Bye, SocialEyes: Startup Drops Video Chat, Goes Mobile with Sidecar

SocialEyes, a startup with roots in RealNetworks and financial backing from Bellevue, WA’s Ignition Partners, is changing directions.

The company unveiled a group video-chat service tied to Facebook just last spring. But the startup left that product in the dust a few months later, after realizing there wasn’t a clear path to making it work on mobile devices, CEO Rob Williams says.

First of all, the Web browser-based video chat service was built around Adobe’s Flash software, which famously doesn’t work on Apple’s iPhone platform—a pretty big strike against a mobile strategy, and one that SocialEyes found too daunting to engineer around.

Secondly, Facebook’s user sign-in hadn’t become a widely used tool for mobile users, part of the social network’s larger struggles to expand its footprint into mobile. And all the while, SocialEyes was seeing mobile growth explode, Williams says, knowing that’s where it needed to be to really make a dent.

So, after tapping its video chat user base for market research and taking the plans back to its investors, SocialEyes jumped on a completely different idea: multimedia voice calling for smartphones.

The result is an application called Sidecar—quietly available on Android phones for some time, and just now showing up in the iPhone app store.

Sidecar tackles the idea that voice calls should be reinvented from scratch for the smartphone age, incorporating the galaxy of communication and computing tools that those devices now boast.

“All of the innovation on your smartphone really has been on the data side of the phone,” Williams says. “The voice call really hasn’t changed since we moved from wired phones to feature phones to smartphones.”

Right now, the actual phone part of your smartphone is still stuck in a separate part of the device, used mostly for voice calls (and, in some cases, video calling). Using the phone’s other elements requires a fair bit of scrolling around inside the device—grabbing photos or locations to share, for instance, or looking up someone else’s number.

The Sidecar app ties all of those things together, making a phone call a much richer multimedia affair. Users can show each other live video of what they’re seeing, for example, or pull up an online map that shows both parties the destination where they’re planning to meet. Callers also can easily grab photos and contacts to send along to the person on the other end or send text messages. All of the digital goodies shared during the call are organized inside the app so they can be easily pulled up after the talking’s over.

Sidecar isn’t the only company aiming at this target. The most direct competitor I could find is Thrutu, a very similar idea that Xconomy’s Wade Roush has profiled. You could also zoom out to include other players in IP voice and video calling, like Skype, Tango, and Viber.

Importantly, Sidecar works across the two most popular smartphone platforms, iOS and Android—meaning that iPhone users can call friends who have the app on an Android phone, and everything works together. You can’t get all of the features unless both callers have the app installed, but Sidecar can still place an Internet voice call over wifi if only one user has it in place.

One thing Sidecar doesn’t offer, curiously, is two-way video calling. There’s a video transmission element already built into the app with its “see what I see” video streaming feature, but that’s meant to let one caller show another the concert they’re at, or the part on the sink that they’re trying to fix, for instance.

Williams says that’s a question of quality and data use. If you’re offering two-way video calling, the app sucks up a large amount of bandwidth to essentially pipe relatively bland videos of static faces in two directions. Sidecar’s approach allows it to consume a much smaller ongoing slice of bandwidth for the voice call, with an uptick for a one-way video that’s of higher quality, and then back down to the voice mode.

“You never say never, but really we’re very much about sharing—to have the ability to tell people what’s going on where you are,” Williams says. Video calling, by contrast, is something “you pretty much only ever use to show your grandmother the kids.”

That’s not a bad point, but personally I still wonder why not offer video calling as an option. Perhaps it’s a matter of consuming too much bandwidth for a small startup, or of trying to differentiate itself from other offerings in the market.

But as many app developers have found, users can be incredibly fickle when it comes to their digital products, aggressively giving out bad ratings if an app doesn’t live up to their expectations—even if the product is totally free to use. As consumers, we’ve quickly come to expect it all.

Those are questions that will be answered down the road as Sidecar tries to amass a user base and get ahead in the race to redefine smartphone calling. Its predecessor company raised a total of about $5 million, with most of that coming from Ignition. The startup now has about 10 people on staff, spread between an office in Seattle and headquarters in San Francisco.

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One response to “Bye, SocialEyes: Startup Drops Video Chat, Goes Mobile with Sidecar”

  1. What about FaceTime mothafuckers!!