Developer Workshop: Thwapr

Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile focuses on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offers their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live, Shortcovers, Pint Sized Mobile, Geodelic, Spark of Blue Software, Tarver Games, People Operating Technology, Booyah and Bolt Creative.

This week FierceDeveloper profiles Thwapr, a free service developed to facilitate video and photo sharing across virtually any mobile phone, regardless of manufacturer or network.

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While most mobile video solutions have focused on simplifying users' efforts to post their clips to the Web, Thwapr is a free service developed to facilitate video and photo sharing across virtually any mobile phone, regardless of manufacturer or network. The patent-pending service enables users to email video "Thwaps" captured with their device to their Thwapr account, selecting recipients for the clip via mobile browser interface. From there, Thwapr transmits a text message containing a URL link to the video, transcoded and converted to run on the device in question. The goal is to reach as much of the addressable mobile market as possible, not just smartphones or a particular operating system. As Thwapr CTO Eric Hoffert points out, "Even if you can capture only a small slice, it's a broad audience, and it's only going to increase."

Earlier this month, Thwapr announced a strategic partnership with advertising firm The Ad Store to create video-based social mobile advertising efforts. Days later, Thwapr premiered new capabilities for sharing and viewing mobile video across Facebook and Twitter. Currently on the drawing board: An iPhone application, slated for release in the next few months.

Hoffert and Thwapr COO Duncan Kennedy previously teamed as members of Apple's Multimedia Communications Group, where they spearheaded expansion of the QuickTime multimedia product suite. Hoffert led development of the first real-time software video algorithm for the QuickTime standard, and Kennedy initiated the creation of QuickTime for Windows. FierceDeveloper spoke with Hoffert about his Apple tenure, the challenges limiting mobile video sharing and the importance of ubiquity.


Thwapr CTO Eric Hoffert Eric Hoffert on working at Apple: The experience was completely terrific. It's an amazing culture. I was there in between Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs, when John Sculley was CEO. The culture of Apple ultimately transcends the CEO, however--the people at Apple are its greatest asset. They're a high-energy, creative, risk-taking and fun group. It's a very people-centric organization. The thing that's most exciting about Apple is that it's a show-me culture. If you can prove why something is exciting or compelling, and build a substantiation of your idea, your ability to rally the people around you--up to the highest level of the company--is remarkable.

Duncan Kennedy and I were both involved in QuickTime, from the original research through its birth and evangelism. Everything I worked on at Apple was based around QuickTime--at first, it was codenamed ‘Warhol,' based on the belief that everybody could be famous for 15 minutes on their computer. When you think about the principles behind QuickTime, it was kind of the first YouTube. We made movies of ourselves--the Internet didn't exist yet in a meaningful way, so we started publishing and sharing video clips on our personal computers. It was the first user-generated content.

Hoffert on the development of Thwapr: What we were trying to achieve at Apple was creating a multimedia experience that worked across all computers, no matter what their screen size or processing power or storage capacity. That was a tough challenge, and with Thwapr, we face a similar challenge. We had some of our own frustrations in terms of sharing multimedia between different cell phones, and those experiences led us to build the Thwapr service. It's intended to bridge all these different mobile systems, and all these different types of interaction on different types of networks.

We're pursuing a strategy of ubiquity. I carry a BlackBerry--it's a model from the lower end of the RIM spectrum. I run it in a stripped-down fashion, because I want to see what the Thwapr experience is for users on those kinds of devices. In my other pocket, I have an iPod touch to get a full WebKit experience.

Thwapr now works on from 175 to about 200 handsets. We relied on crowd-sourcing for some of its development--we used a company [Mob4Hire] that taps into people all over the world and finds out what phones they have, and these people make themselves available by the hour. They gave us great feedback early in the process.

Hoffert on the future of mobile video: We're seeing a fundamental shift in online video. It used to mean sitting at a computer, uploading a file from the desktop and sharing it through email. Now, not only are users capturing video on their phones, but they're also editing it and uploading it and sharing it with users on other devices. Thwapr is not just about sharing video--it's also about having conversations. Users can post their content onto Twitter and Facebook. The immediacy of text messaging is really important. It means user interaction can happen completely on the phone.

Our philosophy and strategy is to go broad and deep by leveraging the ubiquitous infrastructure of SMS and cameras. That being said, building native applications can collapse multi-step processes into single-step processes. If you're capturing content, it's more optimal to immediately share it by taking advantage of the phone's native address book--you can only do that with a native application. We're about a month away from submitting an iPhone application to the App Store. We also see development of native applications for Android and BlackBerry as well. We never want [an application] to be a requirement, but it can be an optimizer.

Hoffert on advice for aspiring mobile developers: Focus on ease of use and ubiquity. Those are things we've tried to do here. Make something that can work across many devices, and that's easy to use. There are lots of great mobile applications out there, but many of them are very constrained. That approach doesn't allow you to build a broader service or a successful company.