Two Local Startups Launch Mobile Photo-sharing Networks for the Masses

4/9/08Follow @wroush

If you snap photos with your camera phone, you probably mean to share them eventually. But if you’re like 75 percent of camera phone owners surveyed by Ontela, a Seattle mobile imaging firm, those pictures are still sitting in your phone’s memory, because you’ve never succeeded at transferring them to your PC, or a photo sharing site, or another mobile user. Even though phone makers and cellular carriers have had years to work on the problem, the photo-sharing software that comes on the “decks” or top-level menus of most camera phones is still too complicated for most users to bother with it.

But lately there’s been a flurry of startup activity around Web-based mobile photo sharing, and two of the newest competitors are right here in Greater Boston. This week Needham, MA-based Mobicious, which has been publishing a directory of mobile-phone applications and resources since late 2006, is officially launching a new service called SnapMyLife, which allows members to upload camera-phone photos to a Flickr-like public “timeline” or common collection viewable from a mobile Web browser. Also launching this month is Chelmsford, MA-based Moborazzi, which has its own Web-based public timeline but is focused on direct picture-sharing between members and any friends and family who sign up to receive photos on their own phones via e-mail or MMS.

Both services make sending a photo from your phone about as simple as it could be, given current technology. And both work with a wide range of devices. At a minimum, users need a phone with a Web browser or an e-mail program and a data plan (most new phones come with all of the above). Sending photos to the public timelines or to your followers is generally as easy as sending an MMS picture-mail message or attaching your photos to an e-mail. Viewing the pictures involves surfing to the companies’ mobile websites, which—if you set a bookmark—you can often do in only one or two clicks. Of course, the larger your phone’s LCD screen, the better your pictures and others’ will look on it. For the best possible experience with both SnapMyLife and Moborazzi, you’ll want to try the services on an Apple iPhone; both companies offer versions of the service optimized for the iPhone’s Safari Web browser.

SnapMyLife Screen ShotI first met the folks from Mobicious a couple of weeks ago at Mobile Monday Boston’s iPhone app party at the Apple Store in Cambridge, MA, where they were just starting to show off SnapMyLife. CEO George Grey filled me in at more length about the service in an interview last week. “One of our aims was to emphasize the ability to have a complete mobile experience—not only taking the photo but carrying out the viewing experience on the mobile phone as well,” Grey says. “You take out your phone, go to our site, and see the latest pictures from your friends and family and others you’re following.”

Having users view photos via the mobile SnapMyLife website is key to the company’s business plan, which rests (for now) on revenue from text and display ads that are shown underneath each photo. “We decided to do it that way because it’s not very intrusive, yet we’re seeing good click-through rates, according to the ad networks we’re dealing with,” says Grey. He says SnapMyLife may also work with advertisers to build whole sub-communities around a single company’s ads. “You can imagine having a Jeep user uploading photos to a Jeep community and creating an opportunity around a brand,” Grey explains. “Anyway, we’re looking at what works and doesn’t work.”

To ensure that members would have the chance to stumble across interesting photos from around the world, Mobicious chose to make make SnapMyLife an open network—that is, to build its service around a public photo timeline, rather than restricting users to seeing only their own photos and their friends’, the way some other services such as San Francisco-based picture sharing network Radar.net do. The company also chose to keep that public timeline PG-rated. And those two decisions together have created an interesting challenge for Mobicious: sorting through the thousands of pictures being uploaded every day to make sure they don’t contain offensive content.

“We made a decision that we were going to make it an open site, where you can find something really interesting from Africa or China or somebody going on holiday,” says Grey. “But we also wanted to create a site for people who don’t want the kind of flirty, dating, or racy experiences you’ll find other mobile services like MocoSpace.” (We profiled Boston-based MocoSpace in January. While the teen- and 20-something-oriented service is mostly built around games, instant-messaging, and friend-finding, it does include a photo-sharing area full of self-portraits that verge on soft-core porn.)

Right now, according to Grey, Mobicious’s staff of 15 is handling photo moderation manually. But obviously, that’s not a scalable solution, especially if the service catches on more widely. So the company is investigating an interesting alternative: outsourcing moderation duties to Internet users around the world using Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online “microjobs” marketplace where Internet users can earn small payments for completing specific tasks.

In essence, the company would forward incoming photos to Mechanical Turk workers, asking, in Grey’s words, “‘Are you pretty sure this picture wouldn’t offend anybody?’” If the answer is yes—which it will be 95 percent of the time, Grey says—the picture in question will appear in the public timeline. If it’s no, the photo in question will be forwarded back to somebody at Mobicious, who can make a final decision about whether to exclude it.

Even then, photos can still be shared privately between individuals SnapMyLife users. “Content isn’t being censored,” says Grey. “It’s a bit like Twitter—a given comment may or may not appear in the public feed. We just ensure that the content level is reasonable. It’s an interesting line to try to draw. You want to keep the site interesting, entertaining, cool, and edgy without letting in obscene content.”

At Moborazzi, there’s definitely nobody monitoring the images that pass through the site’s software. That’s primarily because the company consists of one person: Tom Boilard, a software engineer with a background in mobile services. I learned about Moborazzi at the most recent Web Innovators Group meeting in Cambridge, where Boilard gave a quick presentation on his early-stage startup.

Moborazzi Screen ShotBoilard says he set out to build a photo-sharing network because he didn’t see other companies focusing on photo “broadcasting”—allowing mobile users to exchange pictures directly using between their phones, without a PC or a website as the intermediary. “Everybody takes photos with their mobile phones, but they don’t know what to do with them, so they end up stranded on the phone,” says Boilard. “The idea with Moborazzi is that when somebody posts a photo, it’s immediately broadcast to their network of followers.” The photos arrive as attachments to e-mail messages.

This sort of photo-sharing has long been possible within cellular networks; for $5 extra per month, for example, Sprint subscribers can share photos with each other using the Sprint PCS PictureMail service. But Moborazzi lets users do the same thing at no additional cost, regardless of which carrier they use. And to make the idea more interesting, Boilard has built in a way for followers to comment on the photos they receive, simply by sending a few lines of text in a reply e-mail. “You can start a conversation back and forth with the person who took the photo, and it’s all saved underneath the photo” on the Moborazzi website, Boilard explains.

While Moborazzi is fully functional, the whole service is running on one Web server at Boilard’s house, and is more of a proof-of-concept than a full product. Boilard says he’s looking for angel investors willing to put up the $300,000 to $500,000 it would take to build a more scalable back-end infrastructure for the service, which will eventually be advertising-supported, or potentially licensed out to social-networking providers and other online busineses as a white-label service.

With camera phone ownership growing and all-you-can-eat data plans becoming more common, photo sharing is likely to keep accelerating among mobile owners. But it’s unclear how many different photo sharing services the market can sustain.

“It’s a noisy space,” Boilard acknowledges. “It wasn’t quite as noisy last summer when the idea came about, but now there are tons of companies in this little niche. My personal opinion is that there’s always room for several successful businesses in any niche. I think what differentiates us from competitors is our very simple interface. Your average person, from any age group, can come in an understand it. You don’t have to be part of the 18-to-25 Facebook crowd. You can be that 35 or 40-year-old person who really just wants to get their pictures of their kids off their phone.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.