Friday, November 10, 2006

You Paid $4.5m For What?

PicDeck from Ontela appears to have some potential to be a useful app, allowing users to easily sync pictures with other services (in theory Flickr, etc, who they would obviously like to be purchased by). The Windows and Symbian versions might even integrate with the phone with enough depth to be useful, though I'd say nothing would be likely to beat a feature intergrated into the OS by a manufacturer who understood usability.

They even make the right noises about compatibility: "We’ve focused this on the mainstream users, and that means Java and Brew" a PR droid said on behalf of Dan Shapiro, CEO - and the droid is right, in the US those are the two platforms to focus on to hit the mainstream (most of the rest of the world has luckily escaped the lobbying power of Qualcomm and is relatively BREW free).

However, this all reveals two flaws:
  1. Camera integration will be very poor for all existing handsets (you can't force the user to take pics with MMAPI inside a Midlet, it is just awkward , bug-prone and won't happen) which means the user must take a picture, exit the camera app, click through to the Java folder, and launch the camera app then find the picture and choose to upload it. That's a lot of clicks for a service which is a minor value-add that should work as a time-saver, and more expensive to use than a quick PC sync.
  2. Most mainstream Java phones don't support the File APIs, so won't be able to read the photos. So all the talk of the mainstream only counts if you define it carefully... which is maybe why they don't list compatible handsets, only reiterating the argument that J2ME is mainstream and they support J2ME so they support the mainstream.
So actually, it innately can't be a useful app not through its own faults but through the faults of the phone OSs, and it won't actually be able to run on a lot of phones - I wish I had figures, but you have to assume it's under half of the J2ME phones out there (the US is very backwards, with a huge number of Series 30s and T720s still in use as well as a load of Sprint phones I'm not too familiar with). You have to imagine they pitched to those VCs using something nice and modern, or more probably some form of RAZR as they are American, but basically a higher-end feature phone; and because all the developers and all the VCs had nice phones, they all immediately extrapolated the potential market accordingly. Obviously the kind of user who has a high-end phone is the kind who is in theory more likely to want the service, but I doubt they raced to clarify the details with the smell of $4.5m in the air.

So what else did the investors get access to for their millions? Well, not many features, apparently. “We wanted this to be ridiculously easy to use for everyone, and that can mean removing features,” said the PR bunny in the CEO's voice. “We gave away all these features for the sake of simplicity and reliability”. I am all in favour of simplicity, but we basically have a glorified photo upload form here and I cannot believe it was impossible to create a super slick easy to use product which also had the ability to tag a photo - with an appropriate amount of effort.

However, the investors do get one amazing new thing the market has never seen before: "Patent-pending technology automatically recognizes the phone handset and supplies the proper installation package". Hmm, bet that patent stands up in court (it's the US, so of course it will be passed). Maybe something like this really didn't exist over there in 2005 when Ontela started, but you have to assume there's going to be some prior art - I wrote my first server to do this in early 2002, and I've worked with quite a wide range of others since then and there have to be dozens more I haven't worked with, and it all boils down to matching user agents to handset databases in the end. Not rocket science and not something to get excited about unless you're a VC gagging for some mobile action.

They are very proud of their installer though, and their uploading, and the fact that both are rock solid and utterly reliable - though it's difficult to see how they achieve this when mobile networks are so flaky, especially in the US. Maybe they're glossing over that fact here, trying to counteract a general perception of mobile networking as unreliable by emphasising their code is reliable - fine, but that really should be taken for granted...

It's maybe a bit rude of me to pick apart this company like that, plenty more could get the same treatment and one day they might roll out something interesting - though I persist in my opinion that handsets are too locked down for the level of integration required to make this type of service usable. But hell, it's Friday and I just don't care...