We've blogged so much about Google lately, it's nice to be reminded that a lot of innovation in the valley still comes from small shops. David Weekly of Hillsborough launched his new service called IM Smarter two weeks ago, and it may be one to watch.
It's a web-based service that sits between you and your instant messaging service (AIM, Yahoo IM, MSN Messenger, iChat, etc.) and adds features, such the ability to save copies of conversations. Unlike Google's Desktop Search tool, which logs AIM messages to your desktop, IM Smarter stores the conversations on its servers so they can be accessed anywhere in the world.
IM Smarter also lets users pre-program reminders to themselves, which pop up as instant messages on their screens.
The service has already recieved some key blog mentions on Engadget and BoingBoing. Then this weekend, it got Slashdotted, always a bittersweet experience. Good for publicity, not always good for the flood of hits and users that come flying your way.
"It's been a little crazy,'' Weekly said from his home/office.
Weekly characterizes his service as a electronic "secretary'' that takes notes and alerts you to important events.
"The logging will appeal to people who passed notes in school and would keep them in a shoebox,'' he said. "And there are people who use IM for business purposes and want to keep those conversations.''
Some people may remember Weekly, 26, from his days as mp3 evangelist.
While still a computer science student at Stanford in 1997, he began freely distributing mp3-encoded songs using the school's Internet connection. Geffen Records forced the school to shut him down, so Weekly tried to start a company that legally distributed mp3s. It never took off. He later gained fame for reverse engineering the Napster software, revealing its inner-workings to the Net community.
After school, Weekly went to work at Legato and There.com. But his long-term goal was always to start his own business. His original idea was to do web-based project management. Another company beat him to the punch. And his interest in instant messaging drove him to invent IM Smarter.
Already, the service is raising privacy concerns. Intentionally or not, IM Smarter has tapped into the emerging debate over which of our digital footprints should be ephemeral and which should be logged and recorded semi-permanently onto hard drives. Many users of IM assume their conversations are ephemeral, and posters on the Slashdot thread recoiled at the idea of their IM messages being saved on remote servers.
"Yeah my knee jerk reaction to this was "never in a thousand years" too,'' one poster wrote. "Don't forget that the person you are messaging may be using this service *and you'd never know*"
"IM conversations are much more personal,'' Weekly said. "People are not used to having them hosted on servers. It's always an issue....There are some people for whom adding another trust party to the mix is not their thing. And that's alright.'' Weekly said users can disable logging and still use other IM Smarter features.
For now, the service is a little rough around the edges. The web site is not as slick as he'd like, and the documentation could be easier to use. Weekly clearly was caught off-guard by the sudden surge in publicity. "It's a scrappy little service, and it has a ways to go.''
IM Smarter is free for now. But there is a business model. Weekly hopes to add advertising to the greeting page that every user sees when he or she logs in. The ads could be targeted to users based on their age or location, two personal bits of information that Weekly collects when users sign up.
He'd also plans to launch an ad-free premium service that allows users to set up IM alerts for tracking changes to web sites, UPS or Fedex packages or eBay auctions. He also talked about an "IM secretary" that tells other IM'ers that you're busy and queues up your messages for you. For about $5 a month, he said, "that would handily cover our costs.''
Weekly says profitabilty could come quickly. "The cost of operating the service is low. It doesn't require a lot of CPU time. Getting a customer doesn't cost much."
Weekly has no plans to seek VC funding. He's funded the business with help from friends and family members and wants to continue bootstrapping. He could envision the company someday being acquired by one of the big Internet companies (a Yahoo, maybe?) that has a strong interest in Internet search and IM. But he insists he is not building his business simply to get acquired.
"It'd be foolish to plan a business around being acquired. That's like shooting to win the lottery.''
UPDATE: We forgot to mention that Weekly also co-founded the California Community Colocation Project, which provides a free Internet presence for dozens of non-profits.