PicWing Out to Simplify Photo Sharing on Digital Frames

8/27/08Follow @wroush

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video and music player, one-quarter Web terminal, and one-quarter stuffed toy). Users can manage all their photos at the PicWing website.

Kim and Rodriguez know that they’re competing in a crowded market. Digital photo frames are one of the fastest-growing categories of consumer gadgets; they took up about half a pavilion at the last Consumer Electronics Show I attended, in 2007, and Amazon alone carries about 20 varieties of the devices. But as beautiful as many of these frames look on a living-room wall, they have an almost universal weakness: primitive software interfaces that look as if they’d been slapped together minutes before the devices shipped. So that’s where PicWing, sensibly, has focused its work.

“A lot of our effort went into designing the album application, and making the interface extremely simple,” says Kim. “What you see on the website, when you edit photos or titles, is exactly what will appear on the frame.”

But while TechCrunch and other publications have described PicWing’s product as a “social digital picture frame,” Kim and Rodriguez aren’t actually attempting to build a new Flickr-like social network to go along with their device. In fact, they say one of their most important action items is to allow users to import their Flickr photo albums to their PicWing accounts, so that they don’t have to switch photo-sharing providers or start all over.

The PicWing web album interfaceBut what is social about PicWing’s device is that the company is effectively transplanting the beta-testing model familiar from the Web 2.0 and software worlds into the hardware market, handing over much of the development process to its customers. It’s an interesting alternative to the traditional method of developing a reference design, sending the plans off to an original equipment manufacturer in Taiwan, waiting months for a shipment of devices, selling a few hundred units at select retailers, and so forth. And it’s a strategy that would likely backfire miserably if PicWing were marketing its frame as a finished product. But in fact, PicWing states clearly on its website that its frame is designed for “early adopters only”—a crowd that’s more likely to swallow its premium price, and much more likely to send cheerful feedback when the gadget fails.

“At this point we have a frame that works, but it’s still rough around the edges, and we are very clear with whoever wants to buy it that it’s still a beta product,” says Kim. “We believe in getting this stuff out as soon as possible and testing the system. The best strategy for us to improve is to find out what types of things customers are really looking for; this way we can get the feedback really soon.”

So, if you’re looking for a polished product with the Underwriters Laboratory seal of approval, buy a digital frame from Kodak. If you want to help out a couple of young entrepreneurs, and have some fun e-mailing camera-phone photos to a screen on your Mom’s office desk or your Dad’s kitchen counter, try PicWing.

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

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