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Jamie Thomson

This is the blog of Jamie Thomson, a data mangler in London working for Dunnhumby

Interesting things – Twitter annotations and your phone as a web server

I overheard/read a couple of things today that really made me, data junkie that I am, take a step back and think, “Hmmm, yeah, that could be really interesting” and I wanted to make a note of them here so that (a) I could bring them to the attention of anyone that happens to read this and (b) I can maybe come back here in a few years and see if either of these have come to fruition.

Your phone as a web server

While listening to Jon Udell’s (twitter) “Interviews with Innovators Podcast” today in which he interviewed Herbert Van de Sompel (twitter) about his Momento project. During the interview Jon and Herbert made the following remarks:

Jon: [some people] really had this vision of a web of servers, the notion that every node on the internet, every connected entity, is potentially a server and a client…we can see where we’re getting to a point where these endpoint devices we have in our pockets are going to be massively capable and it may be in the not too distant future that significant chunks of the web archive will be cached all over the place including on your own machine…

Herbert: wasn’t it Opera who at one point turned your browser into a server?

That really got my brain ticking. We all carry a mobile phone with us and therefore we all potentially carry a mobile web server with us as well and to my mind the only thing really stopping that from happening is the capabilities of the phone hardware, the capabilities of the network infrastructure and the will to just bloody do it. Certainly all the standards required for addressing a web server on a phone already exist (to this uninitiated observer DNS and IPv6 seem to solve that problem) so why not?

I tweeted about the idea and Rory Street answered back with “why would you want a phone to be a web server?”:

rory street tweet

Its a fair question and one that I would like to try and answer. Mobile phones are increasingly becoming our window onto the world as we use them to upload messages to Twitter, record our location on FourSquare or interact with our friends on Facebook but in each of these cases some other service is acting as our intermediary; to see what I’m thinking you have to go via Twitter, to see where I am you have to go to FourSquare (I’m using ‘I’ liberally, I don’t actually use FourSquare before you ask).

Why should this have to be the case? Why can’t that data be decentralised? Why can’t we be masters of our own data universe? If my phone acted as a web server then I could expose all of that information without needing those intermediary services. I see a time when we can pass around URLs such as the following:

  • - Where is Jamie right now?
  • – Where was Jamie on 21st April 2010?
  • – What’s on Jamie’s mind right now?
  • – What documents is Jamie sharing with me?
  • – Where is Jamie planning to be over the next 7 days?

and those URLs get served off of the phone in our pockets.

If we govern that data then we can control who has access to it and (crucially) how long its available for. Want to wipe yourself off the face of the web? its pretty easy if you’re in control of all the data – just turn your phone off.

None of this exists today but I look forward to a time when it does. Opera really were onto something last June when they announced Opera Unite (admittedly Unite only works because Opera provide an intermediary DNS-alike system – it isn’t totally decentralised).

Opening up Twitter annotations

Last week Twitter held their first developer conference called Chirp where they announced an upcoming new feature called ‘Twitter Annotations’; in short this will allow us to attach metadata to a Tweet thus enhancing the tweet itself. Think of it as a richer version of hashtags. To think of it another way Twitter are turning their data into a humongous Entity-Attribute-Value or triple-tuple store.

That alone has huge implications both for the web and Twitter as a whole – the ability to enrich that 140 characters data and thus make it more useful is indeed compelling however today I stumbled upon a blog post from Eugene Mandel entitled Tweet Annotations – a Way to a Metadata Marketplace? where he proposed the idea of allowing tweets to have metadata added by people other than the person who tweeted the original tweet. This idea really fascinated me especially when I read some of the potential uses that Eugene and his commenters suggested. They included:

  • Amazon could attach an ISBN to a tweet that mentions a book. Specialist clients apps for book lovers could be built up around this metadata.
  • Advertisers could pay to place adverts in metadata. The revenue generated from those adverts could be shared with the tweeter or people who add the metadata.

Granted, allowing anyone to add metadata to a tweet has the potential to create a spam problem the like of which we haven’t even envisaged but spam hasn’t halted the growth of the web and neither should it halt the growth of data annotations either. The original tweeter should of course be able to determine who can add metadata and whether it should be moderated. As Eugene says himself:

Opening publishing tweet annotations to anyone will open the way to a marketplace of metadata where client developers, data mining companies and advertisers can add new meaning to Twitter and build innovative businesses.

What Eugene and his followers did not mention is what I think is potentially the most fascinating use of opening up annotations. Google’s success today is built on their page rank algorithm that measures the validity of a web page by the number of incoming links to it and the page rank of the sites containing those links – its a system built on reputation. Twitter annotations could open up a new paradigm however – let’s call it People rank- where reputation can be measured by the metadata that people choose to apply to links and the websites containing those links. Its not hard to see why Google and Microsoft have paid big bucks to get access to the Twitter firehose!

