A former senior product manager for Nokia’s internet tablet devices in Finland, Jyri Engeström this year left to form his own startup,


. It is part of a new wave of mobile presence services designed to help inter-company groups and loved ones stay in touch.

At the Le Web 3 conference in Paris, Robert Andrews asked Engeström why the world should know where you are and how serendipitous connectivity turns into effective communication.

What is Jaiku?

It’s a web and mobile service that brings people closer together by enabling them to share their rich presence. It’s about enabling people to stay connected, rather than “connecting people“, because the connections with phones are often quite random – you don’t know if the other person is able to take your call but you still try because that’s your only option. Jaiku is more about a constant state of connectedness.

On a practical level, what does that mean a user of Jaiku would be doing?

There are two ways that people use Jaiku right now. One is that they just use it on the web – they create what we call a presence stream, which is a stream of your latest updates, so you can update your presence on Jaiku, which means you type in a small line on what you’re doing.

If you post photos on Flickr or if you have a blog, or if you generate any other kind of RSS feed, you can also connect that to your presence stream, so you aggregate your online actions in this one stream.

Other people download it to their phones to post updates over SMS. And on the mobile we also let people share not just what they’re doing but also where they are and if they’re available or not. So if your ringer is on, it’s on green; if it’s off, it’s on red.

I post an update [from my phone] and that gets posted on the web as my latest post. If I change my profile to “Meeting”, it changes from red to yellow so that people can see I’m on yellow. We also collect where you are when you’re using your phone, based on cell tower ID, and, using Bluetooth, we can see that right now there are three other people nearby, and I can mark these as my friends.

It’s not as precise as GPS but what we find is that, actually, it seems to work alright. Here’s my Dad [on my phone]. I see he is in Vaanta in Finland, his home town. He never actually types in his presence messages, he’s just a passive user; I can see four other people nearby him. As he’s just used his phone and there are four people nearby, maybe he’s in a shopping mall or whatever.

And I don’t actually need to disturb him by sending him a text message or calling him. I think there are a lot of people like me who have this same thing.

Someone in the conference raised a privacy concern. Does this have any in-built mechanism that would allay those fears?

Yeah. The answer is always going to be the same for Jaiku or any service, whether it be Flickr or blogs – you control who gets to see your information, period. For instance, on Jaiku we give you one or two options – one is that you share everything publicly or that it’s public, and you connect to the people who you want to see your presence.

It used to be in the beginning that a lot of people left theirs public but it seems, now that the community is beginning to grow, that we’re getting people more and more in favour of private sharing.

Can you give me any numbers on the growth of the service so far?

It’s still very small, we’re still under 10,000 users, it’s in the single-digit thousands I think.

One of the things that came up in one of the user studies for one of the developers who’s just finished his PhD on this was that teenagers would use the presence line as a supplement for SMS. You have a group of friends and they would just communicate over the presence lines; that’s what you see in small groups – if you go onto Jaiku right now and browse it you would see groups who are just using it to message and communicate.

The other one is where you have people who basically talk to their partner through this – they might not have anyone else on this thing, it’s just between them and their girlfriend or their boyfriend.

And then you have people like those here who are so used to blogging and sharing things in public that they just enjoy posting all this stuff out there; they get a lot of comments from people they don’t know, but that’s okay.

We’re getting a service which is more personal – you’re narrowing down, you want to communicate with a small group of people but you communicate more intensely; you see people updating a lot more, sort of constantly. I update my blog maybe once a week, I update my photos on Flickr maybe once a day but I update my presence at least once an hour.

How much data does it consume?

That depends on how often you update and on how many friends you have and how much they update. The average, if you run Jaiku continuously 24 hours a day for a month, seems to be around 10Mb, which, in Finland, would be around EU4. We’re working to shrink the presence lines even more.

What’s your business model? How are you going to make any money out of this?

We do hope to make money out of it at some point. The simplest way, which we have right now, is basically what every web service has, which is just ads online – but obviously you need a very large mass of users to make money off that.

It seems like there are a couple of interesting opportunities for revenue logic in a service like Jaiku, in addition to ads online. One is, of course, bringing the ads to the handset – when you log on to Jaiku, the Jaiku team shows up as a default contact. You can delete it but we use it to post updates on news on Jaiku.

What we’re seeing is a lot of people already have companies in their phonebook – you have a local restaurant or whatever, so those companies can use this as a way of advertising something current, like what the menu is today, or what’s the latest product. That’s one way of doing ads that we believe there is some revenue logic in.

Right now, Jaiku is collecting your presence history, so it’s the basic pay-to-public model of services like Flickr or Typepad where the basic service is for free but, if you want us to store your history for more than a year, then you pay some monthly fee of maybe a couple of dollars or euros to keep it there.

Would you get into selling someone’s presence history to other marketing companies?

No, that’s already ruled out by the user agreement that we have on our site so we couldn’t do that. People own their own presence history – they can take it away at any time or download it or delete it.

Who do you see as your competitors? This space seems to be opening up about now – we’ve got a site called Twitter and Yahoo! launched a service recently.

It’s a good sign. I’d be worried if we were the only player in this field. One of the key things here is ownership over the phonebook and we stand a pretty good chance of doing something interesting there just because we have a very good competence of mobile software development and we’ve been working on that problem for quite  a while already.

You have sites like Twitter right now where the communication is quite ephemeral – people might have a lot of friends but it’s not something that a lot of people seem to be very serious about so it’s easy to drop them, whereas this thing – it’s like, now that my Dad and my girlfriend and a couple of other very close people are on this service, that’s very important and dear information to me and I don’t think I’d want to change that very easily, so we’ll see who has the upside.

If I wanted to get my girlfriend into this – she’s not very technically minded, she’s concerned about putting too much information about herself out there in public, she also has a Sony Ericsson which doesn’t run this yet – how could you get her on board?

Right now, the answer would be, if you started sharing your presence with her, she would have two ways of seeing that – she could use it  just on the web and, if she wanted to use it from her phone, she could text her presence so that you would see it on your phone.

What we’re working on right now is a Java version of the software that would also run on her phone, if she has a new enough Sony Ericsson.

The mobile distribution is definitely an issue here and there’s really only three ways to do it. One is the software downloads, which is the most difficult because that requires technical competence from people to install. Second is that you get operators to pre-install it on handsets, which you requires you make some serious partnering work with operators. Third is that you get the manufacturers to pre-install it.

How close do you remain to Nokia? Is there any likelihood of you getting Jaiku put on their handsets or maybe of the company being bought back in future?

We have a very good relationship, we’re constantly in touch. I wouldn’t go as far as to speculate about being bought back by Nokia but definitely I’d be interested in getting Jaiku on Nokia handsets, as well as Sony Ericsson handsets for that matter. That’s a long road to take, and it’s not going to happen in the blink of an eye, but definitely we’re working on that.