Highlight app and the 'it's too radical to be normal' problem

Great ideas usually take time to germinate into a model that is truly feasible. People are notoriously slow in grasping new paradigms, preferring to flirt with a comfortable present that is more often than not, entirely worthy and sufficient. This consumer mindset is an issue that faces aspiring and radical technology entrepreneurs, it is not sufficient to simply have the chops to think and execute the new ideas, but the right timing is nearly as crucial. To possess the patience and sense to release a radical idea into the wild only when the market is ripe is a factor that can determine make or break.

People discovery is a concept that has floated around the mobile app industry for quite some time. Apps like Badoo, which was founded in 2006 by a Russian entrepreneur and currently has a user base upwards of 150 million, operates around a fundamentally location-based model, by allowing users to see and interact with like-minded people around their specific region. Scores of other location-based apps, such as Banjo and Sonar, have managed to find relative success in their respective niches as location tag aggregators over various social networks and as friend-finding systems.

Solving Problems People Don't Have

However, none of these apps have managed to crack into the notion of "passive people discovery" -- a concept that is far more daring and out of sync with a current person’s typical lifestyle. Highlight, an iPhone-exclusive application is perhaps the only app that has pursued this vision right from its inception without pivoting into more conservative and "present-day friendly" fields. Highlight co-founder and CEO Paul Davison’s determined and unwavering pursuit of this utopia, where "you’ll walk into a room and know everyone’s name" is admirable, however his app and his team have paid the price for ignoring the warning signs. Highlight boasts a mere 5,000 daily users according to AppData, which is down from approximately 9,000 back in May.

The sad truth is that nobody actually goes out with the expectation or intention of meeting and discovering new people along the way. For instance, if I was riding the subway to work, the idea that I would happen to stumble across my new best friend during transit is something of an outlandish view, and a wildly optimistic one too. Many people have taken this fact along with Highlight’s declining influence as reason to dismiss "passive people discovery" as a niche concept far too obscure to ever succeed. The short-sightedness of a claim like this, however, is embarrassing.

For example, Kirill Sheynkman of RTP Ventures says "a lot of these apps come from a problem that 99 percent of people don’t have". Sure it’s a problem that almost nobody has, but is the app really trying to solve a problem? Is it a requirement that all apps be born out of a problem that needs to be solved? Highlight was never designed to be the kind of app that would allow people to scour the streets of downtown in order to find interesting people to meet up with. When you look at it from this perspective then Sheynkman is certainly correct, an inability to find cool and interesting people within a certain distance radius isn't exactly a societal problem that people scream to be fixed. But if we’re kicking back with a coffee and find a great person to talk to in the same café, then we’d certainly be glad that the app’s there.

Evidently, Highlight has its merits and theoretically speaking, Paul Davison’s vision for the app and the future of social encounters is appealing and enticing -- it just needs a few more things to fall into place for it to be viable. Something as radical as Highlight isn’t the type of app to go viral and bask in exponential adoption rates, at least not now. The consumer is a hypocritical entity -- far too fickle to take for granted but also far too invested in current trains of thought and behavior to embrace unconventional breakthroughs.

Someone To Watch Over Me

Privacy is the tallest hurdle that Highlight has to jump over, and it’s a remarkably tall one too. The main criticisms of Highlight from opponents of the app have been simply the fact that it’s "creepy", as if it’s just inherently disturbing for like-minded people to realize that you exist within close proximity. For the sake of the app it would be preferable if the main criticisms were "it kills my battery" or "it’s intensely laggy" because those faults can be ironed out through engineering. You can’t engineer social sentiments, at least not in the sense that would exist in Davison’s nature -- through streamlining code.