Neither of these features, phones as a web server or the ability to add annotations to other people’s tweets, exist today but I strongly believe that they could dramatically enhance the web as we know it today. I hope to look back on this blog post in a few years in the knowledge that these ideas have been put into place.


Published Wednesday, April 21, 2010 11:41 PM by jamiet

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Todd McDermid said:

A couple years back, my mobile provider started charging for tethering to my phone - when asked why, they told me it was to prevent web servers from being run on their cell network.  I couldn't believe it either.

I'm not so sure that we'll be running web servers off our phones in the future - and here's why:  A phone is by its very nature of being portable, "volatile" - it can lose connection (even in the future with better coverage), it can suffer power problems (dead battery), and it can get dropped.  I see those functions being served from the cloud - by a hardwired HADR partner system to the mobile end that is your phone.

That said - there are some things you simply can't shove in the cloud - like live-streaming video.  I don't think it will be too long before live-streaming capability on phones will be the "norm" - even if it is through a cloud service intermediary.

April 21, 2010 6:00 PM

Matt Cherwin said:

Todd - I agree completely. I can see blog software evolving into a system which is designed to pair with a piece of client software on your mobile device and sync the information you choose to expose. But I doubt the cell network will be robust enough any time soon to support actually serving data off your device - and I'm certain that battery technology won't be good enough in the foreseeable future for me to want an actual web server running on my phone.

That said, I think the required pieces are already here to simulate something very like this, if one were inclined to design it. A client app on the phone which periodically uploaded location data, new pictures, web history, bookmarks, notes, or what have you could be written (and with OS 4 finally supporting some multitasking, it could even work on an iPhone! :p).

You could even do something a bit more on-demand by hooking into the phone's text messaging system - have your web server send your phone a specially-formatted text (I'm thinking along the lines of a pre-determined random key value plus commands: "[W&ev5@m_!qq#^Do$] !LOC !PIC !CAL", for example), and have your client app respond to that with the appropriate information (location, new pictures, new calendar events).

Essentially, I'm entirely on board with centralizing all the information that makes up your web presence into a location you control...I just don't see it being feasible to put that location all the way out on the edge any time soon.

April 22, 2010 10:38 AM

jamiet said:

Thanks for the comments fellas. I think the operative phrase here (and Matt, you used it a few times) is "any time soon". I don't think its beyond the realms of possibility that *one day* we'll have devices in our pockets capable of this. God knows when "one day" will be tho!!

April 22, 2010 10:48 AM

Eugene Mandel said:

Jamie, I agree with Todd - your phone can be the master copy of your information on the web, but be proxied by a cloud service that would address the limitations of mobile phones - availability and scaling.

April 22, 2010 10:48 AM

jamiet said:

Hi Eugene,

Yes indeed, that would make sense. However, one would assume you wouldn't be hosting that cloud service yourself so you're still replying on a 3rd party and if you're doing that then you're not totally in control. Call it a proxy, call it a cache, its still a 3rd party and ostensibly that's not too different from what (e.g.) twitter does today.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not disagreeing. I quite agree that for the foreseeable future (and I'm talking a long long time into the future) some intermediary service will have to be involved.


April 22, 2010 11:03 AM

Steve said:

Hi Jamie,

"Why should this have to be the case? Why can’t that data be decentralised? Why can’t we be masters of our own data universe? If my phone acted as a web server then I could expose all of that information without needing those intermediary services."

if you haven't already, you should read a book named "Pull" by David Siegal.  It talks about this very thing.  His prediction is that once applications (and buildings and appliances) begin emitting (meta)data using open, standard formats, a whole host of possibilities will open up. Very interesting book and is EXACTLY what you are talking about right here...


May 14, 2010 1:22 PM

jamiet said:


That sounds right up my street. I'm going on holiday in a few weeks so I think a visit to Amazon is in order. Thanks for this - very much appreciated.


May 14, 2010 3:44 PM

SSIS Junkie said:

[Four months ago I wrote a meandering blog post on another blogging site entitled Personal search – the

June 9, 2010 5:41 PM

Barny said:

In the win mo community (namely xda-devs) there are actually applications for accessing files on your device that run as a web server and accessed thorugh your home wifi network. now there is nothing stopping you from binding your phone to a dyndns alias and allowing web access to it...

July 23, 2010 10:27 AM

SSIS Junkie said:

In April 2010 Twitter announced a new feature that they would soon be introducing - Twitter Annotations.

January 25, 2012 9:17 AM

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