Why You’ll Use Color (Or Something Like It)



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.

  • Brandon Dillon

    This is one of those things where I’m sitting here thinking, “wow why didn’t I think of that?”. This is such a cool idea. I hope this catches on. It would make a good mix with Twitter.

  • Tyler Hojberg

    I hate this program. There’s only one person in my town that used it today and they look like a pedophile. NOT cool.

  • Nutz320

    You’re a smart guy, Mike, you’re a smart guy!

  • fartil3

    Sadly we can not say the same thing about you!

  • asg749d

    One of my last courses in Graduate School was about Innovation -this article reads like the very first lecture I had on that course, even down to the examples of the telephone and the motion picture camera.

  • asg749d

    You need to wait for the network effect to work. As a social app it is only useful when other people start using it too. Think Facebook.

  • davester13

    It must just be me, but it really seems like the company behind Color seems to going all out with trying to tell people what they are trying to do. Kind of like Google Wave.

    And as for “You don’t have to share any personal information”, pictures on smartphones contain all kinds of information that can be used to not only pinpoint where the picture was taken, but who took it. Nevermind the actual people in the picture itself. Unless you don’t consider your face to be personal information.

  • prof_peabody

    It’s an interesting concept for sure, but badly done in this particular app IMO, especially in regards to personal privacy and freedom.

    The author is quite incorrect for instance in saying that the app doesn’t share personal information. There is nothing more personal than a picture of yourself, especially the kind of pictures kids take of themselves.

    When you first log in to the app, it asks you for your first name, but then it never asks for a second name and whatever you entered is *forever* unchangeable. It works by using the ID of your device so you cannot change that info nor can you *ever* “log out,” without throwing away your mobile phone. Every picture you take and every location you visit is then broadcast whenever the app is open *forever* and the pictures cannot *ever* be deleted. That’s right, *never*.

    Not only is this deceptive, it’s anti-privacy and anti-consumer. It pretty much violates a lot of privacy laws in many countries also.

    What happens when you stand outside some teenagers house that’s been “sexting” in their bedroom while Colour was turned on? Any random stranger in the alley with an iPhone can see those pictures. What happens when you are in the locker room at school and one of the other girls takes a picture of you dressing? The way Colour is currently set up, someone can walk by and see that picture any time they want, even years later. In fact that’s the whole point of the app.

    There are HUGE privacy issues here.

  • Bakari C

    I think this review should have included the why of this app. In what situations will iPhone app users want or need to use this app? It’s easy for us to get excited about the next great break through technology, but then you have step back and examine how is it pragmatic? What needs to be added or taken out in order for it be really useful. Hell, I don’t know two people who would bother to download this app and share pictures in that way. However, i’m sure there are people—maybe students—who might find this fun and useful.

  • Pero Makarska

    When you use Color app, an upload photos, you automatically give rights to those photos to Color Labs. It is in their terms of service => http://bit.ly/e4tH7q

  • atimoshenko

    Yes and no.

    Yes, because people’s physical selves are becoming increasingly integrated with their digital extensions thereto. So, as people physically congregate around a particular geographical area, it would make sense for their digital extensions to react accordingly. So something like Color as an extension of the physical self will eventually work (specific geo-related tech needs to be more widespread, so 4-5 years down the line, I’d wager).

    No, in the sense of digital ‘graffiti’. Digital graffiti has/will proliferate only mildly for much the same reason that physical graffiti proliferates only mildly. Namely that most people do not have anything compelling to contribute about most things, the vast, vast majority of the time (so the likelihood of finding even decent UG content tied to a specific place and time is minuscule). Indeed, digital graffiti would even be missing the incentive of leaving a tangible mark on the world.

    In addition, an aside.

    This whole field is more self-evident than revolutionary. Neither of the above are even Twitter-calibre, let alone television- or telephone-calibre developments. As a result, people are not confused by Color because it is so radical an idea, but because it is a bad, bad, bad, bad app. The cardinal sin is that its creators do not understand where its success could come from, but it is also too far ahead of the necessary tech and infrastructure, and it is (at least at present) rather shoddily designed and coded.

  • handwaver

    Read the reviews before downloading – no one likes it

  • Steven

    Actually the Muybridge experiment involved many cameras taking a single photo of the horse. The cameras were triggered by the horse breaking a line which released the shutters. Motion Picture cameras were pretty much ALWAYS intended for entertainment.

  • freerange

    More crap to clog the internet. Mindlessness abounds. It is the ongoing mind-numbing of America ad infinitum… like reality TV.

  • freerange

    More crap to clog the internet. Mindlessness abounds. It is the ongoing mind-numbing of America ad infinitum… like reality TV.

  • nak

    I would discourage anyone from using or even installing Color. As John Gruber points out, it is a “data mining trojan horse.”


    Bill Nguyen even admits as much in his interview “Photo sharing is not our mission. We think it’s cool and we think it’s fun, but we’re a data mining company.”


