Color me curious: Five thoughts on the new app

The iPhone photo-sharing tool has prompted a lot of talk and a lot of questions. After a day and a half of using it, CNET's Caroline McCarthy offers her observations.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
Screengrab from Color

For about a day and a half I've been testing out Color--the very public and very provocative new mobile photo-sharing app that made waves across the Web when reports revealed that the company behind it had already raised $41 million in venture capital.

After playing around with the Color app, I have a few thoughts. And I am, for sure, interested in seeing what happens in the near term with this one.

1. It's a whole new way to get to know your upstairs neighbors.
I've been loading up Color inside CNET's New York office, and it seems like I'm alone here aside from one or two of our sales reps--but half a dozen employees of PC Magazine, which has its offices upstairs, are using Color to share short videos of one another saying "Beef" at the camera (among other things). I have never had the pleasure of meeting most of them in person, but apparently Color believes our proximity ought to bring us together. So it's actually grouped some photos I snapped around the office (mostly of my feet) with the antics of Seth, Jeffrey, Alina, and Alberto upstairs. But I'm not actually in their presence, nor would I be in the presence of my upstairs neighbors at home if they were taking pictures of their kids and dog.

It all reminds me a bit of a short-lived HBO experiment called the "Voyeur Project," which used an elaborate Web interface to give viewers a peek inside different apartments in a fictional New York residential tower. You're seeing things that you don't quite think you should be seeing.

2. Color is far less about individuals' photo streams, and more about what happened at around the same time and place, than I would have expected. If that makes any sense.
I envisioned walking into a coffee shop, opening up the Color app, and instantly seeing the entire photo stream of the person sitting a few tables away. I figured I'd browse through it and maybe, if the person and his or her photo stream didn't give me the creepy crawlies, going over and saying, "Hello! I like cats, too!" Actually, this is not how the app works. I'd see recent photos that had been taken in close proximity to me, and if I took Color photos, they'd show up there too.

Color reps explained that you'll only see other peoples' photos when they're close to you; in truth, you'll see those photos for as long as you want, but you'll only see the ones that were taken when you were around. To keep closer tabs on someone, Color will amass a friend list for you based on whom you hover around most regularly. Photos that Color determines were taken in my presence will also show up as "my" photos in my photo stream, which is why my profile shows some of the photos from PC Magazine's eminent bobblehead collection.

3. It isn't very intuitive, and this may be a problem.
I felt like I was learning how to ride a bike--a bike which publicly shared a photo each time I fell off. Depending on what you're looking at, the scrolling interface may be up-down, left-right, or both. The purposes of the clickable icons--a globe? a clock? a weird pair of binoculars?--didn't instantly register in my brain. After a day and a half of using Color, I'm still not quite sure what I'm looking at.

The flip side of this is that maybe by expecting to instantly understand what's in front of me, I'm conceding that many mobile social-media apps have extreme similarities that don't add up to much originality. Color is, for better or worse, in a league of its own. It is, by no means, a bad product, and the technology behind it is clearly well thought out. But the fact that it's so different means that this app is "native" to no one. CNET's Larry Magid has already looked into the possible implications for safety and children given that Color has no privacy settings whatsoever. If it takes a while to get a hang of the visual interface, I foresee the average user needing some time to understand the entire system. This learning process will take place completely in public.

4. No, I still don't know what the $41 million is for.
Consider this: Color describes its business mission as "advancing the post-PC revolution by inventing new applications that bring people together through proximity, social, and visual presentation." The fact that "applications" is plural makes me optimistic that somewhere in Color's investor deck (no, not the hilarious fake one that's been making the rounds--warning, NSFW language) are some pretty ambitious future plans. That doesn't make up for the fact that $41 million in venture capital funding prelaunch is a ridiculous amount of money. But keep it real here: Raising a lot of money doesn't guarantee that a company will fail. It just means that if it does, it'll fail a lot more spectacularly than it would have otherwise.

5. Millions of people around the world spell it "colour," including our neighbors to the north. Panic!!
I e-mailed Color reps to ask whether the app's name will be different based on regional spellings--I mean, considering that the app is all about behavior related to physical location, that's relevant, right? Founder Bill Nguyen responded to this one personally. "Still Color; but Colour will route to us," he told CNET via e-mail. "Like the idea of a dual name...Mysterious."