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Editorial: the universal status indicator

Editorial: the universal status indicator

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This originally appeared on my personal blog a couple months ago. It got quite a reception, so I thought I'd republish it here -- with some additions and modifications -- for everyone to see.

I’ve had an idea brewing for the past few weeks. It’s one of those ideas that makes you say, "this is too simple — there must be products out there that are already tackling this head-on." But for the life of me, I can’t find them. And even if I could, I already know they’re not being marketed correctly.

Frequently I’ll consider calling someone but eventually decide against it over concerns that I could be interrupting something. Seriously: think of how many times you’ve been in a meeting or on another call when the phone rings. "Should I get this? I better take it." Well, turns out your buddy was just calling to see if you were going to be in town next weekend to grab a beer. Urgent? No — the call could’ve waited, and your meeting could’ve gone on uninterrupted.

The idea is to create a service that relays two simple data points to your contacts: whether you’re available for communication, and if so, the best method to reach you (voice, text, IM, Twitter, so on). That’s it. On Android, you could integrate this with the contact list in a really sexy way that delivers all this information right from the phone’s main contact page, but other platforms could be done up in user-friendly ways, too.

You’ll have a few contingents of naysayers:

  • "I already effectively do this through LinkedIn / Facebook / whatever." That’s great, but I’m not looking for that kind of information there — and I don’t think anyone else is, either. The universal status indicator could be selectively configured to pull in availability and contact information through social networks and instant messaging services. This is one of those data points that I believe is important enough (and when you need it, you need it quickly enough) to aggregate and centralize.
  • "I’d never remember to keep it updated." Yeah, I wouldn’t either. Products like Locale have proven that situationally-aware smartphone apps can work, and universal status is a prime use case: for most users, I’m assuming status would usually be set automatically by a combination of calendar data, location, and phone state. In fact, iOS 5 is embracing this head-on with location-aware reminders.
  • "I don't want to be stalked." Of course, only those you approve will be able to see your status. You could also offer two levels of visibility: full contact information, and just a simple available / not available for folks you don't know well.

There’s a healthy side-effect, too: because your contacts are continually exposing their newest and best contact information to you, your phone can update your address book (which is probably connected to something like Google or MobileMe / iCloud on the back end) silently and on the fly. If I haven't talked to someone in a while, I know I'm always a little fearful that I've got an out-of-date phone number or the email address from their last job, and this would completely solve it. That’s not a neat trick to users who’ve got their phones wired into enterprise back ends but for the rest of us, it is.

So if anyone out there wants to take a crack at doing this right, consider the idea open-sourced. Sign me up for the beta test.