"Thirty minutes after we launched our product, I knew something was wrong," Color CEO and founder Bill Nguyen said in our first meeting since the public disaster that was his company's launch in March of this year.
Color, the well-funded, over-hyped startup by the LaLa founder, had launched a social photo product designed to connect people based on the photos they took when near each other. But, Nguyen realized almost immediately after he hit the "launch" button that it was doomed to fail. Color had its own social network, but what he wanted to build was a photo service. Asking people to rebuild social connections was a huge mistake: "I made people do something that had nothing to do with the value I wanted to provide them."
He says when he was watching the real-time stats on the launch come in, "We saw people lighting up in geographies that weren't dense enough. We thought at first if we built our own network we would win. But the moment we didn't have the density, reality kicked in."
Nguyen is perpetually upbeat, but he admitted when we talked, "Even I haven't used the product in months."
He says the team immediately fell back on the cushion of the company's $41 million in funding ("most of which is still sitting in the bank"), and decided to rebuild from scratch. The company is announcing its new product, Color for Facebook, today in conjunction with the Facebook F8 developers' conference.
Facebook's new platform tools allow developers to integrate their apps even more deeply into the service than ever. And there's no non-Facebook version of Color at all now. Nguyen believes in this integration, on taking a winning platform and riding it for all it's worth. Zynga's his model.
Color for Facebook has a mobile app and a Web version. The mobile version--I saw the iPhone product--is a specialized Facebook app, like Facebook's own mobile app. But Color only views photos--yours and your friends'. It also gives you a robust view of users' entire library of photos.
It's a good app for photos. But the kicker is Color's "Visit" function. When you press this button on any of your friends' profiles, they get an alert that you want to see what they're seeing, in real time. This is not a videoconferencing function. It doesn't use Skype, there's no audio, and it defaults to showing a view from your phone's back camera, not the face camera. The idea is that if you're taking photos and a friend sees them, they can, in real time, ask to "visit" the event you just took a picture of. If you accept, then they can see a live stream of what your phone is pointing at, as can anyone else who you've shared the photo with.
It is a weird feature. But I think it will work in two big instances. First, if you're taking a picture of a personal event, friends and family members can now virtually join you to see the kid's reaction to blowing out the candles, and see who else is in the room, for example.
Color's Visit function is also a potential threat to Twitter. If a user photographs something newsworthy, viewers can then tap in and see what's happening at the event at the moment. And Visit is a broadcast function, not one-to-one, so a single user can easily and quickly become the center of a visual news story.
What happened to Color's location-based curation of photos? It's gone for now, but the concept may come back. Nguyen is talking about a "Witness to..." feature that would ask people at locations where news is unfolding if they're willing to document events live for Facebook followers.
Color for Facebook has a Web-based component that works within Facebook's site as well, so anyone on the network can Visit another Color user. It works using HTML; there's no plug-in required.
While it's cool that Color video is viewable on nearly every device, there's no audio, as I mentioned, and in the demo I saw framerates were pretty poor. When Nguyen told me he was aiming for a "man on the moon" feeling to the videos, I think he was trying to set expectations regarding video quality. But it works well enough for what it is, and it does it over 3G, which is good.
Color will make money via advertising in some way, "but it's still far away," Nguyen says about turning on the revenue spigot.
Again referring to the $40-odd million still sitting in Color's bank account, he says, "It may take more than one release to get this right."
- Product quality: Four out of five stars. Gorgeous UI on mobile platform and very creative and probably engaging "Visit" function. Time will tell if people actually use it, though.
- Business quality: Two of five. What business? This company has enough money to try several different money-making schemes, which means its strategy of focusing on product and growth first is not unsound--for now. But give us a taste of the candy, will you?