    Judging by the reviews the application itself is complete rubbish, and beyond that it exists only to mine you for information. Why you anyone would use and trust this application is beyond me.

  • Dilbert A


  • Dilbert A

    wow! thanks

  • Matthias Breuer

    “People could leave virtual messages invisibly at someone’s front door: ‘Dude, I came by, but you weren’t here.'”

    Seriously? Maybe I’m missing something important here, but what would be the point?

    Wouldn’t be exactly how we used physical written notes before we had myriads of ways to contact some directly via SMS, e-mail, IM or their cell phone…and just as with physical notes, your friends won’t be able to read those “air notes” before they get home. Notification by SMS (or whatever) is clearly superior, since it allows them to get in touch with you quickly, tell you when they’ll be back or arrange a different meeting place.

    This pretty much narrows down the practical usefulness of this approach to notifying people you a) can’t notify in any other way *but* b) whom you know to be using (and probably actively checking) this service…now how likely does that sound to you? In fact, unless *everyone* uses this service, the good old post-it note is probably still going to be the safer bet in this case…not least because it’s easily noticed even by people who don’t remember (or care) to check their smartphone every time they get home…you know, like, actual people?

    Providing a high tech way for doing something that’s obsolete in-and-of itself is not progress…

  • Nutz320

    And how did you make this judgement?

  • Nutz320

    When Hitler was in power, almost no Germans liked Jews.

  • Nutz320

    Good point, I didn’t actually check the application out properly. I guess I was wrong. But I’ll be sure to keep a close watch on this app. Still seems like an interesting idea.

  • Nutz320

    Meh, my bad, I hadn’t checked the application out yet. I may be wrong on that comment, but I’ll keep a close eye on the app.

  • markhunte

    I would like to coin the terms : Social Networking Nest or Social Networking Hive Point.

    Why I call them a Nests or a Hive Point, think of hives of insect nests scattered all over the place.

  • Keon

    You can delete the pictures. Just swipe your finger across the pic like how you swipe to answer a call.

  • Taco

    You can delete any of your photos or comments, change your name and profile pic when you want (undeleted photos and comments still stay with profile dispite name chane)

  • Daniel Harris

    I think the general concept is good, but it was implemented extremely badly. The user interface is simple to a fault. I downloaded it and cannot figure out how to use it or what the icons mean. There’s no help or instructions, not even on their website. They really messed up by not paying more attention to the user experience. If i was an investor I’d be seriously pissed.

    This review spells out the frustration really well > http://farm6.static.flickr.com

  • wolfsahdes

    WTF??? And in turn, almost no Jews liked Hitler. Like I hate most peanuts. And veggies. And having my shorts ride up. And phone calls from my ex-wife. And taxes. And veggies (oh I already mentioned that. sorry. I just really hate them).

  • Nutz320

    My point was, just because people hate something, doesn’t mean they are correct. Sometimes, it’s opinion.
    “It mines data” is fact, “Data mining apps are bad, because…” is opinion.

  • David Chu

    Except that the examples are wrong.

    Alexander Graham Bell always had his sights set on the telephone. His early research in transferring harmonics over wire was simply a stepping stone to reach voice.

    I think the more accurate way of saying it is that disruptive technologies usually find their place in a small niche and work their way up to the mainstream. The technology usually needs to be refined before it’s ready for mass adoption. A new business model needs to be worked out. Just throwing more tech at a problem rarely solves it.

    The technology behind Color is interesting and I’m sure we will all use a form of it. Right now, it seem pretty half-baked to me.

  • Brassman

    By reading your posts.

  • Nutz320

    Which posts in particular?

    I don’t think an opinion is enough to say someone is stupid. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  • wolfsahdes

    No, I got that. Your choice of metaphors was just a little challenging, is all.

  • Hans Maristela

    This app has terrific potential for package goods & lifestyle brands with localized sales & marketing activities.

  • i0RA

    At the moment the idea of Color feels to me like that desktop webcam app chatroulette. But I agree with the author and sone commenters, that the backend technology may transform into something that we will use all the time.

  • GHo5t

    DOA App.

  • Frank lopez

    Had i known bout this app. I would have used it during ultra 2011. DAMN IT. Seems like a perfect app for parties, events etc.

  • Nutz320

    Godwin’s Law. :P.

  • Life In LoFi

    “The idea of spontaneous location-based networks that use increasingly intelligent algorithms to connect content streams is going to be absolutely huge.”

    Agreed. And that’s probably where the value of this venture lies — in the technology patents. For now, though, the app was rolled out poorly, in my opinion, and doesn’t live up to the hype that was generated. The benefits of this app aren’t readily apparent to most users (like you’d mentioned in your great post here). Unfortunately it needs a very high density of close proximity users to be fun *now*. It needs to be fun in order to attract and hold users.

    Again, the technology behind the app is intriguing. For me, right now, the app isn’t.


  • Nutz320

    This is still true though, so maybe it’ll surprise us. “People generally can’t envision an application for a technology that they have never experienced for themselves.” I don’t know!