Thoughts on the demise of Trutap
Ajit has a post, and there's also been some conversation on ForumOxford concerning the recent news about Trutap, which I'd like to comment on. Expect bias: Trutap are a customer and working on their mobile client has kept us busy over the last couple of years. Equally, there are some things I know but can't say here - so you're definitely not getting the full picture from me. I'm not really qualified to talk much about some of the issue he raises, but I'd like to tackle a couple - particularly when he references FP client, Flirtomatic, as a counter-example.
Ajit compares Trutap to other social networks several times, but I'm not sure this comparison is valid; look at the product and you'll see it's not so much a social network as an aggregator of them, as he notes. Inside Trutap today I counted 8 IM transports, 8 blogging services, 2 photo-aggregators, 4 social services, 4 lifestyle services, 3 fun and downloads and 5 sports services. 34 third-party services in total, with more to follow. Social networks aren't competitors to Trutap as much as they are suppliers.
Many people choose to use multiple social networks; I regularly tap into Facebook, Myspace, Twitter and Flickr and I'm not an extreme case. From this perspective, a product aggregating many different internet services sounds useful: iPhone and INQ mobile both try hard to do this, after all. Doing this in markets where the PC may not have a presence, let alone dominate, would seem to be genuinely worthwhile.
But how? The mobile web is a good means of reaching a large audience at low cost, but the raison d'etre of Trutap is to tie together content, messaging, IM and other services into a coherent whole then. This is hard to do within the constraints of a lowest-common-denominator mobile web user interface. Yes, things are getting better all the time with high-end mobile web browsers, but supporting just them won't give you the wide audience mobile web promises. We had version 1 of Trutap on 340 handsets within a few months of launch, making it the widest-ported application we'd ever produced, and version 2 was on 150 handsets within 3 weeks. If you know what you're doing, porting can be managed.
There's a good point in Ajit's post comparing the flexibility of a mobile web service with a deployed application, and this is a factor that's helped Flirtomatic adapt over the years. Updating Java apps over the air isn't a simple as rolling out a change on a web site, so the level of flexibility you get is reduced - but in compensation, you can deliver a superior user experience. Look at how many prominent web 2.0 businesses are frantically deploying iPhone apps (usually for free) which mimic their web properties, and you see a vivid demonstration of the value lurking in better UI. Again, the latest Trutap has an awful lot of flexibility in the content it can deliver; large chunks of the app are completely dynamic and specified server-side.
On audience numbers, 250,000 active users isn't shabby, neither is it stellar when compared to some services out there. Flirtomatic launched in June 2006 and had 225,000 by February 2007, so the performance of Trutap (launching November 2007, 250000 by October 2008) ranks pretty similar in terms of acquisition.
To me what's more interesting is the location of these customers and, as Doug Richard mentioned in his excellent Future of Mobile talk, the preconceptions that we ought to drop as a consequence: mobile in the developing world isn't simply a means for farmers to exchange cereal prices and there's a massive middle class whose aspirations map to their counterparts in the rest of the world.
So I find myself being a bit confused by his post. Does he really expect businesses backed by US hedge funds not to experience knock-on effects from the credit crunch? In a world of many social networks and services, is there not a role for aggregators? Are applications not a route for delivering superior user experiences? And if the demise of trutap was really inevitable, could we not have expected a prediction of it from him before the fact?