PicWing Out to Simplify Photo Sharing on Digital Frames

8/27/08Follow @wroush

In an ideal world, your digital photos would be shared and archived instantly, behind the scenes, as soon as you snapped them. They’d be wirelessly transmitted to your friends’ phones or e-mail addresses, a photo sharing site like Flickr or Snapfish, your social-networking accounts at Facebook or MySpace, a media storage site like Box.net, your digital photo frame at home, and, if you wished, to your favorite photo lab for printing.

As it turns out, there are companies working on most parts of this not-so-futuristic picture. Camera phones can already transmit photos wirelessly, and for regular non-wireless cameras, Eye-Fi makes an SD memory card that doubles as a Wi-Fi chip, automatically uploading your pictures to the photo-sharing site of your choice as soon as you come within range of a Wi-Fi network. If you have an iPhone, the App Store includes any number of apps that instantly upload your photos to the Web (AirMe and Flickup connect to Flickr, for instance, while SnapMyLife and Phanfare connect to their own new photo-sharing communities). Parrot makes digital photo frames that can grab pictures from camera phones over Bluetooth, and eStarling and other manufacturers make Wi-Fi-equipped frames that can display photos stored on your home PC’s hard drive, or tap into RSS feeds from the major photo sharing sites.

But so far, there isn’t a single overarching photo-sharing solution. If you wanted to broadcast all your photos to all your devices and accounts, you’d still have to cobble together two or three of the kinds of services outlined above. That’s probably one reason why software engineer, venture investor, and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, in a July 2008 post called “Startup Ideas We’d Like to Fund,” remarked that “there is huge growth still to come” in the market for photo and video sharing services. “There may ultimately be 30 different subtypes of image/video sharing service, half of which remain to be discovered,” Graham wrote.

The PicWing Digital Photo FrameWell, as it turns out, Y Combinator was already funding at least one of those subtypes of services when Graham wrote his post. San Francisco-based PicWing—one of the startups that just completed Y Combinator’s “summer term” in Cambridge, MA, and presented at the incubator’s recent Demo Day—wants to simplify the digital photo scene by bringing out a wireless digital photo frame that users reach via e-mail.

“Digital photo frames are a great idea, but the current photo frames are pretty bad,” says PicWing co-founder Enrique Rodriguez. “It takes a lot of effort to get your pictures onto them. We’re trying to let you push pictures directly to the frame, so your non-technical relatives can look at the frame and there they are.” To make a photo show up on PicWing’s frame, all you have to do is send it to the frame’s unique e-mail address, whether from your home computer or your cell phone.

Rodriguez and fellow founder Eddie Kim are building the first batch of PicWing frames by hand. Each frame is basically a small Linux computer, attached to the back of a 7-inch LCD screen, that incorporates incoming photos into an Adobe Flash-based slide show. The pair already has a 6- to 8-week backlog of orders for the device, which they’ve priced at $249.

To give potential buyers a taste of how PicWing works, Kim and Rodriguez have also built free widgets that display photos e-mailed to a user’s PicWing account on a PC desktop, inside a blog post or Web page, or on a Chumby (a bizarre little device that’s one-quarter clock radio, one-quarter 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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