Thursday, August 18, 2005

Interview with Brian Dougherty, CEO of Airset

I had the good fortune to interview Brian Dougherty, CEO of Airset -- a company that makes PIM easy and mobile.

(Perma link

Brian Dougherty is a long time Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He has an EE degree from UC Berkeley and has worked in the video game, PC, PDA and cell phone, and interactive television industries. Most recently, he is the CEO of Airset, a web-based application that lets you share calendars, contacts, and bookmarks with trusted individuals and groups.

- How did Airset start?

I've always beleived in the power of combining online services and mobile devices. Airset has a foot squarely in each of these camps. You use a product like Outlook at work, but even if you use an Exchange server to share that with your work group, the rest of your life isn't integrated. Kids, spouse, friends etc. are not on that calender -- it's difficult keeping your work, family, and social life in order.

In part, this is because everyone in the rest of your life is not always in front of a computer, but they *are* in front of a cell phone. So, we created a networked personal information manager where both PCs and mobile phones can be clients, so whenever anyone updates an event or contact it is automatically updated across the network on all devices.

The goal was to network your address book and calendar with everyone you know, the first big challenge we faced was creating a senisble user interface to let you do that. As we studied the problem, we realized that most of the events in your life revolve around a few important group: your work or school colleagues, family, and friends or social groups. So we designed the product to let you manage all of these groups in one place with shared calendars, address book, blogs, etc. for each of the important groups in your life. We knew that people already on some kind of groupware were not going to change platform, so we worked with a third party synchronization company to get synchronization working so if you already used a groupware product like Microsoft exchange for one of the groups in your life, you could sync that information into your AirSet environment so you could see your whole life at a glance. AirSet effectively works like Exchange for all of the other groups in your life who don't have an IT manager to support an Exchange server. In fact, many of our early adopters are small businesses who use AirSet to provide the shared address book and calendar functions.

- Why is synching still so hard?

Lack of standardization in the dataset for calenders and contacts. The WebCal effort has gone a long way to try and fix that. CalConnect is trying to get people to adopt and implement standards, so I think the industry is moving in the right direction and this will get easier over time. Part of the reason there is no standardization is because people continue to innovate.

For example, AirSet is the first multi-groupware solution. While groupware has been around for a while there has not been a product that lets you support multiple groups in one integrated environment. When it comes to calendars and synchronization, this creates a new feature set that existing calendar interchange standards are not designed to handle. For example, I might have an event on my work calendar that I want to share over to my family group calendar so my wife will know I'm out of town. This concept does not exist in Palm Desktop or Outlook, so we struggled with how to support this when we synchronized to those products. We ended up using the category feature which works well with Outlook but created some problems for some Palm users because Palm only supports 16 categories. It's not a problem for most users because they don't use categories with events, but for some our synch ends up overwriting their last few category entries.

For a service like ours, we will eventually end up delivering synchronization to many different applications written by different programmers for different operating systems. (Outlook, Lotus Notes, Act, Palm, iCal, etc.) Our programers don't fully understand what was in the mind of other programmers, programs don't always conform to their own specs. We are 46 versions into our synch software to get Outlook synch right.

Eventually, everyone will gradually conform better to the standards and this will get easier. But right now everyone partially implements the standards and synchronization is a nightmare.

- What about iCal?

I love the UI, just click on the checkboxes and select which calender combinations you see. But iCal is organized around data and we wanted to be organized around people.

One of the epiphanies we had was that you had calenders associated with important groups of people in your life. iCal was too data centric. From our perspective, your life is made up of a series of shared calenders. So when you put something onto a calender it would go the right set of people.

The next release of our software does support iCal import and export and subscribing to iCal web servers.

- What about Upoc?

We certainly overlap with Upoc in that we send messages to groups over the phone. But I think the big difference is that we are more web application centric. Upoc is almost entirely SMS text message driven.

I would also put them in the social networking camp. We would like to do public groups eventually, but we are mainly a private group service. So, if you look at products like Upoc, Dodgeball (acquired by Google), and on the Web side services like myPlace and Friendster, those are products targetted at "getting a life". Airset is for folks who have established their social network and are now struggling to coordinate it across friends, family, and work.

- How have google applications, like gmail, google maps, changed people's views on what can be done on the web

They've had a tremendous impact. There were people doing this before Google, who tapped into Ajax web application development which enables you to do more locally in Javascript reducing latency. We are halfway through ajaxing our site.

Eventually, we hope to get almost everything on our site Ajaxed. This is important because it gives a web services the feel of a local application.

Google maps is a great example, that's the mapping solution we use in Airset, their smooth scrolling is the best visual example people have of an Ajax implementation.

I would also add that the 43folders guys have been doing this for a long time.

Flickr is another example of early innovation in using java script to deliver a higher performance web application. These companies have pioneered a kind of Renaissance in the whole idea of web applications. People tried to do this back in the Boom era, but part of the problem then was lack of support or uniform implementation of javascript, DOM, and CSS standards across browsers so it was hard to do really great stuff. Now we have a consolidation of browers in IE, Firefox, and Safari that all have a very consistent implementaion of these standards. This did not exist back in the days of the browser wars between IE & Netscape.

- Have you seen this type of web ap in corporate applications?

Look at the terrific success of They were the first people to hit the ball out of the park from an enterprise ASP service. They delivered the quality of experience using this type of low-latency web interface.

Eventually, we will have an Airset professional product targetted to small and medium size businesses. We think a groupware ASP based solution makes a lot of sense for small/medium sized businesses -- most people do not work for the Fortune1000. The cost and expense of maintaining dedicated groupware services just makes no sense for a small company. AirSet offers a great solution for these companies..

The basic service will remain free. We don't ever see little league teams or churches paying for groupware and for our vision of unifying your life in one place we need to make it easy for all of these groups to adopt the service. But there are a number of specialized features combined with a professional level of support that we will offer for a fee to the SMB market.

- When building airset, how did you decide what the key feature set would be? Did you use a system like David Allen's "Getting things done" (GTD) or Mark Hurst's "Good Easy?"

In the beginning we were working off of past experience building PIM solutions for the PC and mobile phone industries. However, about 9 months ago, several of us became users of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system. So the GTD fanatics in the office, myself included, have been pushing to have the product better support that system. For example we enhanced our list features to better support the GTD system. I now create a "deferred action" and "next action" list for myself in each of my groups.

We've spoken with David Allen a couple of times. I get the sense that he's a bit overwhelmed. He has a lot of people in the software world calling him. But he wants GTD supported broadly and is working on a guideline for developers like ourselves.

Some people have asked us for tying to-do's to days. Our development team is in the middle of figuring out a UI for that. We send out a daily schedule summary that has your to-do list items on it. We also plan to put the appearance of to-do items in the calender itself. One UI we are considering is to make it optional to overlay to-do list due dates on your calendar. But we have not settled on how it ought to work because we are getting conflicting request from users, hopefully we can sort out a solution that everyone will be happy with, or at least most people

- Why does GTD seem to be so popular in the software community?

When I read it it simply made sense. When you work in the software community, a lot of your time is consumed processing email and IM. The GTD processing method fits this work paradigm very well.

I don't think he (David Allen) necessarily views GTD through an email lens. But his approach happens to work very well for knowledge workers. As I wade through my e-mails each day I am quickly sorting them into Next Action, Deferred Action, Delegate, and Trash folders. It just works well.


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