As is the case when a certain investor from New York City blesses a new investment on his blog, the past few months has seen an explosion of new mobile applications that attempt to, at a base level, aggregate and sync a user’s contact lists across their ESPs, social networks, and phone contact lists. On a primal level, the incentive here is obvious, but there are also potentially deeper forces at work. I look at this trend as if peeling the layers of an onion, with the core being a big, big deal:
- Outer Layer, Contact Access and Syncing: There is base-level utility in syncing contacts. Simply promising that is good enough to warrant attention, and it’s not that difficult of a data problem. There are many apps offered in the Apple iOS App Store that purport to do this, and while I haven’t tried them all, this is a good step forward and provides value. An example of this would be Everyme, though there are other dimensions to that app, too.
- Next Layer, Location Vector: The next dimension is tying the new contact list to location. This is everything from letting the user search by location all the way to telling users who is around them at a specific moment. An example of this would be Brewster.
- Next Layer, Calendar Integration: People definitely want this. This is what Google had a chance to do, but couldn’t for whatever reasons. The folks who built Greplin have now built Cue, which is well-thought out but a little buggy at the moment. There’s also Sunrise, which is doing this well on the web so far, something I’d recommend trying out.
- The Inner Layer, Increasing Efficiencies: If one of these apps can integrate two or three or even more contact-related functions, they can start to save users time while simultaneously serving them more relevant information against their contacts and calendars. By increasing efficiencies, there’s an opportunity to aggregate actions under one roof and potentially change behaviors over time. New mobile hardware like iPhones and iPads present the opportunity, and the footprint is obviously massive.
- The Core, A New Social Network: This is where Brewster could grow into something big. The potential is there. This is a great example, in fact, of a “big data” startup because the levels of complexity the Brewster team had to get around in drawing in social network data and harmonizing it back to a single identity is a really, really hard problem. (I know this from watching the developers at Votizen, who built a system to tie an individual’s social network graphs to an entirely brand new database of voting records; the Votizen team was able to pull this off, and it’s a very challenging technical problem which you can read about here, if you’re interested.) The Brewster team is on this path, too.
I’m biased toward Brewster as a first impression and use over the past month. I was a wedding with a big group of old friends a month ago and showed them my phone and the app — every single person in the group loved looking the rearranging face tiles on the app and were amazed to have “smart lists” just automatically generated along so many dimensions. For me, Brewster not only made it to my home screen, it’s on the dock tray, too. It is the main app I use to find someone and then contact them by any channel. A killer app in this category could create enough trust and utility for users to allow a third-party to access the address books and calendars, which many people want. And, while it’s early, I wonder if they’ll start to pull in status updates, or just allow native status updates to be made. The unfortunate challenge here, however, is getting distribution. While contacts and calendars are core iOS functions, it will take some time and social hooks to get to the growth level of breakout apps. The potential is there, as is a big pot of gold. Let’s see what happens…