The extent to which the consumer backlashes at the mere thought of being watched without explicit knowledge can be summarized adequately by looking back at the Carrier IQ scandal. Carriers and phone manufacturers installed the Carrier IQ software onto many phones, tracking the cellphone’s user activity. The ultimate aim of this tracking was simply for the purposes of troubleshooting and diagnosis; however, this reassurance offered no succour for an already enraged and compromised consumer collective. The scandal raised an important discovery of particular pertinence to companies meddling with user data -- consumers are intimidated by the idea of being watched, even if it’s for their ultimate benefit. This issue runs contrary to the trajectory of Highlight, which necessitates analyzing user data and usage patterns in order to deliver results of greater interest and relevance.

So how does Highlight overcome such a prohibitive consumer mindset? Well, it can’t because the consumer simply isn’t ready and now simply isn’t the time. Warming up to the idea of "passive people discovery" will require people to warm up to the idea of having publicly accessible information follow them around like a cloud above their heads. And for many and most users, this level of transparency exceeds the boundary with which they are comfortable.

Facebook is the best example of great timing. Right from its inception it has gradually worked towards greater transparency. User backlash has been evident, but its impact on Facebook’s growth has been negligible. CEO Mark Zuckerberg got people accustomed to the idea of sharing initially with the "what’s on your mind" status prompt, and then he let our friends see what things we "became fans" of. Then he changed "become a fan" to "like" because nobody becomes a fan of things in the real world, we simply like them -- subtly breaking down the wall between our real world and our regulated privacy clad online persona. By making the notion of sharing much more palatable, the company then enabled location-based sharing and more recently, seamless and frictionless sharing through its Open Graph API.

Siri Shows How Future-Tech Fails

Timing is a factor that can explain why certain technologies which were deemed potentially industry-shifting haven’t found legitimate practical use. Siri on the iPhone demonstrates this; it was poised to be a game changer when released with the iPhone 4S. In the advertisements, Siri seems like a game changer. To the user, it is just an entertaining gimmick.

You could argue that it’s because Siri doesn't do anything as well as it should -- an Android apologist certainly would -- but the truth is, it does. Perhaps not to the extent that the ads portray it, but it certainly suffices in providing quick answers to everyday questions that would normally require us to jump through hoops to find. Sure it’s gimmicky, but it’s more than that. Samsung, through its S Voice emulates Siri, clearly seeing the potential in the idea of the "virtual assistant".

The truth as to why Siri has been deemed by many as one of the most overrated and impractical innovations in the mobile industry is because talking to your phone is just weird. Such behavior hasn't yet entirely transcended the realm of science fiction, or the geek universe. It’s too radical to be normal. Nobody wants to get caught on the train talking to their know-it-all friend Siri.

If Apple had allowed Siri queries through text as opposed to simply speech, its practicality and use would probably be significantly higher. Text entry is a much more subtle form of communication, and users need to be eased into the idea of talking to their phones, instead of having the concept dumped on them.

Google Glass is another example, an idea that will change the world one day but is far too futuristic to digest now. Once people get acquainted to the idea of technology merging seamlessly with the way we live, then people will discover the appeal of Google Glass.

Being a forward-thinking technology entrepreneur is both a blessing and a curse. The ability to think, imagine and develop in anticipation of a distant future is an immeasurable gift, but many would be too smart to realize that society will be slower to catch up and much less open to embracing new ideas. This is Davison’s dilemma; he’s developed for a future that the market simply isn't ready for yet. People aren't prepared to open up to a level of transparency that is necessary for an app like Highlight, but we’re getting there. When that time comes, Highlight will be in an environment where it can gain the pervasiveness in order for it to succeed.

Photo Credit:  Oleksiy Mark/Shutterstock

Jeremy Liu is a high school student who first became obsessed with technology in the 8th grade when his father bought him an iPod touch after months of begging. At a time when iPhones and the iPod Touch were spectacularly rare, the device managed to fascinate both himself and his friends. Liu now shuns the mainstream and roots for underdogs, owning a Windows Phone, Blackberry PlayBook and Sony Walkman X. Since then technology has grown from a passion to an obsession and he now directs his energies towards writing. You can find him on Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.

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