Thrutu’s In-Call Media Sharing App Comes to the iPhone

7/20/11Follow @wroush

Since March 3, when Palo Alto, CA-based Thrutu introduced its Android app for sharing photos, contacts, and map locations during a voice call, more than 250,000 Android phone owners have downloaded the app. That’s a lot for an Android app, so Thrutu vice president Liz Rice seemed pretty happy when I spoke with her yesterday. But she added that many of these Android users had a surprising request: they wanted Thrutu to build an iPhone version.

“The number one request from our Android users was, ‘This is great, but half of my friends have iPhones, so we need an iPhone version,’” Rice says.

Today, Thrutu is delivering on that request. Apple added the new iPhone edition of the free app to the iTunes App Store this morning. Now somebody with an Android can ring somebody with an iPhone (these two species do speak with each other occasionally, we’ve heard) and use Thrutu’s media-sharing features during the call, assuming the app is installed on both phones.

What are those features? You can select an existing image from your phone’s photo album and send that, or you can snap a new one. You can send your location, which will show up on a live map on the other person’s phone. You can send contact details for someone in your phone’s address book. Or you can “prod” the other caller—a whimsical feature that simply causes their phone to vibrate.

I’ve been testing all those features today, and the app works exactly as advertised. The Android version of Thrutu has additional capabilities, such as a “doodle” button that lets you draw on top of a picture or map, a PayPal button that lets users exchange digital cash, a coin-toss button that can help with mutual decision making, and a growing gallery of other options. Rice says those features will come to the iPhone soon, but that the startup submitted a more basic version to Apple’s App Store because “we wanted to get something out as soon as we could.”

There are plenty of other apps, such as Bump, that let smartphone users exchange data such as images or contact details. But Thrutu is the first one designed to work during an active phone call, thus bringing down what Thrutu chief technology officer Chris Mairs calls the “barrier between the voice aspects of telephony and the data aspects.” Say you’re on the phone to your sister and her three-year-old kid does something cute; she can snap an image and send it to you immediately. Or you’re meeting someone for coffee but he’s not sure where you are—you can send him your location and let him navigate to you.

All of the features work by setting up a data communications channel between two phones via wireless data networks, in parallel to a voice call—a neat technical trick that took quite a bit of behind-the-scenes programming at Thrutu, which is the Silicon Valley subsidiary of a UK-based voice-over-IP provider called Metaswitch Networks. The underlying intention, according to Mairs and Rice, is to give people a new way of thinking about the old-fashioned phone call. Smartphone owners themselves have come up with plenty of new uses for the app, Rice says. “An archaeologist was showing pictures of things she finds on digs, and their locations. We’ve had people going shopping and calling up their friends for advice—’Should I get the green top or the blue top?’”

In June, Thrutu released a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) for the service, which means outside developers can now build their own buttons for the Thrutu app. About 50 developers have signed up for the program so far, according to Rice. The first third-party button activates location sharing via a Hebrew-language version of a crowdsourced Waze map. (New buttons will show up first on the Android app, and later on the iPhone.)

A photo shared via Thrutu

The APIs also allow developers to license Thrutu’s features for incorporation into other apps, Rice says. For example, LinkedIn could add a button to its own iPhone or Android apps allowing connected members to initiate Thrutu-enhanced phone calls and exchange professional contacts. Or Zynga could use it to let people playing the mobile version of Farmville exchange virtual items. Such licensing deals could provide one future revenue source for the startup, whose parent company Metaswitch is backed by Sequoia Capital.

Thrutu could face competition, though, from another burgeoning telecommunications option: video calling. Skype, Tango, Apple’s FaceTime, and several other apps let smartphone and tablet users make live video calls, which means, in effect, that they’re sharing media throughout the call. (As the owner of an iPhone 4 and an iPad 2, I’ve found FaceTime to be an addictive alternative to a regular voice call.)

Rice speculates that user uptake of video calling apps on mobile devices may be slow. “It’s one of those things people have been talking about for years, and the reality of it never quite seems to keep up with the hype,” she says. But she says there’s nothing stopping a third-party developer from adding a video-calling button to Thrutu. The startup itself opted not to create one because “we wanted to concentrate on our special sauce; we didn’t want to build a video solution that would be an also-ran compared to Skype and FaceTime. Coexistence is the way forward.”

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

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