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New photo app Color hopes to see the future

Founded by the entrepreneur who sold Lala to Apple and backed by a shocking $41 million in venture capital, Color is the latest app to enter the crowded mobile photo-sharing space.

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
3 min read
An individual Color user's "visual diary." Color

What do you get when you mix together a killer domain name, a founder who sold his last company to Apple, a philosophy that borders on "Minority Report"-like futurism, and $41 million in venture funding? Well, it might look something like Color, the photo-sharing app for iPhone and Android unveiled Wednesday evening by erstwhile Lala founder Bill Nguyen.

In Color, photos taken through the app are shared through proximity, something which amasses a list of your contacts through machine learning; in effect, you'll be able to see all photos around you that were taken with Color. You'll be able to see the Color photos of the guy sitting two tables away from you at Starbucks, but when he finishes his caramel macchiato and leaves the coffee shop, you can't see them anymore. But if you spend a lot of time in proximity to someone--an office-mate, for example--that person's photos will gradually begin to stay in your contacts list for longer. It's an "elastic network," Nguyen calls it. "The whole goal is to say hello."

Nguyen, in his short stint at Apple after selling Lala (which the buyer shuttered), was in the thick of all things iPad and iPhone--and, he says, being at Apple got him thinking about "the post-PC world" and about the phenomenal amount of underutilized technology in current iPhone and Android handsets. "GPS is old technology to us," he says of Color, which can sample audio and light to supplement its assessments of proximity, and can also detect whether a large number of devices are taking pictures of a single central object or scene--like the band onstage at a concert. "It's like a bat. It's almost like sonar in a weird way," Nguyen told CNET.

In effect, users carry around a public scrapbook wherever they go. It's a concept that's pervasive, thought-provoking, and makes the app seem as much a philosophy as a product--something that could also be said for Path, another mobile photo-sharing app that launched last year and promotes a mood of intimacy with unusually tight privacy controls. But the philosophy of Color, which has a visually impressive interface and has chosen to omit trendy features like photo filters, is to bring an awareness of physical location and interaction into the digital world. "We believe in small towns and their values," a mission statement of sorts from the company reads. "Knowing your neighbors, barbecues, and local life is more rewarding than the isolation created by virtual worlds and friends online. Creating an open, public service fosters communities instilled with more genuine exchange and sharing."

There's also a distinct idealism to it, as the app is buoyed by the belief that peoples' shared photos will be insightful, provocative, and the sort of things that will prompt introductions. Inappropriate content is clearly banned. "Only public images and videos should be captured," Color regulations state. "Anything captured is visible to those around you and naturally identifiable to you. Color requires real-life etiquette and accountability for all actions. Any violation of decency can result in permanent suspension of service for a specific smartphone." All photos are public and users are encouraged to use it "in the same way as Twitter;" users can block one another if they choose.

But however ambitious the company is, some big-ticket investors believe in Color's vision. The company has raised a staggering $41 million before even launching--$25 million from Sequoia Capital, $9 million from Bain Capital, and $7 million from Silicon Valley Bank, according to vice president of marketing and communications John Kuch. The company has 30 employees and hopes to have "well over 100 by the end of the year," Kuch said. One of those executives is former LinkedIn exec D.J. Patil, who now serves as Color's chief product officer.

A revenue strategy, the company said in an FAQ, is "TBD." The app is free to download.

"Just as the iPhone changed everything about mobile phones, so Color will transform the way people communicate with each other," Sequoia Capital partner Doug Leone, who is joining the company's board of directors, said in a statement. "Once or twice a decade a company emerges from Silicon Valley that can change everything. Color is one of those companies."

You can listen to a podcast of a discussion between Nguyen and CNET's Larry Magid here.