenshot, for Flickr, Picasaweb: an image thumbnail, for Wikipedia: an image that is used in the article or just the Wikipedia favicon, for a corporate site: the web site thumbnail as created by e.g. thumbalizr.

    Extend it with even more metadata

    This might be an interesting service to run for Google: they could add some indicator of importance or trustworthiness (Pagerank, incoming links), or warn for shady URLs.

    Wordle and famous movies

    Just the other day I was reminded of the existence of Wordle (via the Music Zeitgeist project). Wordle makes an esthetically pleasing word cloud of any assembled text you throw at it. “The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.” Ithought: let’s see what that gives with movie scripts. So I made a tool that will read a .SRT subtitle file and return just the pure text. I can then copy/paste that text into Wordle.

    Try to guess which movies these are (click on the image to see a high-res version):

    Wordle #1

    Wordle #2

    Wordle #3

    And for #4 and #5 I’m gonna give a hint: it’s science fiction!
    Wordle #4

    Wordle #5

    Wordle is really cool!

    The answers:

    1. Casablanca
    2. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
    3. Lucia y el sexo
    4. Star Wars III
    5. Star Trek