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real time appTodd Greene is CEO of PubNub.

Mobile, web, and desktop online apps can be split into two categories: “static” or “real-time.”

Static apps represent the bulk of our online usage today: these are solitary, single-user experiences where content changes only when the user clicks a button, requests a new page, or does a “reload.”  New information is presented only when the user asks for it.

Real-time apps are infinitely more engaging.

These apps mimic behaviors we’re used to having in the real world: content is pushed to us “as it happens.”  Real-time applications let you edit docs together, battle your online buddies, find the closest taxi, and see when your friend is typing an “iMessage.” They let musicians perform from home and interact with adoring fans. Real-time apps make sure citizens know about critical safety issues as they happen. And real-time technology enables people to follow friends on a map, chat, share, and collaborate in a more natural, real-world, manner.

World of Warcraft, Facetime, WebEx, ETrade’s MarketCaster, and Facebook’s live “Ticker” may seem completely unrelated, but they all represent real-time apps, connecting users instantly with the real world. Another thing they have in common is that each cost tens of millions to design, build, deploy, and scale!

Real-time technology has always been complicated and expensive. But that’s changing.

Real-time networks emerge

New trends in consumer software are almost always driven by a sudden ubiquitous availability of an enabling technology. In the 90s, the launch of app servers moved websites from glossy brochures to destinations for online banking, travel, and commerce.  A decade later, open source software stacks help kickstart massive social networks operating on a shoestring budget without writing big checks to Oracle and IBM.

Today, a new enabling technology has emerged that’s driving an explosion of real-time apps. “Real-Time Networks” like PubNub, Pusher, and Firebase offer the core building blocks for real-time, globally distributed, and offered on a pay-as-you-go model.   (Full disclosure: I’m the CEO of PubNub, but we’re not alone in pioneering this movement).

The core building blocks of real-time

These real-time networks operate by establishing (and maintaining) a dedicated network socket connection to every device.

Until recently, this was an expensive proposition, roughly analogous to keeping a connected phone line open to all of your users, all the time.  Thanks to the elasticity of the cloud and some innovative technologies, the costs of these dedicated connections has now dropped substantially. 

But the magic happens once you have that connection.  A real-time network offers high-speed delivery of data, targeted to individual devices or broadcast to everyone simultaneously.  Presence-as-a-service provides an easy way to detect (and be notified instantly) when users go on/offline.  Data streams can be stored for future use, and even played back like a DVR for data.  Real-time audience visualization and out-of-the-box encryption comprise more of these core real-time building blocks.

As real-time networks become more commonplace, they are becoming adopted by new MMO games, business collaboration, and telecom companies.  But their availability is also driving completely new kinds of real-time apps. 

Real life enhanced by real-time data

Transportation is one of the earliest areas where we can see real-time technology changing our day-to-day behaviors.  What was once a tedious, horribly unreliable experience, ordering a taxi, is now becoming easy, predictable, and even fun.  Companies like GetTaxi, Sidecar, Uber, Lyft, and others let us order cabs with a single tap, and watch online as the cab approaches our location. 

But it’s not just transportation that’s getting a facelift.

ClassDojo uses real-time technology to give teachers a way to incentivize classroom behavior, using smart phones to provide instant feedback to the student and his/her parents. Soon, mobile apps will show real-time queue length for each restroom or concession booth.

Digital advertising evolves

Brands are using real-time in digital campaigns to drive audience engagement.

Coca-Cola enhanced the American Music Awards red-carpet show by letting online viewers manipulating the video in real-time for their friends’ enjoyment, and powered live voting during the Superbowl. Louis Vuitton created a global, live, online fashion show with online viewer interaction synchronized with the video.  Nike, Honda, Audi, Doritos, and Budwieiser are a few more examples of leading brands invested in their own real-time, user participation campaigns. Real-time in advertising is quickly becoming as popular as CGI was to TV ads in the 90’s.

The emergence of an online audience

Things get really exciting when apps are designed around the “audience experience”, instead of the “user experience.” Companies like TopHatter now offer a true real-time auction e-commerce platform, with avatars representing the bidders and auctioneer, complete with the sound of a gavel ending each auction.  Stageit brings the live concert experience online: audience members make requests, cheer (virtually), and even tip the performer online.

Social TV offerings from Viggle, Yahoo!, Applicaster, and others have taken a similar approach to nationwide TV audiences with online voting, predictive games, and real-time trivia.

Real-time goes mainstream

Real-time networks let app developers focus on their core competencies like better UI, richer experiences, and more creative features, instead of worrying about the massive investment and ongoing maintenance required to deliver real-time services. The cloud made massive storage and processing available to everyone.  Akamai solved the problem of globally scaling websites with content delivery networks.

Now, real-time networks have democratized real-time, you don’t have to be Facebook or Activision to deliver a real-time experience.

The real-time apps we see today are just the beginning — expect radically new possibilities in the way we shop, communicate, travel, work, educate, and experience the world.  The Lego pieces are now all in place; it’s now up to the creative folks to change the way we interact online.

photo credit: Office of Governor Patrick via photopin cc

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