Google’s real-time challenge

September 24, 2009

In its latest venture round last week, Twitter was valued at $1 billion. The Wall Street Journal calculated that $2.7 billion would be a fair value. Robert Scoble, an influential tech blogger — and habitual enthusiast — reckoned somewhere between $5 billion and $10 billion was justified. That’s for a company with no revenues and no known business model.

Has the world gone crazy again? Is Twitter just the latest manifestation of a new bubble of froth and hype?  Perhaps. But the excitement does point to an arena where investors’ exuberance is justified: the growth of the real-time web.

The real-time web has the potential to build significant businesses in a few areas. Take search.

Google is wondrous, and most of us are understandably reliant on the search results we get from it. But Google lets its users down badly when they try to find out what’s happening now. The epiphany for many came last January when US Air pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed his plane in the Hudson River, with no serious injuries. News of the event flowed rapidly through tweets from eyewitnesses. Cable news quickly caught up, but if you wanted to be a web voyeur, Twitter was the place to look. It happened again with the protests following the Iranian election. Twitter became the primary outlet for (unverified) news from the streets.

Think about less visible events. I’m interested in the city I live in, so I have a persistent search for any mention of “berkeley” on Twitter. The flow contains a lot of junk, but I also find out many things that would have eluded me before. That siren I heard? Someone has tweeted about a fire a half mile away. Police cars gathered downtown? There was a heart attack at the BART station. Companies, too, want and need this information in real time to track their reputation, to spot marketing opportunities and to be more responsive to customers.

News, however, doesn’t always make for a great business. Twitter has been cagey about how it will build revenues, but the possibilities range from premium accounts for businesses, to selling its data, either for trend-mining or for search, and — the grand prize — search-based ads. Niche revenue ideas, like sponsored celebrity tweets, are springing up as companies try to feed off Twitter’s success.

Twitter is capturing much of the interest in the real-time web, but others have spotted the potential.

Dave Winer, co-inventor of the syndication standard RSS and one of the pioneers of blogging, is reinvigorating rssCloud, which was part of the original RSS standard. If you have the right kind of feed reader, rssCloud provides instantaneous updates — kind of like a Twitter for any syndicated content., with more than 5 million blogs, has enabled rssCloud on all its blogs, providing a wealth of real-time content. Google isn’t oblivious to what’s happening. They’ve launched PubSubHub, a similar real-time protocol. Facebook, in turn, in August acquired FriendFeed, which consolidates in real time an individual’s feeds from multiple sources — blogs, Twitter, Facebook. Facebook promptly open sourced FriendFeed’s technology, which should help spread its adoption.

If the real-time web is more than a fad, there are two likely developments. First, it can’t remain largely the property of Twitter. The success of the Internet has been fueled by its openness. Twitter is more like the closed gardens — think AOL — of the web’s early history. I love the real-time web, but I don’t want to be locked into Twitter. There are also major questions as to whether Twitter, a centralized system, can truly scale globally. Users are already accustomed to seeing the fail whale. Alternatives will emerge, and they will be open, not closed. Second, Google will need to find a way to respond to the real-time web, beyond its largely unheralded, rather timid steps with PubSubHub. Google founder Larry Page acknowledged earlier this year that Twitter had stolen a march on the search giant. If Google doesn’t provide real-time search, it can’t be the world’s best search engine. And if it loses that crown, the lock it has on advertising dollars will fade away as well.

Lance Knobel is an independent strategy advisor and a writer based in the US. His professional site is at


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