Facebook 0, Phuser 1

Last week I came across Dennis Howlett’s video about open/closed networks and Facebook. On a side note I found it posted up on Facebook by Scoble and had a devil of a time finding Dennis’ original post. It seems that once something goes off the bottom of your Facebook feed it is gone for good!

To quote Dennis, he was asking: “What is the situation on the open/closed nature of Facebook? I’m thinking about this from the business perspective. Business will not really want to be participating in these totally open networks.”…”There doesn’t seem to be a very good way of being able to do all of the things you would want to do with Facebook but within a controlled environment. So maybe the situation is that Facebook is a great metaphor for what can be done but maybe it’s not the thing for the future. I just wonder what other people think about this.”

This got me very excited as allowing a controlled environment where you can keep groups of people separate is one of the key benefits of Phuser! It has also been incredibly complex to code which is probably why you don’t see it on many websites.

I got in touch with Dennis and had a long chat with him the other evening. After giving it a bit of a test he was happy to write it up in his ZDNet blog.

It is great for us that the discussions are looking at how businesses could use social networking and social software and thinking about what business value. We designed this control into Phuser as we think many groups of people will value being able to make their team discussions and planning private but still use the same website for multiple teams and projects.

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Help from the Professionals II

After meeting with Stowe Boyd I got to thinking how we could create a public side to Phuser. This had always been a problem with new users, they signed up, had nothing to play with and then left and didn’t come back. It was hard to see how to add something public which worked with the key Phuser benefits of privacy and control.

My next break came a month ago when I watched a talk given to Google by Suw Charman. About 13.5 minutes into the video she Suw Charmansounded like she could be talking about Phuser! I realised Suw Charman was someone who understood what kind of service we offered so I made contact. She was kind enough to meet me for a chat over a coffee.

I explained the problem we were having – that we had shown that Phuser could work as we intended, for groups of people to plan and discuss privately. The trouble was we had no easy way of introducing new people to all the joys of Phuser so that they could quickly understand how it works. This came back to the problem that there was no public side to where new people could play around and get to grips so that they had the confidence to start their own Private Phuses. 

Suw had a very good analogy explaining how websites like Phuser need to be public in a similar way to buildings like hotels and company headquarters. You enter the building into an open public reception area where people can see what is happening and they can see other people. You then have progressively more private areas like bars or conference rooms and finally you have the most private area, offices or bedrooms. With Phuser we were dropping people straight into the private areas where they couldn’t see anyone and were expected to know what they were doing there!

Looking at it like that I could see the problem we had created. For those of you not familiar with Phuser the private areas are called Phuses. Each phuse is like a mini-forum or shared space where you choose who can see it. They are great for making private plans with friends or family and work especially well for cross-border business projects where the team is not in the same place or even time zone but you also need time critical responses. This is where the SMS part of Phuser comes in. You can build each Phuse up with tools for things like finding out when everyone is free or sharing files or photos.

The best thing about Phuser is that you can keep your networks completely separate. You can have two Phuses with different groups of people and neither will know the other exists. Great for client projects which need to be separate or for keeping your friends and family life apart. This idea of separate networks is something Facebook is currently struggling with.

After talking with Suw it became clear how we could have a more public side to Phuser and we set about adding a new feature: Open Phuses. Open Phuses are different to the Private Phuses in that, instead of selecting who is part of the Phuse, anyone in your network of people can join them and take part. Besides helping new users see what Phuser is about they have useful business and social uses for company events and information or discussions with your friends.

To ensure that every new person joining Phuser had something to look at and get involved with we called on our company spokesperson, Mr Phuser. He is now part of every new person’s network and he has created a number of Open Phuses about his varied interests (like cheese). When people are ready to use Phuser privately all they have to do is remove Mr Phuser from their network and they are just left with their real contacts. He doesn’t get offended as he has plenty of other friends. 

Thanks again Suw! Your advice has had a significant effect on our sign-ups and traffic!

Help from the Professionals

CashA couple of months ago we were in a very difficult place. Earlier in the year we had finished building Phuser, got it into a fit state for a Beta launch and got a great crowd of innovators trying it out and liking it. Then, besides a few new sign-ups, the whole thing stopped moving. We had stalled and something was badly wrong.

The whole Facebook/Twiter/Pownce/Jaiku storm kicked off and we were going nowhere. Here we had a service which offered more privacy and control over your network than these sites, as well as easy ways to discuss and plan with any group.

Looking for inspiration I contacted Stowe Boyd who by coincidence was going to be in  London the next week. He was happy to meet up and chat over dinner before we went to the Library House after party at the IMAX. I hadn’t met Stowe before and found it a pleasure to talk with such an affable veteran of the industry.

I explained how Phuser is this great private social website with practical tools to save you time, frustration and money when planning with a team but that we were struggling to get any traction in the market. Stowe hit the nail on the head: our best strength, privacy and control was also our greatest weakness. There was no public side to Phuser and it was killing us. Without a public side there was no way for the good word of Phuser to spread virally.

Stowe also had another good point. Entrepreneurs don’t like to backtrack and reassess the fundamentals of their ideas. But, as they say, when you find you are in a hole, stop digging.

In a further bid to help Stowe kindly offered to buy as much equity as he could afford with the contents of his wallet:

Counting the cash

Thanks again Stowe! It took a while to sink in but when it did it set me on a mission.

The last bastion of messaging

or how Twitter ruined SMS

The first thing I would like to make clear is that I know I can just unsubscribe from Twitter. But that is not the point.

The point is that SMS (that’s text messaging to us Brits) is endangered. For me SMS has always been a very personal thing. It is truly great, when I get a message I know it is something important or interesting from someone I know. Something I will value.

