The company is led by Steve Newcomb, who previously co-founded Powerset, the semantic search startup acquired by Microsoft for $100 million. It actually launched at our Disrupt conference in San Francisco last fall. When I spoke to him about the funding, Newcomb admitted that his Disrupt presentation wasn’t exactly an overwhelming success, and that he faced some skepticism and confusion from the judges.
One reason Newcomb may not have had all the answers — supposedly, the conference came only three days after his decision with co-founder Mark Lu to shift the company’s focus. Originally, Newcomb said he had wanted to build what was, essentially, a Pinterest clone, but with vastly improved design. However, the team discovered that HTML5 could not deliver the experience that they were looking for. The real issue, Newcomb said, was in the basic design of web browsers, which were built to render documents, not apps. And when it comes to rendering, while “the web got it wrong from the beginning,” the team realized that the gaming industry got it right.
“We built a shitty game engine, which is basically the best app engine ever built,” Newcomb said.
So a website built with Famo.us bypasses the in-browser renderer and uses the Famo.us framework instead, leading to a dramatically improved rendering experience. Once they’d built the technology, Newcomb said he and Lu could have gone ahead with their plan to take on Pinterest, but they decided that there was more potential in the platform itself.
And while he didn’t have a detailed business plan when he was launching at Disrupt, Newcomb said he’s figured things out now — Famo.us is trying make the platform available for free to developers by treating hardware manufacturers as its customers, customizing the framework to take advantage of their device capabilities.
Fixing HTML5 is a big promise, and one that we’ve heard from other companies. However, you can see Famo.us in-action yourself by visiting the company site, which is basically just a demonstration of the technology. It features a 3D version of the periodic table that doesn’t use any plug-ins, WebGL, or Canvas. And it runs on smartphones, tablets, PCs, and televisions — Newcomb took me on a tour of the site using his iPad, showing off lots of little touches in the animation and interactivity, none of which slowed down the site at all. (Click on the “fun things to do” button if you want some ideas on how to stress test the platform.)
The site is basically a version of what Newcomb demonstrated at Disrupt. The technology has advanced since then, he said. Newcomb gave me a demonstration of one aspect of the physics engine that the Famo.us team is developing, which featured one surface sliding on top of a second one — he could adjust the physical properties of the surfaces and the motion would change immediately. In other words, Newcomb said developers could use Famo.us to create apps with their very own “bounce” navigation (something that Apple tried to patent, although the US Patent Office wasn’t on board).
Newcomb said he’s very self-consciously trying to be a perfectionist in how he builds Famo.us as a company. For one thing, he noted that 16,000 developers have signed up for the beta, but “we are not letting of them touch anything yet.” That same perfectionism is going into the company office, which is located in a penthouse in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. When I visited on Friday, Newcomb pointed to the desks, which seemed perfectly fine to me, and said they would be replaced in a few days because they were the wrong kind of wood.
“That lean startup style — I don’t believe that,” he said, later clarifying that the lean approach makes sense for some startups, but not for everyone. Because Newcomb wants the technology to be used to create beautiful apps, “everything we do has to represent perfection and elegance.”
Newcomb said most of the initial investors (Famo.us raised a $1.1 million seed round) weren’t thrilled by the shift, because the vision was too big and challenging,, but Javelin partner Jed Katz stuck by him. In fact, Katz told me that he had backed the company initially because of his confidence in Newcomb, and if anything, he had more questions about “the original consumer version — with the second generation, it really clicked with us.”