In a World of Check-Ins and Social Discovery Apps, EchoEcho Keeps it Simple (and Useful)


Just like last year, this year's edition of SXSW is once again heavily focused on location-based application. While the genre is slowly moving away from check-ins and virtual badges and more towards "social discovery," though, it's still rather debatable how useful apps like Highlight or Glancee are outside of the conference and Silicon Valley bubble. One location app that has long been going against these trends is the Google Venture-funded EchoEcho. The app does one thing – and it does it well: letting you find out where your friends are and making it easy to meet up with them without compromising anybody's privacy.

Just in time for SXSW, the company just rolled out the fourth version of its app (iTunes link), which features a redesigned interface, a mobile web app and the ability to share your location live with a friend for a set period of time (up to 2 hours).

Using the app is as simple as it gets. You just pick a contact from your phone's address book and simply use the app to ask them where they are. Once your contact receives your request and accepts it, you can both see where both of you are (by requesting somebody's location, you also always share your own location). From there, you can use the app to chat and/or suggest a meeting place.

Two major new features in this version make all of this easier (besides the new design, which is much more streamlined that before): live updates that allow you to share your location in the background, so you know how far away your friends are from the meeting place and a new web app that allows your friends to share their location with you without having to install the app themselves (instead of a push notification from the app, your friends will simply get an SMS with a link to the web app).

Just like previous version of the app, the EchoEcho team continuous to ensure that it's available on all the major mobile platforms, including iOS, Android (these have been updated to 4.0 already), as well as Blackberry, Windows Phone and Symbian (I'm not sure the Symbian app will get an update, though).

3:52 pm

No More Buttons: Clear Demonstrates the Power of a Purely Gesture-Based Interface


At Goldman Sach's technology and Internet conference today, Apple's CEO Tim Cook gave a rare live interview that provided a sweeping overview of the current state of Apple and some glimpses into its future. One moment that stuck with me was Cook noting how he things that at least some of the iPad's success is based on the face that it wasn't a completely new experience for users. The iPhone and iPad touch had already trained users in how to use Apple's gesture-based controls ("The iPad," he said, "stood on the shoulders of everything that came before it.").

It's somewhat fitting then, that today also marks the launch of Clear ($0.99), a deceptively simple todo list app for the iPhone that does away with menus and just focuses on providing a natural interface based on gestures and a few taps here and there. While most iOS productivity apps still use menus at the bottom of the screen, Clear just runs in something closer to a full-screen mode. Even if you don't feel the need for a new todo list app (and, no doubt, there are plenty of those around already), Clear is worth a look just for the interface alone. You can watch the demo below to get a better idea of what it looks like, but you really need to use it yourself to understand why people are so excited about this app.

Our friends over at The Next Web also have an interesting interview with Phill Ryu, one of the app's developers. In it, Ryu talks about how he thinks that virtual buttons are basically "about the most unsatisfying interaction you can have in a touchscreen device." Kids, Ryu thinks, are already growing up being more comfortable with gesture-based interactions than hotkeys and right-clicking. Games, of course, are mostly responsible for this, but it's only natural that these natural interfaces are now finding their way into productivity apps as well.

Clear may not be the right todo list app for you, but it is definitely blazing the trail for a new class of apps that will be completely based on gestures. This would have been completely impossible just a few years ago, as none of us were familiar with pinch-and-zoom gestures yet. But as Tim Cook pointed out earlier today, all of this has now become completely intuitive and the next logical step now is to just do away with more and more of what is still left of the desktop metaphors on our mobile devices.

11:35 pm

What's the Point of Color?


The minds behind Lala, the ingenious online music service that Apple bought and immediately shut down, just launched their newest project  tonight: Color.

Color is a photo-sharing app for iOS (iTunes link) and Android with $41 million in backing from major venture capital firms. Forbes calls it “a new photo app that could change the way you interact with people,” but leaving aside the question why an app like this needs $41 million, my main problem with the service is that I can’t quite figure out why I would want to use it.

What Color Does

color_screensHere is what Colors does: Unlike apps like Instagram, picplz or Path, every picture you take is public and there is no option to make it private. More importantly, the app groups together both the photos that were taken at the same location and the people that took them. To do this, the service uses some admittedly smart algorithms that look at where your phone was pointing, the ambient noise around you and other factors to determine that these pictures were indeed taken in the same place. The service then organizes you into an “elastic” social network with all the people around you who took picture at the same place. It basically creates the social network for you as you use the app (and dissolves your “friendships” automatically if you don’t take pictures close to each other for a while).

Why Would You Want to Use It?

Overall, this sounds like a smart idea, but I have a hard time imagining why I would want to use this app. If I’m already in a certain place – say a tourist sight – I don’t need to see the pictures that others took there. I’m already there to see things myself after all.

Maybe this will be useful in a restaurant, where you can then see a dish before you order it, but that assumes that there are actually enough people out there who would want to use the app. Even today, if you are outside of the tech bubble, you can still find plenty of places where nobody has ever checked in on Foursquare.

take-photos-togetherSupposedly, grouping these pictures will help you meet new people and make new friends. I just have a hard time imagining this in the real world where you probably don’t want to talk to a stranger just because he/she frequented the same restaurant one night or went to the same concert.

As Tom Foremski notes in his piece about the app, “I say hello to my neighbors but that’s about the most interaction I want with them. […] If I wanted to get to know my neighbors better I would try to make friends with them, but I don’t and they don’t.” I think that’s the social problem Color faces and one that I don’t think it is one that can be easily overcome.

Sadly, the app also itself does little to explain what it actually does, which will likely turn first-time users away rather quickly. There are no help menus and the only indication of what the app does is the opening screen which tells you to “take photos together.” The app’s homepage on the Web also does little to explain its functionality (“Simultaneously use multiple iPhones and Androids to capture photos, videos, and conversations into a group album. There’s no attaching, uploading, or friending to do. “).

Maybe I’m missing something important here – or the huge hype around the app is just making me grumpy – but while I admire the idea behind Color, I just don’t see the point of it.

9:12 pm