The company's updated Color app will use the carrier's high-speed network to dramatically improve the quality of the videos it takes and will be preinstalled on some Verizon phones.
It looks like a good deal for Color, which has been struggling to get the features mix and social play right. The first version, which gave users a way to see photos coming in from people in the same general area, didn't work. "We couldn't get the density," Nguyen told me.
The second (current) version lets you share choppy, silent videos in real time with Facebook friends. The removal of the geographic element and the adoption of the Facebook network solved the density problem. But the basic feature, the live almost-a-tweet video blast, is a little weird. Instagram it ain't, in other words. Nguyen claims, though, that "we have over a million users and we haven't really been marketing." He also says that the clickthrough on user-uploaded videos is about 8 percent.
The newest version goes part of the way toward solving the feature issue, but it introduces a new issue: carrier-dependent features.
With the Verizonified Color, you can record higher-quality videos if you're on the Verizon LTE network, and you can record audio as well. If you're not on Verizon, you can see and hear other users' recordings, but you can't put sound in your own videos.
Putting the sound-recording feature in only the Verizon version of Color is not that big a deal by itself; it's unlikely that many users would make a carrier decision based on this one thing. But Nguyen thinks that using the network as the platform is a fundamental shift. You can do a lot of cool things when you're running with the carriers that you can't do when you're just an app squeezing through the funnel of a manufacturer's API restrictions, he says. For example, you can get access to more gelocation data. I assume that SMS data and voicemail and other information that carriers know but APIs don't reveal, could also lead to more interesting carrier-based apps.
It's an interesting position but an ironic one: we did not have a meaningful app economy for years partly because carriers like Verizon were restrictive and unresponsive when it came to third-party mobile phone software. Then Apple's App Store and model blew open the software market for mobiles. It's hard to see how going back to writing apps that have to be run through carriers is a good thing.
There are other carrier-specific apps, though; just look at the built-in apps on any smartphone (save the iPhone). It's not a bad business, in fact, to built apps for carriers -- if you can get it. But a developer can't reach ubiquity by serving a carrier that's looking for a way to keep its phones and services different from competitors'. Nimble app developers can write multi-platform apps, release them quickly, and can manage their own social marketing campaigns without being beholden to the carriers, which are still, by nature, slower and more restrictive than developers.
All that said, this Verizon deal does give Color a way to push out a better feature set, and it is a shortcut to getting more users. In the short term, it might be the boost that Color needs. But it's unclear how Color will be able to unwind this deal if (big if) competitors start to come at it and it needs to maneuver quickly.