Okay, so I decided to wait a bit to see if anyone glommed onto the really big news yesterday from Yahoo!, but no one seemed to get it. Most posts I saw focused on the new RSS aggregator in the Yahoo! Mail beta (which is definitely cool, don't get me wrong), but only sorta mentioned the new RSS Alerts bit. Actually the really important announcement yesterday was in the latter. But this is okay, that's what I'm here for. :-)
To tell you the truth, I'm so insanely excited about the Yahoo! Feed Alerts functionality I can barely contain myself. I think this is easily the most important service any online company has launched in the past half decade. Really. Yep, I may be a little biased, but this is really, really big. (Damn, I wish I had something to do with it! Congrats to the My Yahoo! team for thinking it up and getting out there!) I'm not kidding. This is going to change the world.
Let it mull in your brain for a second: RSS + SMS. For free. Think about it.
Conceptually this service is mind blowing to me. If you look at it from 10,000 feet you'll see that the total amount of people who would ever be able to use RSS feeds just went from the roughly 800 million internet users to the over 2 billion mobile phone users world wide. Make that 3 billion by the end of the decade. It's incredible. You could say that RSS just became the world wide defacto instant communication system overnight. Sooo cool.
Okay, I'll calm down. So that's pie in the sky stuff assuming 100% penetration and ignoring cultural differences and logistical rollout problems and all that. This is why other people actually make these products and I just do the hand waving. Okay, right. So let's just focus on practical realities, shall we? Just the stuff that's actually possible, no hand waving or star gazing, just a simple summary:
Yahoo! just enabled every blog and news service in the world to update 200 million American mobile consumers instantly. Every feed, from any source online is now a potential mobile alert service, instantly notifying readers, customers and users of any updates, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week anywhere they happen to be.
Uh. Wow. (You starting to get that little tingly yet?)
"Wait," you say, "I sign up and my phone beeps every time a feed is updated? I'm an elite digerati, dude! I subscribe to 500 feeds! My phone will never stop beeping! And I don't get enough info in my text message! This is useless!" Okay, feel better? I understand where you're coming from, but you're not getting it. That's okay, again, I'll help you out.
This isn't meant as a mobile news reader! Use My Yahoo! Mobile, Bloglines Mobile or one of the various mobile news reader Java clients out there instead. This is a mobile alert service tied to an open information syndication standard. You only sign up for things that you think are important for you to know about immediately, anywhere you happen to be. When those RSS feeds update, you will be instantly notified with a snippet via your mobile phone. Simple in concept, but potentially very powerful and definitely totally cool. I mean, your phone is with you, turned on, ready to communicate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, right? Most of the time it's just sitting there... Time to put it to work!
Let's start with the simplest example: blogs. Again, you don't use this service to subscribe to every blog out there, just the ones that are really important to you. What is important varies a lot per person, of course. If you're a Live Journaler, then hey, maybe your best friend Jenny's blog is honestly REALLY important to you. When it updates, you want to be the first to know. Or maybe it's something a bit more "serious" like a wall street blog or something. Regardless, this is a perfect service for these cases: Simple and effective.
Next is news services. There's already a bunch of news, sports and calendar type mobile alert services out there right? So that's a given that this stuff is something people want to know about immediately. But now it's an *open* service. It's not just Yahoo's Calendar that'll give you an update to your phone now, it's *any* calendar (with an RSS feed) like for example, Upcoming.org. Any news service is now a mobile news alerts service, any sports feed is now a mobile sports alert system.
Subscribe to a Flickr stream, and when a picture is posted, all the subscribers know instantly. Maybe it's a pic that's just important to a few people - like a picture of a hike or a sunset, or maybe it's a major news event and the photo stream is from a photojournalist with thousands of subscribers. Or maybe it's a Saturday night and you just took a pic outside a happening night spot. Now all your friends know where to find you.
