It’s entirely possible that you have no idea what Path is. Until recently it had been floundering, its struggles exacerbated by the tech news fishbowl.
But in the past week the company announced one of the most dramatic pivots — a maneuver that more often than not signals a company’s last gasp and often spells doom for startups — in recent history. Success is a rarity in this situation; a recent successful pivot in the tech space belongs to Digg, a news aggregator that saw its traffic dwindle to virtually nothing in the face of Twitter and Facebook, only to see traffic surge back after an intelligent redesign by a crack design team and a focus on unearthing stories that no other site could.
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Path’s new direction could very well be on a similar trajectory — in fact, it could define an entire new industry.
Path launched in November of 2010 as yet another social network. The interesting wrinkle was its reliance on privacy; the goal was to connect users with the people that they cared most about, rather than with everyone on the planet. It has raised over $75 million to date, which means one thing: there are a lot of investors putting fire to the seat of Path’s founder, Dave Morin. Despite launching a drop-dead gorgeous app on Android, iPhone, and even Windows Phone, Path failed to persuade the public to switch over from more established social networks.
Making matters worse, Path was hit with an $800,000 fine from the FTC for “storing data from underage users”. It was the kind of blow that could destroy a smaller, less resilient company, and the black eye left on Path after its privacy snafu seriously hampered further chances at growth.
In response, the company released Path Talk. In a nutshell, it was a private messaging app that served to facilitate instant messages between friends. That’s a wildly crowded market — Line, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and a host of others have already staked their claim here. As it turns out, Path Talk 1.0 was just the foundation of what was to come and happened this week.
…if Path is able to connect you with assistants that speak the language of the place you’re in, you might just be able to order a pizza in China without wondering if your request for “mushrooms” was actually a request for “shrimp”.
Path Talk 1.1 introduced Places, which aims to be a free digital assistant in ways that actually matter. Forget about messaging or humble brags to your friends about where you’re at (really, do we care?). Places is all about you and the places you want to visit. It’s so drastically different from what Path has previously offered that it’s tough to believe it’s coming from the same company. In a blog post, the Path Team, describes the service:
“Places gives you the power to message your favorite local businesses to request appointments, make reservations, or even check out prices and hours. It’s all by text. And it’s all for free. Getting answers from a local business is now as easy as texting a friend. Search for Places like your hair salon, favorite sporting store, or the new restaurant down the street. Then send a message asking for anything — a haircut appointment, availability of running shoes in your size, or reservations for 2 at 8 p.m. Once you send your message, one of our Path Agents will make the phone call on your behalf, doing all the talking for you. And when they get the response, they’ll immediately text you back with the answer or booking. You’ll never have to wait on hold again.”
Game-changing announcements don’t happen in earnest very often in this space, but this has the potential to be precisely that. Highfalutin’ outfits like American Express have offered gratis concierge services to those who hold elite credit cards, but actually using those services has proven difficult — for AmEx Platinum card holders, ask yourself the last time you actually used the card’s concierge service to book a ticket. We’re willing to be it hasn’t been anytime recent. Places works with any data connection, without requiring you to utter a word. Perhaps most importantly, Places relies on a team of actual humans behind the scenes to address your requests, which injects logic and reasoning and ensures that your demands are dealt with professionally.
Will it Work?
It just might. The obvious concerns are monetization and scale. It costs money to hire a network of always-on professionals to address requests as they arrive in real time. But look at it this way: what if you ran a small business and were approached by Path? If Path requested a small percentage of a sale for each person that it referred to you by way of an interaction in Places, might you consider it? There’s no setup cost for your business, and no ongoing risk or management requirements. Many businesses have been looking for something similar to this for years.
Scale could be an issue if revenues can’t match expenses for a prolonged period of time, but as we mentioned before, Path has millions in its coffers to experiment with. If it can cast its net wide enough, and get enough businesses in its network, this is the type of service that would become addictive after a single use. If you don’t believe that, try using Uber just once. Technologies may come and go, but instant gratification will forever be delectable.
The potential grows if Path is able to extend this service internationally. Avid jetsetters face an ongoing struggle to get connectivity upon landing and cope with foreign languages. With Places, no voice services are needed. So long as you can snag a wi-fi signal, you can make a request. And, if Path is able to connect you with assistants that speak the language, you might just be able to order a pizza in China without wondering if your request for “mushrooms” was actually a request for “shrimp”.
Path feels like the next generation of getting shit done. Even if this particular company can’t sustain the model, it seems that it’s only a matter of time before someone else steps in and offers something similar on a global scale. For now, it’s available for use in the U.S. and Canada. If you’re situated in one of those nations, give it a shot and see if it makes life simpler.
Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ⌘+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain english. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.