Bump Brings Flock Photo-Sharing App to Android; Entering the “Age of Inference”

David Lieb thinks there’s a big transition under way in the world of consumer information technology, and he wants his company, Bump Technologies, to be there waiting on the other side.

The Mountain View startup’s specialty is helping smartphone owners get photos, address book entries, and other digital information off their phones and onto other people’s phones—a problem that device makers like Apple and Samsung have never really solved. The Y Combinator-bred company is named after the physical action—the bump—that is the usual cue for a file transfer over its network.

Bumping your phone with someone else’s phone is an act of “explicit intent,” to use Lieb’s words, that tells the Bump app to send a file. (There’s some fancy location-matching technology under the hood—detailed in my first profile of Bump, back in 2010—that actually gets the file to the right recipient.)

But Lieb thinks the day will shortly come when we don’t need to tell our phones to do things like transferring files to the people who ought to see them; it’ll just happen. “Where I see the whole mobile world moving in the next year or two is from the ‘Age of Intent,’ where we’ve been for the last 40 years, to the ‘Age of Inference’ or the ‘Age of Context,’” Lieb says. The next generation of mobile apps, he says, will “solve problems in a way that the user, the customer, doesn’t even have to think about it.”

Flock on an Android smartphone

Flock on an Android smartphone

That’s the whole idea behind Flock, an app from Bump that uses contextual clues about users, such as their locations and their social connections on Facebook, to prompt them to share their mobile photos with other people who’ve crossed their path. Say that you, your cousin, and your best friend from college all went snowboarding last weekend at Heavenly. Flock will figure out that you were in the same place at the same time, and assuming that you’re all connected on Facebook, it will prompt all three of you to upload your trip photos to a shared album.

Bump released the app for iOS devices back in July, and starting today it’s also available for Android phones. (The new app is not to be confused with the Flock Web browser, which was acquired and then killed by Zynga in 2011.)

While millions of people already share their mobile photos via e-mail, SMS, Facebook, or newer systems like Apple’s Shared Photo Streams feature, those methods all require attention and explicit intent. Lieb think the volume of sharing would increase even more if it were automatic.

“With Flock the main goal is to lower the friction enough that people will actually do it,” Lieb told me in an interview. “You don’t have to sign up for Snapfish or download something from Google+ just because your nerd cousin uses that. It levels the playing field. If everybody has the app, it just works.”

That’s a big if, of course—and it may be a while before enough people have downloaded Flock that there’s actually a chance you’ll bump (pun intended) into somebody else who has it on their smartphone. When I visited Bump at the end of October, roughly 100,000 people had downloaded Flock to their iOS devices. That’s a tiny number compared to the main Bump app, which has at least 115 million users and gains more than 100,000 every day.

“Uptake has been good but certainly slow,” Lieb says. He says that’s partly because the company has been working the kinks out of the app, and didn’t do much to market it until very recently. But now there’s an ad for Flock on Bump’s main home page—which gets a lot of traffic, since it’s also the page users must visit in order to “bump” photos from their smartphones directly to their computers. And making the app available for Android increases the size of Flock’s potential audience by several hundred million people.

Still, the photo-sharing market is a crowded one—and with Flock, Bump is taking on a challenge that at least one company, Color Labs, spectacularly failed to solve.

In early 2011 the Palo Alto startup, which raised $41 million in venture backing, released an iOS app that placed users’ mobile photos and videos into shared “diaries” accessible to every other Color user who was in the same place at the same time. Users were confused by Color’s interface and its networking model, and in the end, despite several strategic pivots, the company couldn’t recruit enough users to make its service viable. Apple “acqhired” Color’s engineers and shut down the company this fall.

Lieb says Bump wasn’t deterred by Color’s demise. He thinks Color’s technology for determining whether users were together at the same event, which was based on ambient audio profiles and other sensor readings, was a solution in search of a problem. “If you are going to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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