There's more along these lines as well. Think about it - if you post mobile video instead of a picture, it's even more amazing. A quick video of your baby's first steps and your family can share in the moment as if they were there, instantly. Or maybe you captured a few moments of a major political speech or concert live - potentially thousands of people could be subscribed to your blog, get alerted and see it instantly. When has that been possible before? It's Personal Broadcasting (which I've written about extensively) and it's actually here, today.
Then there's all these custom site feeds out there as well! Subscribe to a custom Simply Hired feed and you can know instantly when there's a new job for you. Subscribe to an eBay Store, and know when a new item is available before anyone else does. Same thing for Craig's list - be the first to hear about a new apartment available or car for sale. Subscribe to, um, I don't know, a Surf Report Feed and you know when the tide is perfect for hanging ten right away. ANYTHING that can be made into a public RSS feed can now essentially be linked directly to your phone. Millions of phones.
This is just the publishing aspect - think about the communications possiblities. Say you and all your friends or your social group all add alerts for a Yahoo! Groups RSS feed? Now when you post a single message - via email, MMS, or online - alerts go out to everyone in that group automatically. With one email to the list, I've sent a mobile text message to everyone. Again, for free. And then they can see that message and respond online (again, say with a mobile email) and now everyone can get that message instantly as well. For free. Wow... That's pretty powerful. Think of all the blogs and forums out there with comment feeds? They're all now two way mobile communciation portals as well.
The best part is saved for the last - think like an entrepeneur for a second, and think of all the text messages you'd love to send out, but don't have access to an SMS service, or don't want to pay per message. I think SimpleWire, Clickatel, and NextBlast are all great services, but they all cost real money. That's all changed now - simply create an RSS feed for anything you want to send off to your users mobile phones, get them to sign up for Yahoo! Mobile and add the alert, and they'll start getting text messages from your system on their phone immediately. Yahoo! gets more sign ups and more engagement with mobile users, you get free SMS. That's a good deal for both sides - which is how I know this is a great service.
Alright, so now that I've raved a bit, let me throw out some caveats. Right now the service is limited to the US (sorry! I know! I know!), it's limited to just one SMS per RSS item (and you know how small text messages are) and the same issues with normal RSS aggregators will undoubtedly affect the Yahoo! Alerts system as well. How many times do you see the same story show up in your regular news aggregator? That could happen with your phone too (though I'm sure there are efforts to make sure this doesn't happen). Also, I've seen that sometimes the messages just don't go through for whatever reason (could be us, could be the carrier, could be Mars rising over Capricorn, who knows), so no nuclear power plant warning systems. And just like any RSS system, the messages will go out once Yahoo! sees the change in the feed (stretching the word "instantly" a bit I know... but I'm excited), but you can help this along by notifying us at http://blo.gs/ping.php.
Okay, here's how I'd personally take advantage of the new RSS Alerts:
First, try it yourself here, so you can see how the messages are being sent and formatted. Personally, I've only tested it on my phone(s) and carrier, so you should see how it works for you. (This is not an official Yahoo! blog by any stretch, so you can rant in my comments if you want, but I'd rather you do it at this official Yahoo! feedback page). Now that I've tested it, I can see that on my phone I'm just getting the first 120 characters or so of the description field with the markup stripped out. Thus if you wanted to enable your users to "click through" the text message to a mobile website, you'll have to include the URL in plain text at the beginning of the description (and I don't have to tell you to make it *short* no?), then your users will need to have a modern phone which will let them click that link, or somehow allow them to activate it. On the Motorola RAZR, for example, there's an option to "Go To" in the center menu button that's non-obvious to say the least.
If you don't have a mobile version of your site, the check out Phonifier.com which has both a basic transcoding service you can use, and code you can download and throw up on your PHP server as well to make your normal website into a mobile-friendlier site. Finally, I would suggest for now that you have a "mobile RSS" feed set up, linked directly to our alert service, and as the service is a beta, prepare for us to tweak how the content looks, what we do with the text summary, etc. But right now, it's a cool new service, and you should try it out.
Insanely cool, actually. :-)