Joseph Smarr

Thoughts on web development, tech, and life.

Month: January 2010

HipChat is consumer-meets-enterprise done right — check it out!

Three of Plaxo’s best engineers and designers left almost a year ago to start a new company (much as they’d done a few years ago with HipCal, which Plaxo acquired in 2006). After a brief private beta, today they are launching to the public.

HipChatMeet HipChat. It’s a new (and, IMO, very clever and promising) approach to group collaboration within companies and teams–essentially group chat plus file-sharing done with the simplicity and polish of a great consumer app, but targeted at the enterprise. And it’s meant to spread organically and bottoms-up by attracting enthusiastic team members who really find it useful, rather than top-down through long sales-cycles to CIOs–in other words, winning by actually being better for the people that use it every day. You’ll be able to tell this from the moment you start using it–it’s distinctly “un-enterprise-y” in all the right ways, yet every enterprise needs something like this to be more productive and organized.

[ More HipChat screenshots ]

I’m excited about HipChat for several reasons:

First, the founders (Pete Curley, Garret Heaton, and Chris Rivers) are all rockstar talents and super nice guys; the best of the young web 2.0 “bootstrap from nothing and build something genuinely good that grows because people are using and loving it” approach that’s only become feasible recently. Whatever they work on, I know it’ll be well thought through and well executed, and it’ll keep getting better over time. These are good guys to know and watch, and they’re just getting started.

Second, group collaboration is a space that everyone knows is important, and yet that nothing does a good job of solving today. At Plaxo we’ve tried tons of wikis, internal blogs, mailing lists, document depots, dashboards, you name it. They’re always too complicated and cumbersome and never have streamlined workflows that work the way you need. One of my early surprises coming to Google is that for all their efforts and internal tools, the situation is ultimately not much better. Information is still spread everywhere across a variety of systems, is too hard to find and curate, and too often forces you to just ask the person next to you and hope for the best. Maybe new tools like Google Wave will make a difference here, but of course the more flexible and general-purpose a tool like that is, the greater the risk that it will do too many things and none of them just the way you want. HipChat may not be the magic solution to this complex problem either, but it’s refreshing to see the team apply a consumer-app eye and discipline to the problem–focusing on specific task arcs to really nail, and an end-to-end polish and friendliness that’s so clearly lacking from most other groupware tools.

This last point deserves its own slot: in my experience, the only way to really advance the state of technology making a real difference in the lives of real people is to subject it to the harsh Darwinian landscape of consumer software and devices, where if it doesn’t “just work” and provide a compelling and enjoyable experience, it doesn’t get used. This is the sharpening steel that’s honed all the best apps we have today, from gmail to facebook to the iPhone to boxee, and so on. And if you think about it, it’s the missing piece that makes most enterprise software so terrible–your company buys it, and you’re stuck with it, like it or not. The typical enterprise “fitness function” yields a much slower and sloppier rate of evolution than the consumer one, and that I believe is the main reason the quality of the two classes of apps differs so much. So it’s great to see an increase in companies willing to try and swim upstream to gain corporate adoption with a consumer mindset, whether it’s Google Apps,, Yammer, or now HipChat.

If you work on a team, if you’re dissatisfied with the state of collaboration tools, or if you just want to see a really well done new app, I encourage you to check out HipChat. We used several early betas inside Plaxo, and while any new communications tool faces an uphill battle to gain critical mass of adoption and change old habits, enough of us had enough “eureka moments” using HipChat to see its strong potential and to wish that we could fast-forward time until more people are using it and it’s had even more love put into it. The next best thing we can do is to spread the good word and give our support to the team, so consider this post a down payment!

Sources of inspiration for 2010

Despite all the serious challenges the world is facing these days, I’m also seeing more and more that inspires me–cases where great things are happening to great people doing great work and improving the world in the process. Specifically, the following recent examples come to mind:

  • Movies: Avatar
  • Music: Lady Gaga
  • TV: Netflix HD streaming to Blu-Ray/TiVo/Xbox/etc.
  • Mobile: Palm Pre & Nexus One
  • Desktop: Chrome OS
  • Social: Foursquare

What do all of these have in common? They’re all cases of insanely talented outsiders changing the world by just working really hard and doing great stuff.

