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

12/18/12Follow @wroush

David Lieb thinks there’s a big transition under way in the world of consumer information technology, and he wants his company, Bump Technologies, to be there waiting on the other side.

The Mountain View startup’s specialty is helping smartphone owners get photos, address book entries, and other digital information off their phones and onto other people’s phones—a problem that device makers like Apple and Samsung have never really solved. The Y Combinator-bred company is named after the physical action—the bump—that is the usual cue for a file transfer over its network.

Bumping your phone with someone else’s phone is an act of “explicit intent,” to use Lieb’s words, that tells the Bump app to send a file. (There’s some fancy location-matching technology under the hood—detailed in my first profile of Bump, back in 2010—that actually gets the file to the right recipient.)

But Lieb thinks the day will shortly come when we don’t need to tell our phones to do things like transferring files to the people who ought to see them; it’ll just happen. “Where I see the whole mobile world moving in the next year or two is from the ‘Age of Intent,’ where we’ve been for the last 40 years, to the ‘Age of Inference’ or the ‘Age of Context,’” Lieb says. The next generation of mobile apps, he says, will “solve problems in a way that the user, the customer, doesn’t even have to think about it.”

Flock on an Android smartphone

Flock on an Android smartphone

That’s the whole idea behind Flock, an app from Bump that uses contextual clues about users, such as their locations and their social connections on Facebook, to prompt them to share their mobile photos with other people who’ve crossed their path. Say that you, your cousin, and your best friend from college all went snowboarding last weekend at Heavenly. Flock will figure out that you were in the same place at the same time, and assuming that you’re all connected on Facebook, it will prompt all three of you to upload your trip photos to a shared album.

Bump released the app for iOS devices back in July, and starting today it’s also available for Android phones. (The new app is not to be confused with the Flock Web browser, which was acquired and then killed by Zynga in 2011.)

While millions of people already share their mobile photos via e-mail, SMS, Facebook, or newer systems like Apple’s Shared Photo Streams feature, those methods all require attention and explicit intent. Lieb think the volume of sharing would increase even more if it were automatic.

“With Flock the main goal is to lower the friction enough that people will actually do it,” Lieb told me in an interview. “You don’t have to sign up for Snapfish or download something from Google+ just because your nerd cousin uses that. It levels the playing field. If everybody has the app, it just works.”

That’s a big if, of course—and it may be a while before enough people have downloaded Flock that there’s actually a chance you’ll bump (pun intended) into somebody else who has it on their smartphone. When I visited Bump at the end of October, roughly 100,000 people had downloaded Flock to their iOS devices. That’s a tiny number compared to the main Bump app, which has at least 115 million users and gains more than 100,000 every day.

“Uptake has been good but certainly slow,” Lieb says. He says that’s partly because the company has been working the kinks out of the app, and didn’t do much to market it until very recently. But now there’s an ad for Flock on Bump’s main home page—which gets a lot of traffic, since it’s also the page users must visit in order to “bump” photos from their smartphones directly to their computers. And making the app available for Android increases the size of Flock’s potential audience by several hundred million people.

Still, the photo-sharing market is a crowded one—and with Flock, Bump is taking on a challenge that at least one company, Color Labs, spectacularly failed to solve.

In early 2011 the Palo Alto startup, which raised $41 million in venture backing, released an iOS app that placed users’ mobile photos and videos into shared “diaries” accessible to every other Color user who was in the same place at the same time. Users were confused by Color’s interface and its networking model, and in the end, despite several strategic pivots, the company couldn’t recruit enough users to make its service viable. Apple “acqhired” Color’s engineers and shut down the company this fall.

Lieb says Bump wasn’t deterred by Color’s demise. He thinks Color’s technology for determining whether users were together at the same event, which was based on ambient audio profiles and other sensor readings, was a solution in search of a problem. “If you are going to 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 a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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