I spoke to Mike Darnell, man about town, artist and now head of creative marketing at Israeli High Tech start up SemantiNet, makers of a cool new Firefox plugin and online tool called Headup. We had a nice conversation, as we always do. Here’s a video that describes what Headup does and then we will proceed with the interview!
ck: Mike! You always seem to be involved with cool stuff (http://DigitalArtPrintGallery.com). Now I see you’re right in the thick of this whole Israeli High Tech thing with your new job at Tel Aviv-based SemantiNet where you’re pimping this online product called headup. So what’s the deal? I have it installed on my Firefox and love it already, but explain the gist of it to the noobs that have no idea what I’m talking about…
Mike: “So here’s the deal, the original vision that Sir Tim Berners-Lee had for the Web was slightly different from what we got today. Originally it was supposed to be this virtual space where you could traverse freely between related concepts, but instead Tim’s vision got sidetracked by the limitations inherent from how it was executed (HTML, links, websites, stuff).
Good Sir Tim never ceased advocating the “Semantic Web” and being the director of the W3C meant that he was well positioned to champion its cause but even that didn’t really make it happen the reason being that the Semantic Web has two prerequisites:
1. A whole lot of data describing pretty much everything and everyone.
2. A structured system that allows computers to access this data and crunch it.
So fast forward to 2009 we have these two pieces of the puzzle pretty much in place:
1. Over the past six years, and especially ever since web 2.0 exploded, we’ve all been busily uploading, posting and tagging, well…everything.
2. The release of APIs by a steadily increasing amount of online services is making all this data accessible not only to us smart humans but also to dumb computers.
Headup is possibly the very first top-down semantic web application. It’s a Firefox addon (soon to be available on other platforms as well) capable of understanding what “stuff” is and how “stuff” is related to other “stuff”. Believe me, this is a good thing. Sir Tim would be happy.”.
CK: Ok that’s fascinating and all, really it is… what’s it do already?
Mike: “Ok so that was the big picture but here’s how this relates to you. Say you’re planning a vacation in Jerusalem. What you’d do in the good ole’ days of web 2.0 is check out a whole bunch of websites to see what the weather is like, what events/shows/parties are going down while you’re in town – probably on last.fm, you’d hit facebook to see who in your posse is in town and whether they are free to chill, and you might even check out Amazon and do some gift shopping – get some books as gifts for people you were staying with.
The Web 3.0 approach that Headup offers is that since all this data is already online you shouldn’t have to work so hard at finding and dealing with it. In fact you should let Headup do all the work for you. All you have to do is Google “Tel Aviv” and Headup will give you a summary explaining the basic information about the city, show you what the weather forecast is for the next few days, tell you which of your favorite bands is touring the town and also give you the heads up on any other cool events you might have otherwise missed. Headup will tell you which of your friends is available, whose birthday is coming up and what they’re favorite author/band/director is so you can buy them a nice gift”
CK: Sweet. I’ve noticed no discernible slowness or interference in my usual Web surfing. It seems very easy to use and I noticed that I can turn it on or off at will. That looks like some very bad ass coding there! Tell me about your programmers…
Mike: “I’m gettin’ old man. Working at headup is the first time I’m one of the oldest people in a company. The entire enterprise is run by Tal Keinan and Tal Muskal and although their individual CVs read a little like Nobel nominations, their combined age won’t get you a pension. Most of the programmers are the type of whiz kids that got their BAs in Computer Science while the rest of the kids in class were busy thinking up ways to get in someone elses’ pants. It’s scary how smart these people are. Intimidating really.
The plus side is that for everyone in the company but me the web is second nature. The way they look at applications and websites is uninfluenced by memories of other forms of media. Take the way Privacy is treated for example. The people at Headup didn’t like the crap they were getting in industry-standard terms-&-conditions policies so they went out and pretty much reinvented the way we deal with these issues. You can’t have a Headup account even if you want to. We don’t store any of your details cause’ we never had’em. All your data is stored locally on your machine and the only information you can choose to grant us is 3rd party access to the services you see fit. If you want to let us access your Facebook account we’ll tell you what we know about your friends. If you don’t that’s cool – you still get to know the weather in Tel Aviv, but if it’s wet we can’t tell you whose pad you ought to be crashing in.
I think the choice to be an addon, rather than a site, is pretty novel too. It means that you can open your Headup panel anywhere on the web and never lose the context to what your point of origin was. You can see the latest video from Radiohead, hear their tracks from last.fm, read their lyrics and see when-&-where their next performance is all without ever browsing away from the profile of the cute lass in whose facebook profile preferences you found them. Convenient.”
CK: Now tell me all the boring financial stuff about the company. Where did you all get your funding? Is there still room for innovative Israeli tech companies to get financing in the current market place?
Mike: “The money that allowed Tal & Tal to found SemantiNet, the company in charge of developing headup and paying my salary, comes from a number of sources – Yossi Vardi, Giza VC, Sir Ronald Cohen, Jeff Pulver and Mordechai Ben-Shach. I think we can easily agree all these investors are heavy hitters with more than enough tech-savvy to spot a sound tech investment when they see one. I think that despite the “climate”, and everything we’ve been seeing in the papers the last few days, the investment game isn’t over. The stakes are higher, there is more to lose on the table so everyone is holding their cards so much closer to their chests, but the bottom line is investors invest when they see a good opportunity for profit. That fundamental fact hasn’t changed. You just have to come up with that opportunity. If only I was that smart…”
CK: So what are the future plans for the company?
Mike: “Live long and prosper.”
Mike: No seriously, we’re working on improving the addon and adding new sources for data. Improving the content discoveries is always an ongoing task. I’m excited because I know there are a lot of goodies planned down the road, it’s just that I’m not entirely at liberty to discuss them. I will say making ourselves available to IE and Chrome users ASAP is a major undertaking these days…
CK: Awesome! Thanks for your time!
Mike: “Cool talking to you David – I love the fact you’ve made Machane Yehuda the go-to place for techies… : )”
CK: Shutup. I’m just getting over the flu. Otherwise I’d gladly meet you on Shenkin street in Hell Aviv where our tech conversation would quickly devolve into a drunken brawl about Kant’s role in the origin of ethics. In any case, before we start hurling borekas at each other, just letting the folks know that should they wish to try out this Israeli tech marvel, they should please point their firefox browsers to http://headup.com and download the headup aplication. If you haven’t already, you can (sorry, MUST) get firefox at http://www.getfirefox.com. Why get firefox? It’s better, faster, stronger and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.