The True Color of Color Labs

This is a post about Color Labs that I contributed to TechCrunch in April, 2011.

Color Labs is assumed to be the newest combatant in the photo-sharing wars. Many people ripped its floppy launch, interface, crashes, and some are feeling creepy about the Chatroulette aspect. Then there was the backlash to the backlash, where believers applauded the vision, risk-taking, and promise of mining meta-data from phones. Even with the latest updatepushed out last night to address some of the initial product’s shortcomings, Color remains the most polarizing Silicon Valley startup since Quora’s rise and, appropriately enough, folks at Color have been answering questions on the company’s Quora topic page. The source of the furor varies from the amount of money raised ($41m) to the team size (27) to the buggy app (despite updates). A good chunk of the backlash is because users perceive it as a photo-sharing service. But, what if Color is more than a photo-sharing service?

Color Labs is on the record stating they are more of a data mining company with technology that, operating in concert on the phone, can paint a detailed mosaic of our mobility. Its patent-pending technologies are said to able to place users in proximity to others based on sounds and images, can capture the angle at which we hold our phones, how fast we move them in gestures, and how bright the environment is. And when users actually have the camera open, that’s when the real show begins, tagging images, setting context, and opening the type of world Christopher Nolan conceivedof in The Dark Knight, when Lucius Fox and Bruce Wayne use cell phone triangulation to create a digital reflection of the real world.

At the same time Foursquare and Facebook are clamoring to obtain our location, others already have a much better implicit depiction of our whereabouts and purchasing behaviors, mainly credit card companies and phone companies. For months, Facebook’s mobile apps have gently signaled to users if friends have been spotted nearby. A few weeks ago, Foursquare inked agroundbreaking deal with AMEX to tie the app to a payments system. And, a well-known secret in Silicon Valley is that Facebook is hard at work building its own mobile operating system that will bake “social” into as many mobile devices as possible. In order to get more information than credit card companies have, the phone companies need the user’s assistance and permission. And in the case of Color, the user has to have the app running, preferably with the camera open—at dinner, at a sports game—along with all the other apps competing for attention in a crowded, fragmented mobile apps marketplace. Color could give phone companies the chance to get as much as, or more, information about us than the credit card companies have.

Before any of this can happen, however, the question looms: Will Color be able to withstand this initial backlash, iterate, and keep improving on their app? Some believe the team will find its way. Others believe that in such a competitive environment, it’s not possible to get a second chance. The truth is that nobody knows, but if Color weathers this initial storm and is successful, what could it evolve into?

My sense is that Color Labs is thinking ahead two to three years, by which time users may grow tired of sorting through a constellation of apps and services to share and broadcast their location, purchases, and pictures. Instead, these features will converge in a slightly smaller number of unified apps. We’ll have folks using phones running on Android, iOS, or Facebook variants, among others, and we’ll have a chance to leverage features from Color Labs’s systems.

This is what I believe Color Labs is going after: The augmentation of mobile operating systems. Ultimately, they don’t want their service to run as yet another fragmented app on your phone—they want their system to entirely augment mobile operating systems, using their technologies to document every sound, image, movement, transaction, and message your phone transmits or receives. The folks creating this system are building tools for a world in which our mobile phones and tablets will take the place of many of today’s traditional computing devices. In this world, users will carry around their wallet, books, and other files in their phones and tablets, docking them into monitors and screens as they move from location to location.

This is pure speculation on my part and nothing more than a fun attempt to connect some dots.  But if a seamless mobile operating experience is their ultimate goal, this is the type of undertaking that truly needs venture capital, and lots of it. Part of the reason folks may be lashing out against the concept and launch is that, frankly, we haven’t seen a concept this big emerge for a while. Everyone loves a big concept, but a concept remains just that until the products gets in the hands of enough users to make a real impression.

Color Labs may be on a mission to perfect and harmonize its technologies to dramatically augment the mobile operating experience. Its founders are accomplished, its team is big, its technologies are novel. The brand is polarizing. Its a company that can convince Sequoia Capital to invest about 1.8% of its current fund for the chance to build something fresh from the ground up. It’s a company that’s being built entirely within a mobile world, an attempt to test the lasting power of Facebook’s symmetrical relationships and offer, as Fred Wilson notes, a more “implicit,” or as the company notes, “elastic” network, one that is built with a different set of rules, norms, and permissions that could perhaps more accurately reflect the random ebbs and flows of our social interactions in real life that have yet to be captured fully by any digital network.