21 August 2009

The Universal Digital Port - the next killer app

Years back, I remember reading about a couple of sisters who were trying to get their older mother to use the Internet.

"It's great, mom. Here look," they said, pointing her to a search engine. "You can ask it anything you want."

"Oh, I don't know," their mother said hesitantly.

"Come on. Ask a question."

"Okay. Ask, How is Aunt Helen doing?"

Of course, in this stage of the Internet before social networking sites, this was quite funny. But now, given that Aunt Helen might well have a Facebook account, this is a perfectly valid question and one that could be answered in Aunt Helen's latest status comment.

Facebook made Mark Zuckerberg the world's youngest billionaire when it became the latest killer app. Social networking sites followed on the heels of search engines and online news and online stores and email as the Internet application that changed lifestyles and created billions in wealth.

The more an application personalizes the vast amount of information on the Internet, the more value it creates for users and the entrepreneur who creates it.

I think that the next killer app is the universal digital port - the one place you go for a prioritized look at everything you care about - from Aunt Helen's health to Albert Pujols' latest game stats to the email from your client to the YouTube video that is going to become your favorite movie for all time - or at least for this week.

Right now you have to toggle through a couple of email in boxes, look at a few news sites, check in on one (or two or three or ...) social networking sites. And as the digitization of all things is complete - from TV shows to your phone calls and everything in between - the real value will come from a personal google that filters and prioritizes everything that competes for your time.

People will have to train this - just as they would a pet. And they will train it mostly by the choices they make. And the universal digital port is trained, you could even set it up to filter things you would not choose in the moment. It might limit you to 15 minutes of YouTube or Facebook a day but give you unlimited access to your e-textbooks for your classes. It might even seize up and give you no new digital data until the heart monitor you wear lets it know that you have engaged in 30 minutes of aerobic exercise.

It is well known that our long term aspirations are inevitably loftier than our short term choices. We want to be trim but we choose the ice cream over the evening jog. We want to learn French but we watch a rerun of Star Trek instead. A universal digital port might make it harder for us to putz around and easier to improve ourselves.

But ultimately, the game of life in a digital world is a zero sum game. If we watch the movie we don't call our mom. If we work on the presentation, we don't work on our back stroke in the pool. It might be that the next killer app doesn't just make it easier for us to access what matters to us but - by juxtaposing it against everything else that matters - makes us more aware of the opportunity costs involved in each action. And that might do as much to change lifestyles as anything the Internet has yet done.

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