Everyone said James Cameron was crazy to make Avatar, just like they said he was crazy to make Titanic. They’re both such impossibly grand, expensive, and difficult visions to capture. But he did it anyway, and the work is brilliant, and the only thing that went broke were the previous box-office records.

Same thing with Lady Gaga: just two years ago, no one had heard of her, and she was just playing little clubs in New York. But using her incredible talent in song-writing and performance art, and a willingness to work insanely hard every day, she unleashed her strange and unique vision of music/fashion/art/performance and took the world by storm, becoming the first artist ever to score four #1 hits off her debut album, and at age 23 no less. If you haven’t paid close attention and think she’s just another made-to-order corporate pop starlet, take a closer look, you’ll be surprised (as I was).

Netflix is certainly an outsider when it comes to watching TV in your living room (it’s neither a cable provider nor a set-top box manufacturer), yet now that I can watch entire seasons of Lost in HD on my TV whenever I want–thanks to its Watch Instantly streaming and integrations with existing set-top boxes and gaming consoles–I find myself rarely watching “real TV” any more. And Netflix’s user experience is far superior–it knows which episodes I’ve already seen, so I can just pick up where I left off whenever I have a free moment. And if I’m up at Tahoe for the weekend, I can watch it there too on my laptop, and my episode history is kept in sync because it’s stored in the cloud. Brilliant.

Both Palm Pre and Android (hard to pick a favorite yet!) are up against fierce competition from Apple and the old-world mobile establishment, and neither company (Palm or Google) is an established player in this space, but they’re both producing excellent devices that simultaneously improve the quality of the experience for users while opening up more flexibility and power to developers. And they’re also making web development more of a “first-class citizen” for mobile apps. It’s hard to think of a more ambitious challenge than building your own mobile platform–hardware, OS, software stack, apps, and distribution in physical stores–but that’s not stopping these guys from having a major impact, and the game is just beginning.

Chrome OS isn’t even out yet really, but it’s already clear that the desktop will soon evolve to their vision where all important data lives in the cloud, and it will no longer matter if your computer dies or if you want to use multiple computers in different places–a pain that I’ve experienced many times, as I’m sure you have. Windows is one of the most well-established monopolies there is, so again it’s crazy in some sense to try and compete there, let alone with a radical new vision that does a lot *less* than the status quo, and instead re-imagines the problem in a new way. And yet people buy new computers all the time, so it’s not hard to believe that they could establish considerable market share in a short number of years, while forcing radical change from their competitors at the same time.

And perhaps closest to my own area of work on the Social Web, I think it’s noteworthy that the company that has had the biggest positive impact on how I connect and share with my friends in the last year is not any of the big established players, but a tiny startup that’s building itself up from scratch by making it easier and more rewarding to share where you are and what you’re doing: Foursquare. While I cringe at the amount of work they have to do to integrate with each separate social network and build apps for each separate mobile device (that’s why we need more common standards, of course!), they’re still able to deliver an awesome product with a tiny team, and their service is taking off like a rocket.

Why are these examples so inspiring to me? They provide reassurance that in 2010, two basic things are still true–perhaps more true than ever before:

  1. You *can* win by being excellent and working hard to build a better product
  2. You *can* win even if you’re an outsider in a field of powerful incumbents

It’s hard to believe in transformational innovation if you can’t believe in those two points, and it’s often easy to get discouraged, since these are such difficult challenges. But if those guys can all do it, so can we. In fact, it’s not hard to believe that it’s actually getting easier to succeed in these ways. After all, barriers to entry keep getting lowered, and the spread of information keeps getting faster and more efficient, so the good stuff should be able to be discovered and bubble to the top faster than ever before. If that’s true, then the new “hard problem” should be doing great work in the first place, and that’s the problem I want to be tackling!

What examples are inspiring you right now?

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