Blog: Jeffrey MacKie-Mason

Social media, "tweeting" and "friending". These days, it's hard to tell screen time from face time. Meet Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Michigan School of Information. This week, he'll be talking about the knowledge economy opportunities emerging from a unique graduate program that blends information systems with the social sciences.

Jeffrey MacKie-Mason - Post 1: IT Startups in Ann Arbor

My general theme this week will be knowledge economy opportunities for southeastern Michigan at and coming out of the University of Michigan. 

When we talk about the economic climate in Michigan, we have to talk about entrepreneurial excitement. Innovative information technology startups are crucial. Startups help us lure the young and hip to southeast Michigan, and they are the ones figuring out how to build the future, today.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland made nine "backyard musical" movies for MGM. The generic plot involved kids who needed to raise some money to solve a problem, which they managed after Mickey would say "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" Michigan is a state that thrived on manufacturing innovation. In the future, we will be looking to information technology innovation. And the "kids" have already started putting on the show.

Undergraduate through PhD students at the University of Michigan School of Information (SI) have been launching exciting new businesses. Below are some examples – just a taste of the entrepreneurial energy brewing in Ann Arbor.

Troubadour Mobile
Three of our master's students launched this mobile software startup last spring and succeeded in winning venture
funding for summer 2008 from Ann Arbor-based RPM Ventures. As the name suggests, they're focused on software for mobile devices: Apple's iPhone, initially. "Our long term goal is to have your mobile phone predict the future," they say (I think tongue in cheek!).

They finished their first iPhone application, Let's Pizza!, at the end of last
summer. Walk down a street, pop open your iPhone, click the Let's Pizza! icon, and you get a list of the nearest
pizza places. Geo-aware applications will become common when more mobile phones are equipped with built-in GPS, as the iPhone already is. This is a hot market opportunity: An August 2008 report from ABI Research predicts revenues of $3.3 billion for the location-based mobile market by 2013.

One advantage of a world-class research university is that it is rich with
talented people willing to share ideas and give feedback. The Troubadourians
have tapped their fellow master's students for help in designing and improving the usability of their next apps:
Let's Meet! and Let's Vote! Indeed, every day at SI you can find students pitching ideas to each other, participating in design workshops and "hacker jams", and presenting demos to potential investors and employers.
The interactive Web is all about human communications, especially asking
questions and getting answers. And in the modern business world, communication — whether with customers, suppliers,
or partners — is key to success.

Three graduate students recently launched This startup offers a service that lets you chat in real-time with visitors to your Web site using your favorite instant messaging software: iChat, GoogleTalk, AIM, Jabber, or whatever you use.

Many high-end corporate sites have built chat tools into their customer service Web pages. Such systems are costly to build and maintain (or purchase from vendors). But with, a Web site manager simply registers with, copies a line of JavaScript code, and pastes it into a Web page. Every small business or new startup can have a chat-enabled Web site within five minutes. The chat bar floats in the lower right-hand corner of the browser window. When a visitor clicks it, a small chat window launches in her browser, and a message appears in your instant messaging client letting you know a visitor wants to chat.'s basic service is free. The business plan counts on income streams from selling premium service plans and co-branded solutions. The free version is proving popular: has about 12,000 registered users and it's signing up almost 500 more each week.

And what's with that .la domain? Officially it belongs to Laos, but it's become an unofficial domain for Los Angeles, which claims to be the first city in the world with its own top-level domain.

Magical Pork
Magical Pork is a new company started by an SI doctoral student to build mashup solutions. "Mashup" is a general
term for anything digital that's put together with pieces of other things digital. In this case the mashups are Web applications that pull data or services from multiple sources.

One early offering is SayWhat?, a service sold to private clients which lets you keep up on what people are saying about your company (or any other given topic) in the Twitterverse (yes, Twitterverse). To illustrate SayWhat?, Magical Pork offers the free Tweeteorology, which pulls together tweets (Twitter postings, of course) about the weather in any city or ZIP code you specify. Just enter a location, and in a flash it combines information from Twitter, Google Maps and WeatherBug to show what people in that area are live tweeting about the current weather, together with a traditional forecast.

Another Magical Pork mashup is Many Flyers. This is an an online travel search tool to ease event planning. The tool helps you search for flights from many origins that arrive at a single destination at roughly the same time, perfect for coordinating a trip with friends and family.
The inspiration for the unforgettable name? The founder's mean carnitas.

(This entry was written with the assistance of Frank DeSanto, communications manager at the University of Michigan School of Information.)