A conversation with Phil Windley about contextualized browsing

This week’s Innovators show has the lowdown on Phil Windley‘s new company, Kynetx. The first application of the Kynetx technology is Azigo’s RemindMe service. It alters search-results pages to highlight cases where the user has — but would likely have forgotten about — a discount-qualifying membership.

There are a number of moving parts in this scenario. On the back end, Kynetx provides a rules engine that decides how to rewrite a page based on the context of the user’s “web episode” and the user’s membership in an organization like AAA. Membership is asserted by an Information Card that the user installs, then presents on request to a browser extension. It asks the Kynetx service for a chunk of page-modifying JavaScript, then runs that code locally to effect the change specified by the rule.

If you’ve followed the Internet identity saga — a story that Phil has helped to write, as author of a book on digital identity and as an organizer of the Internet Identity Workshop — you’ll be thrilled to see that the Kynetx system is responsible for the minting and real-word use of Information Cards. As Phil explains in this interview, the cards as currently used convey no extra information, they merely signify membership. Still, it’s great to see this key technology finally percolate out into the mainstream.

Kynetx will mainly serve companies that want to solidify and enhance high-value relationships with customers by means of “permission-based context management.” Refreshingly, the Kynetx wiki qualifies that definition in a way that will make Doc Searls smile:

The following anti-lexicon contains words and concepts that Kynetx doesn’t use:

  • exploit – while opportunities might be exploited, people never should be.
  • eyeballs – we’re not doing optometry
  • target – you target enemies, not customers.

Near the end of the interview, Phil refers explicitly to Doc’s VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) campaign:

We see ourselves as plumbing for VRM. For example, we’re putting together a green choice card. If you install it, as you search around the web it will show you which companies have been ranked well or poorly in terms of social responsibility. Right now it’s just a demo, and we don’t have great data, but suppose we did, and there were enough of those cards out there, and Constellation Brands was determined by Fortune Magazine to be the least socially responsible company in 2008. If every time a cardholder found a Constellation product on Google there was a little icon indicating that, and there were a lot of people with the card, you could change the company’s behavior. They’d want to get the icon off that page.

It’s a fascinating notion, and it leads to an issue that I should’ve raised with Phil in the interview but will raise here instead. A couple of years ago, during my period of infatuation with Greasemonkey, I made a 4-minute screencast entitled Content, services, and the yin-yang of intermediation. At the time, I’d just invented a Greasemonkey-enabled version of LibraryLookup that was more aggressive than the standard bookmarklet version.

With the standard version, you click a bookmarklet while on an Amazon page, and a query against your local library pops up in a window. With the Greasemonkey-enhanced version, the Amazon page itself is rewritten to say:

“Hey! This book’s available at the Keene Public Library!”

Or:

“Due back at the Keene Public Library on March 28.”

But does the user of a web-based service have the right to modify pages in these ways? The screencast ponders that question. Three years ago there wasn’t enough client-side page rewriting going on to raise that question in a big way, and I guess there still isn’t, but now that jQuery is making the capability broadly available it’s bound to come up.

There’s a continuum of ways in which I can modify a web page in a browser, ranging from font enlargement to translation to contexual overlays. I wouldn’t draw a line anywhere along that continuum. It seems to me that I’m entitled to view the world through any lens I choose.

This doesn’t only apply to my view of the virtual world, by the way. It will apply to my view of the physical world too. We don’t yet have magic glasses that overlay web prices on shelf items, or web reputations on store signage, but someday we will.

I can’t see how I could be prevented from creating a heads-up display — for realspace or cyberspace — that’s advantageous to me. But I’ve got a hunch that those magic glasses are going to be controversial.

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