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How Color, the Insanely Ambitious and Well-Funded Social Photo App, Could Win

Yes, the amount of money that has been raised by Color, the social, mobile photo app founded by Lala founder and serial entrepreneur Bill Nguyen and launched for free just last night for iPhone and Android, is absurd. It’s hard to decide which part is crazier: That a single mobile application raised $41 million from the likes of Sequoia Capital, Bain Capital, and Silicon Valley Bank before it even launched, or that $25 million of that reportedly came just last week after one demonstration. “Nguyen showed Color to Sequoia megapartner Mike Moritz early last week. Within 24 hours Sequoia had committed $25 million and put partner Doug Leone on the board. Moritz, says Nguyen, “got the ‘wow’ moment of doing something together, not a day after like on Facebook”, Forbes reports.

Apart from the bona fides of Ngyuen and his six well-credentialed co-founders, who include BillShrink founder Peter Pham and former LinkedIn chief scientist DJ Patil, what do all of these smart investors see in a single-app company whose first overtures to the public have been weirdly restaurant-centric?

FastCompany: “‘When I go to a restaurant or public event or cafe, don’t I want to know some of these people around me?” [Nguyen] says. ‘We thought we could build something that would allow you to get to know everyone else that is not already your Facebook friend.’” TechCrunch: “Say you walk into a restaurant with twenty people in it. You sit down at a table with four friends, and start chatting. Then one of your friends pulls out their phone, fires up Color, and takes a snapshot of you and your buddies. That photo is now public to anyone within around 100 feet of the place it was taken. So if anyone else in the restaurant fires up Color, they’ll see the photograph listed in a stream alongside other photos that have recently been taken in the vicinity.” Forbes again: “The potential business model for now (and it is sure to change) is charging stores and restaurants for the right to show their Color photos in people’s streams based on time and a user’s location.”

But those $41 million aren’t really about breaking the ice between early-adopter strangers in restaurants, are they?

Right now, Color is being roundly pilloried, with an average rating of two stars on the iTunes store. “First-time experience is terrible: it’s totally blank. There’s nothing to see,” writes one disaffected user. “I have no idea how this UI works. I don’t know when or why I’d use this app,” writes another. Somewhat more constructively, a highly rated thread on Hacker News likens Color’s problem to that of other social apps, which look great when demoed to journalists, but provide disappointing experiences to first-time users whose social networks are not yet populated. You can share Color albums with Twitter and Facebook, but the yoinking does not work in the other direction, hence the infernal blankness.

So for Color, as for any social app, to work, it must gain a critical mass of users. But even if many of those users today, egged on by a blitz of media coverage, snap a few photos, are disappointed by the blankness, and go away for now, they will be like lichen populating a newly formed volcanic island, breaking the rocks and providing the nutrients on which more promising vegetation will be able to grow in the future. An advantage that Color has in this respect is that unlike Facebook or Twitter, it doesn’t require constant activity by all of one’s friends to be worthwhile: Once taken, the geotagged pictures remain attached to that location in perpetuity, sortable by time and strength of social connection. Oh, and Color owns all the rights to all the photos taken with Color, forever, though it allows users to delete their pictures. So part of Color’s resilience is that any kind of launch right now, even a bad launch, is good for the app: Bad word-of-mouth among techies is trumped by a growing pool of photos attached to places which will prove useful and sticky when latecomers come trickling in.

John Battelle offers the best analysis yet written of why Color has a good shot at success.

In short, if Color is used by a statistically significant percentage of folks, nearly every location that matters on earth will soon be draped in an ever-growing tapestry of visual cloth, one that no doubt will also garner commentary, narrative structure, social graph meaning, and plasticity of interpretation. Imagine if Color – and the fundaments which allow its existence – had existed for the past 100 years. Imagine what Color might have revealed during the Kennedy assassination, or the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, or hell, the Rodney King beating?

But that’s just the stuff that’s important to us all. What Color really augurs is the ability to understand our shared sense of place over time – and that alone is mind-bendingly powerful.

If Colors fails, it will be due to execution, and someone else will get it right. Because the world wants and needs this, and the time is now.

Colors is more ambitious and greedier than Instagram, at which Nguyen took potshots in his FastCo interview: “‘No one sees through filters,’ he quips. ‘I never see life in that perfect sepia moment, and I don’t see things in black and white.’” It wants to create a new photo layer on top of everything, a Wayback Machine for every physical location everywhere (h/t Brian), and on top of that it wants to mine that layer for social info. The challenge remains convincing enough humans that they want or need to board this spaceship, but if they do they will be building something formidable, useful, and potentially very profitable.

(via TechCrunch, HN, Forbes, FastCompanyJohn Battelle)

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