The other day I was cycling into work listening to music on my phone converged device. I have an O2 Orbit and with the handsfree kit it works splendidly as an MP3 player. This also means I can take calls on the move and know when I receive SMS. For those concerned about my safety as I listen to music while I cycle, my journey is six miles on a disused railway track. So as I was cycling to work I heard an SMS arrive. Thinking is was something to do with a colleague or family I stopped, dug out my phone and read my important message:

“Scobleizer: Well, I’m tired of talking about iPhone. Hopefully something more interesting will come up soon.”

Thank God I stopped! What would I have done if I hadn’t know that right then? I felt fulfilled by technology and proud my ability to keep my finger on the pulse of Scoble’s every thought. Wow.
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So this is the future? Every messaging medium turns into a continuous stream of micro comments. Facebook is doing it, Twitter, Pownce. What, I ask you, is the value? Answers in the comments please.

This got me to thinking about what Kathy Sierra was saying about Getting Things Done and my previous blog entry about when email was great.

I am so conditioned now to react to all of these distractions that in my work day I don’t realise they are even happening. At least when I was cycling I was moving along making progress and when I stopped to read Scoble’s Twit I realised I had stopped, dug around for my phone, unlocked the keypad, read the message, got no pleasure, reversed the last three step and got moving again. This is what is happening all the time in work places around the globe and it must have an effect on people, the amount of hours they work and the economy. Perhaps food for another blog entry.

I suppose I have the small consolation that I didn’t get three points on my license because of Twitter, like Mike Butcher. Poor sod.

Dublin, I love it when a plan comes together.

I recently planned a trip to Dublin with some friends I haven’t see for about five years. The problem was, I’m sure, not an uncommon one. We were six people coming from Berlin, Godalming, Paris and Chamonix. We needed to find a weekend when we were free, get our flights booked and then make some plans for our trip to the Emerald Isle. Just the job for Phuser.

The first, choosing a date, was surprisingly easy. I created a Phuse and added the other five people to it. We immediately had a private place to put all of our chat. In the old days this would have been a whole bunch of emails. I added a Date Decider to the Phuse, suggested a date and asked for other date suggestions. A couple more were added by the others and we all said whether they were good or bad. It was obvious which one to go for and so our trip was underway:
Easy date deciding

Next I got some good tips on cheap flights from the others and after a bit of discussion over a few days (all in the Phuse) we had booked our tickets. The discussion continued as we decided what to do, where to stay and whether to hire a car. We were able to share the load as everyone booked either the rooms, car or the essential Guinness Brewery tour!

What would have been 88 emails over a couple of months was all on one page and really easy to refer to. I wanted to know when there was something to look at in the Phuse so I set Phuser to send me an SMS everytime there was a new update.

Phuser really came into itself once we were off and away from any computers. I set up Broadcast so that we could stay in touch easily by SMS. All any of us had to do was send an SMS to Phuser (+447624806185) and start the message with the keyword I had chosen (Dublin). Phuser then relayed the message to the other five phones (three French, two UK and one US). No fiddling and only billed for the one standard rate SMS to Phuser. This was great for meeting up as we all landed at different times as well as when we split up into groups. Try doing that privately in Twitter!

After we got back Phuser had one final task. I added a Photo Album to the Phuse and we all uploaded our pictures. My favourites are the ones of us jumping into the icy cold waterfall in the Wicklow Mountains. It was very inviting:

Calling us to jump in!

You won’t see us in our underwear on the internet though! Those photos are tucked up privately in our Phuse. This one sums up the trip nicely 🙂

Mmmm, Guinness

Vodafone’s hand in my pocket – Part 1

I went to Mallorca over Christmas and did two things with my mobile phone which resulted in being billed, I think unfairly, by Vodafone. The first occurred on landing, I received an SMS from Vodafone ES telling me that I had a voicemail which I should pick up. I tried calling my voicemail number which had a recorded message saying that I could not listen to voicemail abroad. Result: me being charged for a roaming call.Great!

The second is even more perverse. I have a Motorola phone which Vodafone have messed about with so that one of the key buttons always activates Vodafone Live with one press and without warning. The button can’t be re-programmed and you can’t access the GPRS settings. I regularly hit this button by mistake and have to cancel the connection. This is annoying in the UK but doesn’t cost anything. While in Mallorca I accidentally hit this button and activated a 3 second GPRS connection for which I was billed £1.50 because of roaming charges.

I strongly object to things like this which allow companies like Vodafone to make money. I am in the early stages of running a service company so I am also fascinated by how customer service deals with this kind of issue. I have had problems with Vodafone before where I have discovered billing errors. The last incident they had been billing me incorrectly for six months. When I called up they acknowledged the error on the current bill, I then asked them about the previous bill which they checked and found the same error. I then had to prompt them to look at the bill before that and suggest that maybe it was their duty to find out how long it had been going on for and refund me. I don’ t know if this is policy or their staff just not being on the ball but either way I felt annoyed that I had to help them give me my money back. Continue reading ‘Vodafone’s hand in my pocket – Part 1’

Drip drip drip

What has become of email? I remember the early days in 1995 when you would dial-up to CompuServe with some excitement and expectation in your heart. There was the possibility that a friend had taken the time to write to you and you would, in due course, write back. Today it is a far cry from those halcyon days. It has become a tiresome sifting exercise filled more with trepidation than excitement. The inbox is just a dumping ground for everything from spam to an Amazon dispatch to quasi-spam from the bank, unless you have the discipline to set up a series of rules. Even those rules can only tackle so much of the steady barrage. Part of the problem is that there is so little content of importance and yet it all requires a certain amount of attention, even though small, it takes its toll. If I were to take a person who had never used email before and described to them what I had to do on a daily basis to keep ahead of the incoming stream and then told them what I actually got out of it, they would think I was a loony. Continue reading ‘Drip drip drip’