iPhone users are downloading, and VCs are throwing money at, a new iPhone app called Color.
Don’t get it? You’re not alone.
What the Naysayers are Naysaying
The general reception to Color has been overwhelmingly negative — even worse than the initial reception to the Apple iPad.
Gizmodo quipped that Color’s main purpose is to “amuse yourself by creeping out strangers.”
All Things Digital said Color reminds them of a mock news story created by The Onion, in which investigators establish the cause of a fire by examining the “43,000 pictures taken by students at a party.”
Fortune called Color a “whimsical” “Trojan horse.”
Computerworld called it a “social network for voyeurs.”
Daring Fireball says Color is a “breathlessly overhyped piece of crap.”
The app is currently rated by users with only two stars out of five in the iTunes App Store. Compare that with, say, the 99-cent “Mr. Ninja” game app, which is getting five stars.
The two main strains of criticism center around uselessness and privacy. People aren’t understanding how to use Color, nor why they might want to. Also: The app doesn’t give you any way to know who’s seeing your pictures, and enables creepy weirdos to potentially observe others unwisely sharing private or inappropriate moments. Also: Many users I’ve talked to don’t realize that when you connect to others at a specific event, Color then gives you access not only to their photos and videos taken at the same event, but all taken by them previously elsewhere as well.
All this criticism and mockery is interesting, but largely misguided. I’ll tell you why below, but first lets understand what Color actually is.
What Is Color?
Color is an experimental and free new app for iPhone and Android that enables the sharing of content, such as photos, video and text. This sharing is based primarily on location — the app uses the GPS and location awareness built into the phone to identify users who are near each other. Company servers use algorithms and pattern recognition to connect users who are generally capturing the same event, or events at the same location.
The Palo Alto-based company is run by Bill Nguyen, the entrepreneur previously known for founding (and selling to Apple) the Lala music service. The app has been getting a lot of attention lately because the company attracted a surprising $41 million from investors, including Bain Capital, Sequoia Capital and Silicon Valley Bank. They’re also getting press for paying $350,000 for their domain name, Color.com.
Why Color Matters
Before you dismiss Color as something that makes no sense, remind yourself that all new technologies made no sense when first introduced.
More than a decade ago, A Bristol University student named Alistair Mann, working with HP researchers in the company’s Bristol, UK, labs, came up with a brilliant concept called Cooltown Notes. The idea, which was totally new back then, was that people could use their smart phones to post messages “in the air” at a specific location, and could be read by others at that same location at any time in the future. Restaurant reviews could be accessed by people standing outside the restaurant. People could leave virtual messages invisibly at someone’s front door: “Dude, I came by, but you weren’t here.”
The concept of location-based content will become one of the most important ideas for the future of communication, social networking, advertising, emergency broadcasting and much more. But while HP Labs researchers are visionary, HP executives are not. They allowed the project to languish while the company focused instead on more important things. Like the HP iPaq. (Yes, it still exists.)
HP had the future of mobile computing in its hands, but couldn’t recognize its potential. New ideas are always misunderstood because they’re always viewed in the context of old ideas.
When the motion-picture camera was invented, it was first viewed as scientific instrument that couldunlock the mysteries of how farm animals moved. (Incredibly, the first ever major use for that purpose was the 1878 filming of a horse in Palo Alto, in what is now Silicon Valley. The horse was owned by the founder of Stanford University.)
Next, motion picture technology was used to amuse the public, but the “movies” were very short single-scene stage plays. It took a few years for people to figure out that you could move the camera, and splice together multiple scenes.
The telephone was originally envisioned as a way to broadcast opera, news or church sermons into people’s homes.
Examples like this are many. When consumer cell phones first emerged in the 1980s, did anyone think that they would replace road maps, Walkmans, pedometers, alarm clocks and radios?
People generally can’t envision an application for a technology that they have never experienced for themselves.
So let’s be clear about what’s important and what’s not important about Color. The app is being described as a “photo sharing app.” But photos, and generic “sharing” are the least important aspects.
Here’s what’s groundbreaking about Color:
* You connect without logging in, checking in joining anything.
* You don’t use a password.
* You don’t have to share any personal information.
* You get to keep the photos, videos and text that others share, and refer back to them via a timeline feature built into the app.
* You don’t have to make or collect persistent “friends” or “followers,” but you can if you want to.
Color uses pattern recognition to figure out when multiple people are photographing the same event or object. In fact, it uses multiple criteria to figure out when people are in the same place paying attention to the same thing or kinds of things, then joins together their content streams within the app.
Color picks the best pictures and features them, while sharing all pictures. So if you’re a concert and take a picture of a performer from the 20th row, you might see another picture of the same performer taken by someone in the 2nd row. At a concert, the pictures taken from all over would keep flooding in. So during the event, you might take five pictures from one perspective, but see on your phone 100 pictures from 20 perspectives (as would those other 20 people).
Color magnifies your experience. It connects people who are interested in the same things in the same place, and shares their pictures and, later, other content.
Color is a way to magnify your view of things. If you’re in line at a club, and use it outside, you’ll see a stream of pictures taken by people inside.
Color is going to catch fire at high schools. Kids will fire up Color in the morning, and all Color users will see a stream of photos taken in real-time all over the school.
Color will be very interesting at industry events, parties, sports events, festivals, and other gatherings.
Color is about real-time location based information about what’s going on right now — text, pictures, audio, video — any kind of content that can be captured with a mobile device.
Color would be great for revolutions. They could have really used this app in Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Speaking of breaking news and global events, the next phase of the experimental service will enable professional journalists to pinpoint news hotspot locations — say, protests or shootings or accidents — and tap into the stream of content being created by people on the scene.
Color may succeed or fail. Its most likely fate, if I had to guess, is that the technology will be purchased by someone like Google and integrated into something like Latitude.
Whatever you do, don’t dismiss Color. The idea of spontaneous location-based networks that use increasingly intelligent algorithms to connect content streams is going to be absolutely huge.