Going Colorblind: How An App Once Had Promise, But Left Customers Confused

Color Spectrum 2 Graphics CodeThe world is full of promise. There are a lot of talented individuals waiting to produce the next Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Foursquare. It is the understanding that investors and people who want companies to succeed will pick the ones that will show promise and that people will understand. And here in Silicon Valley, we must be cognizant about what is being produced here that the mainstream audience will eventually come and embrace.

With that being said, one quandary that has somehow plagued the Valley in the past 24 hours comes from Color. You might not have heard about them yet or really quite understand what they are all about. A few things that standout when you talk to someone who’s used the service before:

  1. It’s a photo-sharing application on your mobile device
  2. They’ve already raised a whopping $41 million in funding (mostly from Sequoia Capital)

First and foremost, it’s a free app that you can download onto your iPhone or Android devices (it’s not quite yet available on the Blackberry or Windows 7 Phone, but that’s probably a good move right now). But what you quickly encounter is a complete disbelief at what you’re holding in your hands. The user experience throughout the Color app is bewildering, simple yet so complicated that you would have to be a developer or a member of the team to understand what the symbols are supposed to represent. But let’s back up a bit first before we get into a more in-depth review of the product. We’ve already discerned that Color is a photo-sharing application for your mobile device, but what exactly does it mean?

It’s like Instagram? No. PicPlz? No. Does it use a camera? Yes. Great.

Possibly the one way to describe Color is not based off of its name. Color doesn’t send that clear of an idea about what the product does. It’s memorable, that’s for sure, but it just doesn’t really state its purpose. Nevertheless, according to the Color press release, here’s what it does:

Color™ is a miraculous, free application for iPhones and Android devices that allows people in close proximity to capture and have real-time access to photos, videos, and text simultaneously from multiple smartphones. Color is the best way of sharing an experience without the hassle of passing cameras around, emailing or uploading images and videos online.

Basically it’s a voyeuristic view of people around you. Have you ever thought about what people are shooting on their camera phones? Well if they are using Color, then you’ll be able to see it – although it doesn’t seem that much different than looking at photos through PicPlz, Twitpic, Yfrog, Instagram or any of the countless photo sharing devices. But as you start to use Color more and more (and this is probably the key here), you’re going to realize that these photos are from the community around you – not your friends. There is no friending or any privacy in Color. The photos you see of the world around you is giving you an idea about the people that are near you and thus adds a bit more color and maybe even some culture in your everyday life. Sure, there will be commenting and voting up/down on photos, but you’re basically seeing complete strangers (or maybe friend) photos.

There must be something in Color’s technology that makes their pairing system pretty snappy because since there’s no friending or following of people. If you happen to use Color, one of the things you’ll notice is that the application “groups” you in with random people nearby and you can see the photos they’ve shared on Color. But in a weird twisted reality check, Color probably does make things MORE social – and that is probably something we’re finding hard to believe. As one commenter on a TechCrunch article about Color noted:

I was at dinner last night at a Palo Alto restaurant with the Pulse team, and we were all using Color. I quickly realized what you had mentioned in your dinner table post: “The common misconception that my parents and others have about using the phone during dinner is that it’s antisocial. But increasingly, it makes dinner even more social.”

The social science of Color is that it has created opportunities for people to engage with one another – perhaps allowing folks to mingle with one another and share ideas and collaborate on cool projects. Could this application be the mobile version of an ice-breaker? There is potential in that happening, but only if it really flushes out its purpose and intent because as of right now, people are a bit confounded about what exactly are we supposed to do with this and why was this created? And when I say “why was this created”, I’m not talking about the reasons that I would give here or the founders, but its applicability to the rest of the world – the true mainstream.

The reaction and the fundraising

ColorWhat was Color thinking when they decided NOT to launch at South by Southwest this month? Their launch strategy was a bit flawed. These type of comments were made by some of the early adopters and tech pundits throughout the blogosphere and twitterverse. Just have a listen to tech adopter & researcher Robert Scoble’s Cinch note. He’s pretty upset about Color – not only did it have a flaw in launching, but that it’s not worth the $41 million that it raised. Since the service’s launch yesterday, it seems that it has been near-universally panned by critics who say that its launch was basically a sign the industry had reached a new “bubble”. Already in both the Apple app store and Android marketplace, Color has seen near negative reviews and ratings (1-2 stars). Is there anything that is good about the service that these pundits can see?

See additional reactions:

Bill Nguyen/ColorIn a Mashable interview, the founders, Bill Nguyen and Peter Pham, both of whom are serial entrepreneurs (and successful), were undeterred in their pursuit of evolving Color into a great service, regardless of the reviews given in the app stores. In fact, they state that they’re trying to turn the business into “the next social network of the future.” But how are they going to do that when few people actually know what it does? Well timing is everything and at the time I’m writing this, Silicon Alley Insider has published an interview with founder Bill Nguyen where Mr. Nguyen explains the rationale behind why Color was brought to life and what we’re all missing. As stated in the article…

  • Color is not about photo sharing. It’s a new way to build spontaneous social networks — and collect massive amounts of data about what people are doing and where they’re doing it — without collecting any personally identifiable information like last names, addresses, or even passwords
  • The technology is pretty amazing. Color will be able to detect when a bunch of people are pointing their camera at the same thing — say during a baseball game — and automatically figure out what everybody’s trying to capture. Then it will select the best picture and put it to the top of the photo feeds of people most interested in that image (like fans at the ballpark)
  • People are downloading it like crazy. In less than 24 hours, it’s already the number-two social networking app on iTunes, after Facebook. Nguyen says he’s received emails from Japan about people using it to share photos of devastated areas with nearby rescue workers
  • Real-time news reporting is coming. The company is working on a News API that will allow journalists to post pictures and map their location, and then will link relevant pictures taken near that location back to the journalist’s story. This would be great for covering events like trade shows or natural disasters

Businesses need a use case scenario

Mr. Nguyen’s explanations and defense of Color is great and I’m glad that he provided that to the world, but when I think about use cases for Color, the only one that I can think about is with events – not necessarily tech events or conferences like South by Southwest or the Consumer Electronics Show, but businesses will be able to leverage Color for events – newsworthy, entertaining, internal, external, whatever. However, the obstacle here is that not all of the businesses out there will HAVE events that could leverage Color’s ability. The sticking points to justify the $41 million in fundraising is where will the “mom & pop” shops use Color? What about healthcare companies or Fortune 500 companies? Can small businesses get a leg up by using this photo sharing/social network to keep in touch with what people are doing (without friending them as you would on Facebook)?

Maybe we’re thinking about this the wrong way. Ignore the $41 million for a single service/product. It’s probably more focused on the technology and the talent that is behind Color. After all, the way people (mainstream users) would use Color is probably like discovering a new form of technology – the venture capitalists and investors who funded Color have probable seen promise in a new form of communication and connectivity that mainstream media and audiences will probably congregate to in the near future – we’ve already moved away from the desktop computer, laptop, netbook, cell phone and now to the tablet. In the next decade or so, the technology and talent that power Color might be well worth its money and will have changed the way we’ve become social.

However, until that day arrives, one of the things that Color has done to the public is made them blind. We’re blind to its purpose and have suffered immeasurable sticker shock at how such a promised app has wound up being a lemon…at least for now. But then again, I might be missing something.

Image Credit: Blingcheese