December 30, 2009

Like Convergence, Aggregation Is Better In Theory

There always seems to be a tug of war in technology between those who want a converged, multi-purpose device that does everything, or those who want a dedicated device that does one thing (or just a few things) extremely well. For every successful hulking converged printer/copier/scanner/fax machine device, there are utilities like toasters or microwaves that just do one specific function. The truth is that when differing technologies converge, it usually leads to a single unsatisfying experience where none of the functions are high quality. More common is the practice of product diversification, where one device turns into a family of devices, with differing features for differing price points.

On the Internet, many of us are creating a ton of content in a ton of different places, and in most cases, this content differs by the site. I may use Flickr or Smugmug for photos, and use Twitter or Identica for microupdates. I may use or Pandora for music streaming, and Blogger or Wordpress for more lengthy pieces. The solution, which I've long championed, has been the development of an aggregator, which takes all this disparate activity and presents it in a single place. This aggregation is what is at the heart of sites like FriendFeed, and more recently, Cliqset, Arktan and, increasingly, Facebook. In parallel, there has been this development of personal lifestreams, which can capture all our content in one place, and be hosted on our site or on a third party URL.

It sounds great. But despite my excitement and evangelism around such tools, for the most part, they have not flourished. It seems that, instead, people want to enjoy the content in its native environment, or keep things simple. I look at the developments behind Arktan and Cliqset, and wonder, does the world need to develop a perfect aggregator, again?

It's possible that the disappointing answer is no. It's possible that while an aggregator is among the fastest ways to get caught up on individuals' activity from around the Web in once place, that getting the downstream data at the aggregator instead of at the source somehow reduces the quality or impact of that message, in the same way that the iPhone isn't the best cell phone on the planet, or the best Web browser, thanks to it being a converged device and not a specialized device.

Hardware specialization enables products to be refined and refined until they cannot be completely virtualized or emulated by software. A good example of this is the DVD player. The DVD player on your computer, and its associated software, is good, but it's not as good as the dedicated device in your entertainment center. And that convergence of your media player and your TV hasn't really been a success either. The VCR/TV combos were never a good idea, and WebTV wasn't exactly considered the quality leader. Convergence always sounds wonderful, but ends up coming up short.

For the past two years plus, I have been among the loudest proponents of aggregation. For me, an odd person at one end of a data consumption curve, it solves a need that I have to concentrate my activity and discover my friends' updates from around the Web. But for the more common user, they just want a few things to work well. They have chosen Facebook as their social network. They have chosen Twitter as their micromessaging platform. They have chosen LinkedIn for their business platform. Even those who have chosen all three aren't crawling the Web looking for a single site solution the way some of us early adopters have.

In his 2009 wrap-up post, Lifestreaming advocate Mark Krynsky confirmed that he "didn’t see many things this year that took Lifestreaming to the next level," adding "Lifestreaming was pretty stagnant." 2007 and 2008 saw a lot of new services come to the fore, and 2008 was the year that FriendFeed looked like it could change the game, threatening sites like Twitter and Facebook. But as polished and professional as the site was, it just wasn't capable of converting those away from the original, refined, source of the data.

I have to believe that aggregation tools are interesting, and useful to a small minority of people. Lifestreaming tools are fun for individuals to highlight their activity. Sites are out there that do a good job, and more are coming, but I am thinking that "aggregation" is the new "convergence". It looks great on paper, and some people will carry a Swiss Army Knife with them everywhere, but most won't.