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My love letter to an app long gone

I still remember the first time I saw Color. Bill Nguyen and Peter Pham had invited me over to their secret lab in downtown Palo Alto. They introduced me to the incredible team they had recruited from Google and Apple. They told me they were trying to do something never done before on mobile phones — make a truly networked camera.

My jaw dropped the first time I saw it working. They opened it up and took a picture of me. I made a funny face. Immediately next to it were more pictures streaming in. They were coming from the room of people around us — a group chatting over coffee, code being written on screen, some of the walls, and some of me from a further angle. They were immediately showing up in a shared album. It felt intimate and alive.

A couple weeks later I was at a child’s birthday party at a friend’s house. Many of the guests were Color team members. They were still very stealthy but they let me use the app that day. Someone in another room took an incredible picture of my daughter. It immediately showed up on my phone. We went through the pictures later and could relive the whole party — the parts we were in, and many that we missed. Again, my jaw dropped and I felt like this could be a really big idea. A camera we all use together. I didn’t immediately know the business implications, but I couldn’t wait to get to use it in the real world.

They raised a lot of money. A LOT of money. They launched it big time. BIG time. This was before Product Hunt. They went mainstream from day one — getting stories into CNN, USA Today, and more. Because of the hype, and perhaps the $$ raised, lots and lots of people downloaded it and tried it.

But the product didn’t quite work right out of the box. It had some quirks. A LOT of quirks. For example it had nearly no onboarding and just dumped you into the product. When you started taking pictures it showed you everyone around you taking pics — and with a lot of people trying it in those first few days, it often felt random and downright awkward or scary with strangers pics showing up.

That intimate experience I had at the birthday party or in Color’s offices worked because the context was set. With the Color at launch, and everyone trying it, the network dynamics were all wrong. It didn’t feel right. Network dynamics are really hard to get right over time, and especially hard to predict on day one.

The tech community reacted with outrage. Many times over I heard “How could this stupid idea raise so much money?” Or much much worse. People resented a founder declaring they had the future and a huge warchest, and then mocked it when the product didn’t work. It was a case of hubris.

But it’s too bad. The ideas of sharing photos with the people around you (at least those you know) provided a magical moment at that birthday party that I still haven’t experienced since. Easily sharing, viewing, and saving pictures that matter to me from the people around me.

The key players have gone on to many new great jobs — back at Apple, Google, founding Science, and even the Office of the President. But I still think back to how much fun it would have been if Color had grown slowly, and tuned its experience to truly deliver on the promise of sharing what was live around us with each other.

Snapchat and Instagram are both incredible, and are the closest we have to a networked camera today. I’m loving new experiments with live video. Twitter is a global watercooler. But I think there is a bright future ahead for much much more here.

Update: A lot of people have commented publicly and privately that Snapchat’s “Our Story” is showing what they hoped Color could be. I sort of agree. Snapchat overall is tremendous, and will be a massive platform for sharing authentic and personal content as well as creating and consuming media for mobile. “Our Story” for college, events, and locations creates an experience so much more interesting than live mass media it’s silly. But they are still curated and feel more like media than personal / intimate sharing. What Color was trying to do was make every moment more than just what you could take and what you could see, and leave your own camera roll better because you were simply taking pictures with others. I still want that!

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I love building products that people use. I‘ve helped build Twitter, Facebook Connect, LinkedIn, Robinhood. Investor in Medium, Tiktok/Musical.ly, Discord

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