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New startup Color builds community with photos

Bill Nguyen, founder of a new startup company based in Palo Alto, Color, and also a creator of LaLa music service, takes a pose for a portrait at Color headquaters on March 21, 2011 in California.

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                    Photograph by: KIMIHIRO HOSHINO, Getty Images


PALO ALTO, California - The founder of an online music service snapped up by Apple more than a year ago is out to weave smartphone users into spontaneous communities through instant image sharing.

Color, which Bill Nguyen plans to launch Thursday, lets owners of Apple or Android smartphones automatically share pictures with any other nearby users of the service.

"It takes the concept of Twitter to a whole new crazy place," Nguyen told AFP while demonstrating Colour at his startup’s headquarters in a pair of rented storefronts in the Silicon Valley city of Palo Alto.

"Every time you turn on this app, it’s like a bat, it connects into every other phone around you," he continued, bat cufflinks in the sleeves of his shirt.

Bain Capital, Sequoia Capital, and Silicon Valley Bank have pumped $41 million in investment money into Color, which Nguyen said was inspired by Apple heralding the start of a "post-PC era."

Nguyen’s previous startup was online music site Lala, which was purchased by the maker of iPhones, iPads, iPods, and Macintosh computers in December 2009.

Lala hosted digital music collections on the Web, allowing access from varied locations in what it described as "music in the clouds."

Lala also scanned iTunes collections and then stocked Lala account libraries with the same songs on the premise they had already been purchased.

It remains to be seen what Apple has planned for Lala, which it closed last year. Nguyen left Apple in September to start Color.
"If I could do a tribute to Apple and what I learned, this would be it," Nguyen said of Color. "We are creating something brand new; the network is going to be created just by people being around each other."

The post-PC (personal computer) era is marked by a shift from desktop computers to smartphones and tablet devices, Apple visionary Steve Jobs has proclaimed.

"What I saw in Apple products was that this was a world driven by actually using information while you are up and about doing things," Nguyen said. "It had the potential to be social in a way very different from the way the Web was."

Nguyen shunned a Facebook model that he saw as a colossal social network connecting far-flung friends or family, opting instead to let people with smartphones get to know those nearby.

"I wanted to build a system that would give you almost a small town feel again," Nguyen said.

Free Color applications for iPhones and Android devices will let people in close proximity to one another communally capture pictures, videos, and text messages.

Smartphone users activate Color applications and devices do the rest with no need to upload, log in, or identify users.

"Basically, every camera around you is your camera, instantly," Nguyen said.

Color software taps into smartphone gyroscopes to figure out whom in a crowd, say at a stadium rock concert, is closest to the central attraction and which cameras are apt to have the best pictures.

Concertgoers in distant seats get images from people nearby, possible friends, as well as from those in the front row.

Color users can keep all shared images taken at gatherings, with links between smartphones severing after they leave.

"When you post photos to Facebook, there is this weird single perspective to it; it is just your view of your life," Nguyen said. "We thought that was lame; we can do better."

Friends or family using Color can take advantage of a feature that lets them view one another’s smartphone pictures in real time no matter where they are.

Color also lets users keep "visual diaries" of daily doings by automatically saving pictures in a calendar.

Color users can peer into each others’ visual diaries.

"You’re going to start using it and realize your neighbors and co-workers are really cool and you should hang out with them" Nguyen said. "And, you will hopefully spend a little less time on Facebook telling people from high school and college how great you are doing."

Color identifies phones, not people, so no personal data is gathered from users. Abusing the service will result in a phone being blocked from Color.

The startup plans to make money by letting businesses offer deals or promotions to Color users once they are inside establishments.

"Color will transform the way people communicate with each other," said Sequoia Capital partner Doug Leone. "Once or twice a decade a company emerges from Silicon Valley that can change everything.

"Color is one of those companies."

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