Had it been an earlier decade, it would have been a paper note, pinned to a bulletin board: A plea for a study partner in a tough class at UC San Diego.
But Shawn Conahan sees a day when a student writing those words will punch the text into his cell phone, then post the message on the cell phone network using software called Rabble.
Once the message is up on this corkless bulletin board, other cell phone users can find it. Fellow Rabble users can search for the words “study partner,” limit the search to the San Diego area, then find the message posted by this hapless soul.
Conahan, 33, is chief executive of Intercasting Corp., a year-old company in University City. Intercasting makes the Rabble software and runs the computer servers behind Rabble’s electronic bulletin board.
The company scored a coup in June, when Bedminster, N.J.-based Verizon Wireless began offering Rabble to its subscribers. Those who sign up see a $3 monthly charge on their cell phone bill.
Verizon has positioned Rabble to take advantage of a phenomenon called blogging , the practice of putting diary entries, other commentary, and even photos on the Internet. The application “seems to fit a niche need,” said Verizon spokesman Ken Muche, “melding the real-time blogging world with the mobility of wireless, so that bloggers can take their operation on the road.”
Rabble’s most-viewed blogger is 23-year-old Alyson Burgess, a student at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Her screen name is LiberalFury, and Rabble users may select a “channel” called LiberalFury to get her take on the hot political issue of the day.
Burgess said she originally used a similar application called Peeps Nation, produced by Trilibis Inc. of San Francisco. Then she switched to Rabble after finding it among the latest Verizon software offerings. (Another Rabble competitor is Winksite, operated by Wireless Ink LLC of Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.)
A Mobile Activist
Burgess said she views Rabble as “a mobile activism tool” as well as something that might stand the media establishment on its head.
“You in essence become the press and control what gets out there,” she said.
Burgess noted that while she uses Rabble as a political tool, others use it to talk about apolitical subjects , such as their pets.
Indeed, Rabble is a work in progress, limited by the imaginations of those who post. Conahan said one young woman updates readers on how she’s faring while living in a different city than her boyfriend. Meanwhile, a user in the Bay Area makes a daily habit of photographing the menu special posted outside CheeseBoard Pizza in Berkeley, letting other East Bay residents know their mealtime options.
Still, Intercasting draws the line at some things.
“We have a strict anti-porn policy,” said Conahan, noting that the product is marketed to the youth segment.
Four founders, Conahan included, set up Intercasting in the spring of 2004 and have spent $500,000 to get the company off the ground. Conahan was previously president of Moviso, a Los Angeles distributor of wireless phone ring tones. InfoSpace bought the company in 2003. The other founders , Derrick Oien, Tom Demas and Bruce Worman , had top management posts at Moviso as well as San Diego-based MP3.com and its successor, VUnetUSA.
The company does not disclose subscriber numbers or revenue.
Conahan said he is now trying to move forward by talking to venture capitalists and pitching his software to several other carriers, including operators in China, India and Brazil. Software upgrades are also in the works.
Verizon has taken its own role in moving Rabble ahead. Muche, the carrier’s representative, said his company has “seeded” the Rabble community with bloggers to get the conversations going. However, Burgess , the person behind LiberalFury , said she discovered Rabble on her own.
Intercasting employs a handful of people (10 full-time equivalents is how Conahan explains it). Offshore software developers can take credit for the 75,000 to 100,000 lines of code that make Rabble work. The software for the wireless handsets builds on the foundation of BREW, the Qualcomm Inc. platform for cell-phone data applications.
One aspect of the software lets people view postings within a certain radius of their location. They can narrow their search to San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter or take it nationwide.
Another organization with a channel on Rabble is Sherman Oaks-based Chord Magazine.
“I love the idea of someone reading about a band they are in line to go see” because they have called up Chord on their wireless phone, said Gus Pe & #324;a, the publication’s editor in chief.
Pe & #324;a said he sees a unique potential in the product.
“Rabble allows people to connect to one another in ways that (instant messaging), text messaging, blogs or myspace pages do not,” he said.