For the past several months, a fleet of nondescript vans equipped with digital
cameras and proprietary computer software has been traversing the streets of
several major U.S. cities, continuously photographing businesses on every block.
Operating secretly under the code name "Project Mercury," the vans have
transmitted more than 20 million images to a database compiled by A9.com Inc., a
wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc. A9 set up shop last fall in Silicon
Valley, far from the Internet retailer's Seattle headquarters, with the goal of
creating new search technology for computer users to hunt for information and
products on the Internet.
Today, millions of the photos, coupled with their corresponding electronic yellow page listings, are scheduled to become available on the A9.com Web site. Only businesses that have paid to be in the A9 yellow pages will be featured. A9 will invite those retailers to take digital photos of their own that can be added to the Web site, potentially taking computer users inside stores to view merchandise.
A9's offering includes a way for computer users to take notes in an online "diary," and save and search the comments. It also offers a feature that automatically connects users to businesses by phone. Users input a phone number on the Web page, and, with a click of the mouse, can effectively be connected to any of the businesses listed free of charge. Special software connects the call by ringing a user's phone and the line at the business.
Here is an example search result from Boston.
There are two important points here. The first point is that geography is really, really important. The fact that all these businesses have a location matters to their customers; the fact that Amazon has GPS-tagged all the information around the pictures and listings is what makes this service work.
The second, even more important point, is that communications is becoming an extended conversation, and applications are trumping transport. When the world was about plain vanilla POTS, being a transport company (hello, AT&T) was a very valuable thing to be. But on the day it is announced that SBC might buy an AT&T that is a shadow of its former self, Amazon announces a feature that -- almost incidentally -- offers a free phone call between the user of its website and the merchant they are trying to reach. Given that the original intent of the yellow pages was to stimulate phone calls to businesses (and charge for the phone calls) that's an incredible turnabout.
Coupled with the potential for Google to get into the VoIP market -- again, as an extension to its current application-centric business of enabling conversations, not communications -- this now qualifies as a trend.
Incidentally, this also demonstrates that Time Warner was exactly right to buy AOL. They just bought at the wrong time, and may have bought the wrong company.
Also incidentally, the ability of users to add their own photos is really important. If Amazon is smart, they will allow a lot of clustering and linking to happen that has *nothing* to do with the core commerce focus of their yellow pages -- for instance, people linking their party photos from the Viper Room in LA to the geo/location of the Viper Room. There are all sorts of eVite possibilities here, too... it just goes on and on. Welcome to the future.
Finally, last incidental point -- Flickr had better get all the way to platform status soon, or sell themselves to the highest bidder, or they are going to be overwhelmed by the rollout of smart photo-inclusive features like this one.
Voice will be taken over by application providers if the telcos don't do something smart, or something sneaky (AKA regulatory relief). Get hot, boys...