Saturday, March 20, 2010

SXSWi discussion: Mendeley

During South by Southwest Interactive 2010, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Victor Henning and Jan Reichelt of about their project and their plans for it. Both are exciting - if you're an academic, anyway.

First, some background. Mendeley has been described as a sort of iTunes for research papers: its desktop client organizes your citations and accompanying files (PDFs, DOC files, etc.), while its web interface lets you share these citations and files. You can organize citations by project and use them to create bibliographies in a number of common formats. Think of it as EndNote meets iTunes meets (The Last.FM connection reaches deeper, since Last.FM's first investor is also Mendeley's.)

I've been using Mendeley for a while, and switched over to it in earnest last summer, when I realized that I needed a more flexible cloud-based solution. (I've been using a cloud-based system, Google Docs, for drafting papers.) It's been great for organizing citations, but I've never used the sharing function - partially because so few humanities scholars seem to use Mendeley.

When I sat down with Victor and Jan, I was very interested in their model, their plans, and their long-term stability. Here are some of the points they made.

The model. Yes, they want Mendeley to be the Last.FM or iTunes of research. Originally, they created Mendeley because as graduate students, they found that they had to spend a lot of time looking up and organizing citations. Why not organize and also share their citations and PDFs as a small community? So a free account will let users share their citations with everyone, and their files among 10 users.

But they were surprised to find out that institutions, both enterprises and academic departments, were also very interested. In particular, pharma, biotech and petrochemical companies, which are research-intensive, wanted to limit the amount of redundant information by sharing citations and files across their organizations. So they're working on a premium account that will allow institutional subscriptions, larger storage space, and more sharing. They estimate that they'll launch this premium account option in under six months.

Their plans. They also plan to expand the sorts of files that users can share, particularly institutional users. In particular, they'd like users to be able to share raw research data: data tables, audio, video, and so forth. Eventually, they would also like to add version tracking. These additions would particularly cater to institutional users, who must share data in private groups.

However, Mendeley also wants to push in the other direction, enabling more social sharing. Currently, users can create their own RSS feeds for publications, allowing them to feed their public collections into FriendFeed, Cliqset, or the like. And in Mendeley Desktop, when you add a citation, you can add shared notes around it. They anticipate more sharing features very soon, though. For instance, they expect to initiate a Facebook Connect connection in the next two months so that scholars can share recent citations and comments in their Facebook activity stream. (For scholars, it's preferable to FarmVille.) They're also working on an API (to be released in perhaps two months). And they want to introduce more granularity to collaborative PDF annotations, allowing users to choose case-by-case with which groups to share their sticky notes. Their next major release will also allow a browser view in the desktop software for comments and newsfeed.

In the medium term (which means 3-6 months in this business), they want to add other features. One is a recommendation system similar to Last.FM's, something that recommends citations to you based on what your friends are reading. Another is the ability to pull the conversation into the desktop. They'll connect all of the silos on the website. They also want to facilitate communication among relevant others and to display readership of citations.

They also see tremendous potential for enriching the metadata in the database. For instance, a department at Stanford has geocoded research - associating publications with the geospatial coordinates they describe - so Mendeley will incorporate that information. They also see potential for crowdsourcing some metadata, for instance, they are already training Mendeley to recognize PDFs by comparing crowdsourced metadata attached to previously uploaded PDFs. (In this way, Mendeley is more like the Shazam of research.)

They're eager to get more citations in Mendeley. Right now, they can pull in information from Zotero and Endnote, but they can't sync two-way with those formats. (Zotero synching would have to run as a Firefox instance, and Endnote's format is proprietary.) They hope that by developing an API, they can give others the tools to sync these formats.

Long-term stability. Mendeley's founders include founders of Last.FM and Skype as well as a former Warner Music executive. They have expertise in user interface development, they have academics in the driver's seat, and they have investor expertise - three critical ingredients for long-term stability. And they just finished raising second-round funding, funding that well exceeds the first round. Importantly, they also received two research grants from the EU and employ four people for R&D.

Beyond the above, they have a plan for revenue, focusing on the above-mentioned premium accounts plan for institutions.

Summary. I have been impressed by Mendeley as a desktop client, but I walked away even more impressed by the potential of the plans. After all, I'm very curious about what others in my field are reading and what they think of those readings - and I'd love to see these thoughts show up in their activity streams. Further, I can see all sorts of potential for sharing tagged citations or collections within and across professional organizations. The drawback I see for me is that the humanities are not well represented in the Mendeley community - at least not yet.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Little and big Hershey's bars: Android phones at SXSW 2010

Longtime readers know that I'm a big fan of my aging G1. It was the first Android phone, and still has some features that the iPhone can't match (ex: multitasking). On the other hand, it's a bit clunky in other ways, and I'm worried that the sliding keyboard will loosen up well before the contract is up in October.

So I've been casting envious eyes at some of the new Android phones on the horizon. In particular, two:

Google's Nexus One. Although it hasn't been selling all that well, this phone has some fantastic features and is now available for both T-Mobile and AT&T 3G bands. (You can buy it unlocked, which is probably what I'd do.) I saw a few of these at SXSWi, but didn't get a chance to fondle, er, test-drive it. If you'd like to give me that chance, email me or tweet me.

The Dell Mini 5. I did get a chance to test-drive this one, courtesy of Chris Byrd at Dell. It's fantastic. We heard about this one a while back, as an Internet tablet - but recently Dell revealed that it would also serve as a phone. Chris tells me that they haven't announced a carrier or price yet, and I was not sly enough to worm any other details out of him. But he did say he has been using it for the past couple of months and it has been great.

Let's put this on the table: The DM5 is enormous. Its home mode is landscape rather than portrait, like a PSP rather than a standard candy bar phone. And speaking of candy bars, it reminds me of nothing more than an enormous vintage Hershey's bar next to the diminuitive modern Hershey's that is the iPhone or Nexus One. It will fit in a shirt pocket, but sticks up about 3/4". It has forward and backward-facing cameras (for videoconferencing, when the carriers support that). It has a docking station that allows you to port the phenomenal video to a big screen. And yes, I covet it.

The DM5, Chris tells me, will be out in the first half of this year - so, by June 30. If it rolls out to AT&T, they will have a real competitor that sits between the iPhone and the iPad, combining features of both - as well as an unlocked Nexus One.

You may have figured this out already, but the DM5 looks like a strong contender for the next-gen Spinuzzi phone. If I have to get a phone without a physical keyboard, the DM5's native orientation and screen size should help to make up for the lack. And it's tailored to what I actually do with my phone - roughly 50% browsing, 25% tweeting and texting, 20% email, 5% talking. But the Nexus One also looks like an excellent phone. It's nice to have these alternatives out as my G1 takes its final lap around the track.

Monday, March 15, 2010

SXSWi: What Coworking Tells Us about the Future of Work

Here are my slides for this talk. The first three are for the panel as a whole, and the rest are my own remarks. Photo credits are at the end.

By the way, someone tweeted that I had too many words on slides and went through them quickly. Here, you can read them as slowly as you want.

Update March 20, 2010: LifeSize posts a link to video of the panel in the comments. My presentation isn't included, but two panelists and the Q&A are here.