Interview: Ken Thompson of Swarmteams about ants, bees, and mobile group communication

September 17, 2007 at 5:58 pm 2 comments

Some mobile applications hardly have instructions. Swarmteams has a manifesto. Based on how ants and bees communicate, the multi-channel community interaction system integrates text messaging (SMS), instant messaging (IM), email, web and RSS for groups across any internet browser or mobile phone.

We spoke with Ken Thompson, founder and chief scientist of Swarmteams Ltd, about the thinking and research behind it.

Who is Swarmteams designed for?
Thompson: It supports all kinds of groups, communities, teams including business networks, social networks, virtual communities and fan clubs. Messages can be instantly sent anywhere in the world from the web, email or mobile phone with no downloads required to PCs or phones.

Do you host it?
Thompson: We have designed Swarmteams so that it can easily be rebranded by customers and is delivered either as a fully hosted service or installed on a dedicated server as a standalone platform which can be fully integrated with existing customer systems (e.g. customer databases).

Without giving away any trade secrets, what did you learn from ant and bee communication that helped to inspire swarmteams?
Thompson: There are three really important things we learned which we have tried to build into Swarmteams:

  • You need to allow groups to be self-managed as well as centrally managed – concepts such as collective intelligence are really important to today’s social groups and virtual communities.
  • Biological teams achieve their amazing speed and agility not by long conversations but by numerous short broadcasts which are instantly received – hence the Swarmteams focus on Smart Messaging (Integrated SMS and instant messaging).
  • To effectively engage a group you need to learn from the way nature’s networks are connected (for example neurons in the brain). Nature’s networks are highly clustered (“scale-free” is the technical term) and any effective engagement strategy will need to reflect the way the different group members are connected with each other. For example, “Alpha Users” in many communities make up only 2% of the group by number, but by themselves are connected to over 50% of the other members. Thus they can make a great channel to reach the bulk of the group if you look after them well.

What makes Swarmteams unique?
Thompson: Firstly, I think our positioning is very interesting. “Group messaging” is a key element of what we do but we are not a group messaging system (nor a group texting system). We are a multi-channel community engagement system. Secondly, our customers are not individual users but the enterprises and organizations who sponsor and totally re-brand swarms for their communities to use. So we are not competing with our customers (or their brands) for the attention of their end-users, which I think also differentiates us… Finally, I guess, at the core of Swarmteams is some really interesting intellectual property which is patent-pending in both the US and EU, which also makes us that bit different.

What are some of the features of Swarmteams?
Thompson: We have a very comprehensive feature set… Some of the main things we support [include] a web messageboard [that] instantly aggregates all swarm messages and replies via multiple channels including SMS, email, RSS and IM (MSN, Yahoo, AOL, ICQ), with a full history of all messages sent and received on all channels. Smart messaging automatically routes messages to the best channel for each user. Swarmteams encourages user participation by a ‘swarm points’ reputation management system. It allows files (e.g. pictures) to be sent to swarms and stored for swarm access on the Web, and supports polls, surveys, and Skype conference calls. It allows messages to be forwarded between swarms at a single click, with bulk import of contact details from other systems. A complete set of handset commands allows swarm management without needing to access the Web, but the API supports 15 commands that any web-based application can send to Swarmteams.

What is your business model?
Thompson: There are two main elements to it – a license fee for the use of the system, plus a small charge for every swarm message sent by the system. We don’t at this stage see ourselves going down the advertising model route – we don’t like what it does to the user experience. There is also consulting income in terms of training and helping people how to get the best out of their swarms and swarm communities.

And your future plans?
Thompson: The product is functionally pretty rich, so our priority at the minute is building up our customer base and getting good case studies and hard statistics on the advantages of ‘swarming’ versus other forms of community engagement, such as mobile marketing. As you can imagine, we have loads of other things we want to do with the product, but we know it’s better to invent this in partnership with real users rather than invent it in the lab!

Michael M.
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Entry filed under: interview, ken thompson, mobile applications, mobile content, mobile messaging, swarmteams.

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