By Bob Walsh
Every so often in the software industry a new idea that creates a whole new kind of software. I think we’re on the verge of just such a new category: micro-sourcing. I define micro-sourcing as the ability to quickly and effortlessly access skilled services for specific micro-tasks from within a desktop or web application. Let me give you a couple of potential examples of micro-sourcing

  • You’re working in your photo application like Adobe Elements. There’s a photo you really would like to fix and all the “auto this” an “auto that” commands are too much for you to deal with. So you click the micro-source button and up pops a dialog where you offer to pay a dollar for someone, anyone, to correct this photo. You click OK, and a day later you have your corrected photo for approval and your account is debited a buck.
  • You’re working in your RSS reader, or least trying to, but there’s still too much information. You click your micro-source button and offer five dollars a week for someone, somewhere, who will send you an annotated e-mail of the RSS items that based on your discussion with them you will find most useful and valuable. Think micro Virtual Assistant.
  • You’re working at Microsoft Excel, and you’re trying to get a spreadsheet to work right. Something is wrong but you just don’t know what. So you click the micro-source button, enter your account number, mark the spreadsheet to only go to a trusted and bonded expert, and in a few hours they then tangled the mess you’ve made.
  • You’re working in the Microsoft Excel, and your company has signed up with an online micro-sourcing provider who provides Excel expertise from trusted consultants five minutes at a time. All you have to do while in Excel is click a button, voice note what you’re trying to do, click how much you think it’s worth and click OK.

If you think these are fanciful, if you think that micro-sourcing isn’t going to happen, you might want to take a look at the following:

  • Castingwords.com where you can get a transcription of a podcast for about one quarter of the traditional cost for audio transcription. They are using Amazon’s mechanical Turk (AMT) service to slice up the work, distribute it, pay their workers and recombine into a value-added product.
  • “How Amazon/AMT can change the internet economy.” Over at bitporters.net (which got me thinking about this subject) where the blogger sees AMT becoming “AMTSense”, and alternative to Google AdSense as a way of supporting all the Web 2.0 sites out there by doing micro amounts of work for each other.
  • The growth/interest in microformats such as iCal and extending RSS via SSE. (See this post, and this post for more info if SSE as Microsoft’s Next Big Thing has not hit your radar screen.)

Three things have prevented micro-sourcing from taking off up to now.
First the relative difficulty of dealing with micro-payments in a trusted way. Amazon must have finally beat in the heads of the payment processors because today you can buy for all of $.49 short original stories and articles called Amazon Shorts. Ebay and a million other ecommerce sites laid the groundwork as well.
The second thing that has been missing has been a general backend market-creating service which allows people to sell their time, labor, and judgment a few moments at a time. Amazon Mechanical Turk has filled that gap: it is a Web service (REST/SOAP) that is being extended to work as the back end of any Web 2.0 site. I don’t think the day will be far before Amazon offers a way to connect to AMT directly from a desktop application. If that idea excites you, post a comment at AMT’s blog here.
The third thing that’s missing is you. Micro-ISVs – because we are small, nimble and hungry – can create, launch, support and market micro-sourcing libraries, applications and Web 2.0 sites. Since a micro-sourcing enabled application or website is so much more then a traditional application website, micro-sourcing gives us a powerful “secret sauce” versus traditional ISVs when bringing our products and services to market.
Here’s another slant on why micro-sourcing could very well become the next big thing on the web. For better or worse we live in a world that is quickly de-massifying and de-synchronizing. From a world where we all learned the same way, worked in the same places, got our entertainment in the same way and kept up with the Joneses we are now living in a world where you design your lifelong education via the net, one person at a time. Where distributed companies are becoming the norm. Where instead of three networks we have thousands if not tens of thousands of networks we pay attention to.
If this sounds like I’m channeling Alvin Toffler, I am. He got it right 30 years ago in Future Shock and The Third Wave and he’s getting it right today in Revolutionary Wealth where he talks about para-currency, shifts in post-industrial economies and a great deal more.
Here’s one more thought on micro-sourcing: people do things for money. All the cool Ajax tricks, all of the big type and round buttons, and all the Google adSense ads in the universe aren’t going to keep Web 2.0 going unless there’s a serious way for millions of people to make noticeable amounts of money with their time.
If the Web 2.0 movement does not want to do a crash and burn like the Dot.com bubble before it, it is going to need to find and adopt ways of monetizing that does not involve advertising. Micro-sourcing can be that means, and micro-ISVs can make it happen.

3 Comments

  1. There is one other issue which is very important. How do I know they are going to do a good job. That is the major issue IMO.

  2. Caffeinated Reply

    I see a market for this type of product, but I think you missed the mark slightly in your examples.
    In each of your examples, the quality of the product being purchased is subjective. Does the photo look the way I wanted? Is the assistant really finding the right articles? (The Excel example is a little more objective).
    A better list of examples would be requests that produce very objective results, such as: Take my ex-girlfriend out of this picture.

  3. These are some really interesting ideas and are all within the realm of what can be done with the Mechanical Turk. On the image editing front, the folks at the Image Den (http://imageden.net/) are planning to offer this service, powered by the Mechanical Turk, in the future.

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