Buddies Forever?

The Voice of IP

Buddies Forever?

By TMCnet Special Guest
Jonathan Rosenberg , Chief Technology Strategist at Skype
  |  March 01, 2012

Buddies Forever?

This article originally appeared in the March issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY magazine

May 2012 will mark the 15-year anniversary of a concept that has been at the heart of modern real-time communications applications since its introduction – the buddy list. The term was first used by AOL (News - Alert) as part of its AOL Instant Messenger application, released in May 1996 to the general Internet community.

At its core, the buddy list experience combines four concepts: a scrollable list of users, user addition through a friend request of some sort, an indication of whether the user is reachable for real-time interaction, and a capability to initiate a real-time interaction (most notably an instant message). This experience established a design paradigm that became foundational for many applications that followed it, and it is still in usage today. Happy birthday, buddy list!

In Internet terms, 15 years is a very, very long time. A lot has changed since the buddy list was introduced. These changes have started to put real pressure on the buddy list as a design concept. In particular, three changes in the technology landscape are challenging the venerable buddy list: mobile address book matching, social graph overlays, and e-mail links. Behind all of these are the bigger industry trends around mobile and social.

The mobile address book matching concept has been utilized by several recent smartphone applications. These applications, once installed, scan the mobile address book. The contents of the address book are uploaded to a server. In addition, the application determines (and sometimes verifies) the user’s mobile phone number on that device. Verification typically happens by having the user type his or her mobile number into the app, and then a backend service sends an SMS to that number, containing a code. The user enters the code into the mobile app, and this serves as proof that the user truly owns that number. The backend service builds up a database of address books (which contain mobile numbers for many if not most entries), along with mobile numbers for their users. Any number in the user’s mobile address book that matches the mobile number of another user becomes instantly reachable. Indeed, some applications take this to the next level, and send push notifications to existing users when a new user signs up that is a match for their address book.

Mobile address book matching does away with the friend request concept, and instead relies on the social graph present in the mobile address book itself. It also does away with the notion of a scrollable list of users unique to the app; rather, the scrollable list is the mobile address book itself, and a subset of them are reachable for some new real-time interaction. Mobile address book matching has only become feasible in the past few years; it relies on smartphones, app stores, and mobile push notification services.

The second change is social graph overlays. In this approach, a user installs an application and then links that application to an existing social network – typically Facebook (News - Alert). Any friends on that social network who are already users of the same application become instantly reachable. Any friend not already using the same application can be sent an invitation to obtain the application. This approach has been used by a wide variety of web and mobile applications – not just real-time communications. Like mobile address book matching, it does away with a distinct friend request, and instead relies on relationships built on an existing, third-party social graph. It has been enabled through the emergence of social networks and through the connect model, allowing third-party applications to access a user’s social network.

The third change – and the oldest of the three – is the use of e-mailed hyperlinks. When users install an application, they can enter the e-mail address of anyone they wish to talk to (or import e-mail addresses from the mobile address book or other source). The target user is e-mailed a hyperlink, and when that link is clicked on, the user is brought to a page that enables them to have a communications experience without signing in or signing up for the application. E-mailed hyperlinks also do away with the friend request, and also abandon the scrollable list, opting instead for a reach anyone model based on e-mail address.

A common theme across all three of these new technologies is the reliance on larger, external social graphs to bootstrap communications. Mobile address book matching relies on the social graph of the telephone network itself, using the mobile number as an identifier and the universe of mobile address books as the social graph (arguably this is the largest social graph in the world today). Social graph overlays rely on third-party social networks for the graph, and leverage the identifiers in those networks. E-mailed hyperlinks rely on the social graph of the e-mail network and e-mail address books, using the e-mail address as the identifier.

Though we wish the buddy list a happy birthday, it is clear that new technologies that bring new and different approaches for communications are arriving. 

Edited by Jennifer Russell