Ontela Signs Up Wireless Carriers and Websites, Wants To Send Your Camera-Phone Pictures with Nary a Click

Today marks the start of CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment 2008, the world’s largest wireless-data event, in San Francisco. A host of local wireless companies are peddling their products there, and at least one of them has some interesting news. Seattle startup Ontela, which makes software to transmit digital photos from camera phones, is announcing today that it has formed a partnership with 14 additional wireless carriers from around the U.S. and eight new photo-sharing social websites.

I called Ontela CEO Dan Shapiro, a veteran of Microsoft, RealNetworks, and local startup Wildseed, to learn more about the deal. The new carriers include United Wireless, Alaska DigiTel, Cellcom, and Golden State Cellular, who build on Ontela’s existing customer roster, which consists of Alltel, Cellular South, Cincinnati Bell, and nTelos. On the photo-sharing website side, Ontela has added the likes of Facebook and Friendster to its current stable of Blogger, Flickr, Photobucket, and Snapfish. All told, that could translate into millions of new users, says Shapiro.

It’s an important step for Ontela, which sells its software directly to wireless carriers, who bundle and sell the service to subscribers as part of a monthly package. Ontela was founded in late 2005, and is backed by Steamboat Ventures, Oak Investment Partners, Hunt Ventures, and Voyager Capital. (Venture capitalist Tom Huseby, profiled here last week, is chairman of the board.) The company raised a $10.3 million Series B round in May. About CTIA, Shapiro says, “We’ve got a couple of enormous projects just about finished, and we’re having conversations around that. We’ll show our latest demonstrations.”

Dan Shapiro, CEO of OntelaHere’s how the technology works. A carrier pre-installs the Ontela application on a camera phone. The software detects when there’s a new picture taken on the phone. It sends the photo wirelessly to Ontela’s servers, located in Tukwila, WA (hosted by Qwest), which then redirects the photo to wherever the user wants it—into his or her e-mail inbox, a photo-sharing website, or a laptop hard drive. (While we were talking, Shapiro took a snapshot of himself, on the left, and emailed it to me in 30 seconds… showoff.) As Shapiro puts it, “Our mantra is ‘no clicks.’ You take the picture and it gets delivered automatically.”

And that’s the key to building Ontela’s customer base—ease of use. You’d think someone would have done this already, made it easy to send photos from your phone. But it’s surprisingly hard to make that process simple. “The big dirty secret of mobile data sevices is that they’re really hard to install, and even hard to find,” Shapiro says. “I can do it, but my parents? No way, no how.” So Ontela is targeting mainstream users, not tech-savvy teenagers or “power” business users who have all the latest gadgets. (Full disclosure: I once took a trip to China and rented a camera phone, but never managed to get my photos off of it, so I would qualify as mainstream. Except I still don’t even own a camera phone.)

I asked Shapiro about the challenges of selling software to wireless carriers—especially as a startup—and he was pretty candid. “It is a pain in the neck to sell to the carriers,” he says. “For us, for our business of selling to the mainstream, it is the only way [to reach those customers]. But for an advanced email client, or something targeted to Slashdot users, I’d go off-deck…It was two years of continuous work, it’s a long sales cycle…We were taking a big gamble, putting it in carriers’ hands to sell. We have to make sure the value is there for carriers, so they sell it effectively.”

On the plus side, the sales strategy of going through carriers gives Ontela access to an enormous marketplace—basically anyone who buys a mobile phone. “The carriers’ webpages have been phenomenal; people learn about [Ontela] when they pay their bill online,” Shapiro says. “We’re seeing great results from demonstrating the value of our product through people using it, and carriers training sales people to sell at the point of sale [of phones].”

The next step? Going after the big carriers, and then the international market. If Ontela can do its one simple thing and do it well, it should catch on with those who just want their mobile technology to be easy to use. That’s certainly a big opportunity in a world where an estimated 3.3 billion people use mobile phones, but only a small percentage know how to make them live up to their full capabilities.

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