Bump Brings Flock Photo-Sharing App to Android; Entering the “Age of Inference”

12/18/12Follow @wroush

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build a new product or service there should be some pain point you want to solve,” he says. “I’m not sure the Color guys ever knew what their problem was.”

The problem Bump is trying to solve with Flock, by contrast, is very clear. It has to do with a shortcoming in Bump’s flagship file-sharing app, which is only useful if both parties have Bump installed on their phones, and if they both remember to activate it to share something, such as their personal contact information.

“This summer we went and interviewed a bunch of people about Bump,” Lieb says. “We heard ‘We love it, it’s awesome, but I should have used it yesterday and I didn’t.’ What they told us was that they just forgot—they were wrapped up in a conversation or they were on the phone or the other person was going to install it and something came up. We kept hearing over and over that the greatest impediment was just remembering to use it.”

That was the seed of the idea for Flock, Lieb says. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could build a product where even if you don’t have it open, it still works for you?’”

Some time earlier, engineers at the company had been experimenting with a proposed feature for Bump that would prompt users share photos of group events. But short of users actually bumping, the company didn’t have a way to know if two users had been in the same place at the same time, so the idea was shelved.

Then along came Apple. In 2011, the company added a feature to its mobile operating system that sends an update to open apps every time there’s a significant change in a device’s location—the minimum movement is about 500 meters, Lieb says. Bump’s engineers realized they could use this new feature as the basis for a bumpless inference that two users were in the same place.

Flock automatically detects who the user was with when a group of photos was taken.

Flock automatically detects who the user was with when a group of photos was taken.

“We can say ‘Dave’s phone is here, Wade’s phone is here,’ and take that data and cross-reference it with a social graph, which is the best measure of who your real friends are, and then we cross-link those,” Lieb explains. “If [two Flock users] are together taking photos and they are friends, there is a good chance they want to share those photos.”

The sharing on Flock isn’t completely automatic: before it will upload your photos to a group photo album, the app asks if you really want to share them. (An especially useful feature after an evening of drunken revelry.) Once the images are on Bump’s servers, the images behave very much like photos on Instagram, Path, and other photo-sharing apps. Users can comment on them, copy them to their camera roll, paste them into their Facebook timelines, and the like.

To get Flock ready for Android phones, Bump had some work to do, Lieb says. In the Android ecosystem, there’s no central service that alerts apps about location changes, so the startup had to cook up its own system for matching two phones’ locations. But Lieb wouldn’t reveal much about how it works, except to say that “we spent a lot of time in the last month or so troubleshooting and getting it exactly the way we want.”

For now, Bump is framing Flock as a way to share photos with friends. But it’s conceivable that it could eventually be used for sharing other kinds of information too, Lieb says.

“There are always going to instances where you want explicit control” over what information to share, he notes. “But there are going to be a bunch of things where it’s even better if it’s inferred on your behalf.” For example, Lieb says, “We could say based on your calendar and e-mail traffic that ‘You guys should be connected on LinkedIn and follow each other on Twitter and have each other in your address book.’”

The more types of data our devices can gather about our whereabouts and activities, the less likely it is that any two people will need to physically bump phones to document their proximity. Could that mean that Flock will cannibalize and eventually replace Bump? Yes, and Lieb says that’s okay with him.

“If all goes well, we expect to see some users of Bump transition to Flock,” he says. “There may even be a point where Flock will become bigger than Bump. But we don’t see it as pivoting. We see it as building the next evolution of the product, and moving form explicit intent to inferred intent.”

Here’s a video introducing Flock, published by Bump earlier this year.

Introducing the Flock App – A new way to share photos from Bump Technologies on Vimeo.

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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