I recently found myself in the position of having to hire a new colleague for the first time in a long while. This means, I get lots of emails with attached PDFs from people I’ve never heard of, I have to filter out the good ones, invite those and send a thank-you-email to all the other ones. I then evaluate the candidates after their first conversation, maybe invite them for a second interview. A classical funnel workflow. Surely this can be automated and optimised, I told myself (as I caught myself adding colours to Outlook mails in my ‘Applicants’ folder, in order not to forget who I invited and/or answered.)
I was driving for 6 hours the other day and my wife was asleep, so what does one do: work out the details for a new kind of hosted communication service in my head.
If you are a user of AirBNB, you might have noticed that when you get messages from your hosts in the app, you also get an SMS/text with (the first 140 chars) of the message. The number you get it from, is not the phone number of the host. In my case it was more often a US number. So I started thinking: how does this work? Obviously this is not a phone number per customer, since that would be impossible/unaffordable. If they use N phone numbers to send these messages, when someone replies, how do they know who to forward the message to? It’s not rocket science.
A typical user has one ‘current’ transaction with AirBNB (i.e. ‘where do I sleep tonight?’). If that user (whose phone number we know) sends a message, we know it is concerning that transaction. In the worst case the person stays in a different AirBNB place every night, and you want the group chat to be available 2 weeks before until 1 week after the transaction. That can be managed with 21 different phone numbers. For the hosts that manage several apartments or rooms, they might have up to 100 group chats that are active at the same time. Still, 100 different phone numbers, that’s still doable.
So then I thought, what if you would have a service that allows any company to do this? They want to set up a temporary group chat with different channels (their own app, email, SMS, WhatsApp, Messenger, …) but not manage the details. So that idea crystallised into a short-term unified group messaging enterprise – STUGME.
One week after complete reinstallation of my OnePlus I started getting one “Unfortunately, Google Play Services has stopped” error message after the other. I tried a lot of solutions proposed online (“clear the app cache”/Goto Privacy guard/…) but none worked. Until I found this one from ‘ianyeo’:
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: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
- 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: email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.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?
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):
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.
- 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?
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.
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 is really cool!
- Vicky Cristina Barcelona
- Lucia y el sexo
- Star Wars III
- Star Trek
So I decided to let Facebook check my Gmail contact list to see if I had missed some contacts (people using aliases, etc …). After carefully selecting a couple of FB friends to invite (a buddy from the army, …), I clicked ‘Select’ and then ‘OK’ on the next screen that I supposed was a ‘Confirm’ window. I didn’t even read what was written on it. Some minutes later I saw emails starting to come in on different email aliases I had created in all my years of Internet activity. Apparently I allowed Facebook to send email messages to all Gmail contacts with email addresses that were not yet ‘known’ in Facebook. I have about 1500 addresses in my Gmail, let’s say some 500 already have a FB profile: so I just allowed Facebook to send out 1000 ‘unsollicited commercial emails’ or *spam* on my behalf. There is no way for me to know how many emails went out, nor to whom. I feel strongly embarrased, since I have been a strong opponent of spam for years, and since I have no idea who I have bothered with this bulk mail.
A company like Facebook probably has a whole team concentrated on user experience and workflow streamlining, so I can only assume that this strategy is by design. They probably have to keep the monthly exponential growth numbers so they use every opportunity to collect new email addresses. This is plain wrong. The default should be ‘opt in‘, not ‘opt out‘ (that is, select those you want to invite instead of unselect those you don’t wanto to invite).
So dear Christopher Cox and/or Chamath Palihapitiya at Facebook, while you will probably say that ‘but it is clearly written on the page that they’re about to send an invitation to (in my case, 1000??) contacts‘, you know that you are wrong on this one. You’re spamming. Big time, like real jerks. Since you’re probably not going to do anything about it, Google: any ideas?
Seth Godin came up with a visualisation of ‘means of communication’: bandwidth vs sync(chronicity). He took a number of ‘old’ (postal mail, radio) and ‘new’ (blogs, Youtube and -of course- Twitter) technologies and ranked them on a 2D graph according to ‘quality’ (density or bandwidth) and ‘sync’ (speed of reaction).
Although it is an interesting way of visualizing things, and I consider Seth a very bright and creative guy, I am bothered by the fact that the graph is neither clear, correct nor complete.
I know, there are so many ‘funny’ videos you just have to share with your friends. So you send them an email. But for god’s sake, not with a 5MB movie in attachment! For all you know, he/she might not even be able to play that MOV/WMV/XVid movie anyway. Don’t send a movie, send a link!
WHY EMAILING VIDEOS IS BAD
- Email makes big files bigger
Binary files (like videos) are encoded, or rather exploded, by your email program (Outlook/Hotmail/Gmail/…) as text-only Base64 MIME attachments. Your 5MB file is transformed into a 6.85MB text file before is sent. Email is a very inefficient way to share videos with several other people.
- You hurt the recipients
Your email will have to be downloaded before the recipient can see it. If he is on a slow connection, this might mean 15 minutes of obnoxious delay before he can continue working, start receiving the emails that arrived after your ‘cute puppy’ movie. The movie, if it is not deleted, will add 5 MB of storage to the Inbox. If his Outlook/Exchange quota is 100MB (not uncommon on corporate email systems), you just ate 5% of all the place he has to store contracts, meeting reports and office gossip.
- You hurt yourself
By sending a 5MB video, you force your email program to upload a 6.85 MB file to your mail server. If you’re on a basic DSL line, this will easily take up to 10 minutes, during which all your other Internet activity will go very slow. You also add a big chunk to your “Sent Items” folder, bringing you closer to your quota limit.
- You hurt the Internet
All those forwarded videos make for a huge amount of unnecessary traffic that eats up bandwidth at ISPs and inspire them to keep prices high. Not that they needed the extra inspiration.
- It’s force-feeding-video, not video on demand
You are forcing people to download the whole file before they can decide whether they want to see it now, or ever at all. Youtube and the other sites have a very easy-to-use ‘Send video link’ form that will give the receipient the link, with a screenshot and the description text. Then he/she can decide when, where, how and *IF* to watch the video.
(Yes, this is less a problem with web-based mail like Gmail or Hotmail)
HOW TO FORWARD A VIDEO LINK
- public, popular movie
Don’t think you’re the first one to have seen this movie. Chances are it’s featured on Youtube, Google Video, DailyMotion, Vimeo, in multiple versions (FR subtitles if that’s what you like), in a format everyone can view, available to send as just a link “
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_RgL2MKfWTo“. Less that 50 characters for a full 1:14 of hilarious time loss.
- private, ‘secret’ movie
Even if you have a movie you recorded/made yourself and want to show only to a limited number of people (“OMG, Britney, you were, like, *so* drunk!!“), then upload it yourself to Youtube, Flickr or Vimeo, put a password on it and send link+ password to those recipients. It will be so much easier for everyone to forward that secret video that no one was supposed to see (“788 views just yesterday? How’s that possible?“).
We thank you.