Photo-sharing may seem a very saturated space — factoring in the likes of Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, Path, Twitter and even, on a smaller scale, the mobile messaging apps — but there’s still room for disruption reckons Seattle-based startup Linea, which is aiming to reinvent how people share multiple sets of photos with its horizontally scrolling filmstrip of pictures. The startup has just closed a $4 million seed round, with investment from an undisclosed group of Angel investors, and is about to start raising a Series A.
Most of the seed funds are going into Linea’s development team to continue building out the product, says CEO and co-founder Rowland Hobbs. Linea debuted its public beta back in July 2012 and is now launching a new version (v3.3) of its iOS app with Dropbox integration. It also plans to ramp up the social networking features on its web platform come June/July, such as the ability to follow other users’ photo lines, as it gears up to make a full frontal attack on the photo browsing and storage space. It names its competitors as the likes of Flickr, Shutterfly and Everpix, rather than photo-sharing social behemoth Instagram because it argues that service is focused on sharing individual images not multiple shots in sequence.
Specifically, the niche Linea is attacking is the sharing and management of large numbers of photos — such as all the images on your phone’s camera roll — by making it easy to display lots of photos in a pleasing way, rather than having to select, edit and display shots singly. The aim, says Hobbs, is to give photography lovers and the primary family photographer, say, a way to tell a story visually using the majority not the minority of their shots. So, for example, that could be a sequence of photos taken at a wedding or during a festival or on a family day out.
“The problem with photo-sharing and the metaphor around photo-sharing that most approaches have taken work around two different things: either thumbnails or slideshows, and they tend to work around the idea of viewing one photo at a time, like a slideshow. And the slideshow itself was something was created even before the Kodak carousel in the 60s,” Hobbs tells TechCrunch.
“That sort of one photo at a time is the problem with photo sharing. We take so many more photos now and it forces us into this sort of data-management mode — if I’m going to take 10 pictures then I have to decide which one is the best one to put into an album to share with people. And what Linea does with the Mosaic is it get rid of those decisions and focus on viewing all your photos. So our Mosaic, as you scroll through in an infinite scroll, horizontally left to right, it shows many photos so it can really keep pace with the hundreds of thousands of pictures we might take.”
Hobbs specifically draws a distinction between the “instantaneous” sharing of a service like Instagram or even photo messaging app SnapChat vs the needs of other types of photography-focused users and especially families with their focus on memory preservation and telling stories. It’s that latter group which Linea is targeting.
Linea’s Mosaic view does bring to mind Flickr’s recent redesign, which displays pictures in a stacked grid, which may be an instance of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, since Linea has been in public beta for just under a year (and private beta before that). Asked about the comparison, Hobbs argues that while Flickr’s new look looks nice, it’s still not flexible enough.
“It’s certainly a beautiful redesign that Flickr did. The problem with the vertical mosaic that they are doing makes it difficult to be able to share on multiple different devices, to be able to create the same story on multiple different devices,” he says.
“So our horizontal and what we call more of a fixed template — where the pictures are actually fixed within the ideal size — makes it work in multiple aspect ratios. So as you’re telling a story it really looks better if you’re on iPhone or if you’re on iPad or if you’re on web… and additionally that becomes easier to be able to print to. The problem with what Flickr’s doing is they are still fundamentally in a slideshow mentality.”
A smart automated eye
The technology underpinning Linea’s Mosaic is a series of visual algorithms designed to automatically do the curation, such as figuring out which photos should be placed in larger tiles vs smaller tiles — and ultimately also the post-processing/photo-editing. The idea is to save the photographer time when they’re looking to share a bunch of shots. Although Linea automatically generates the sequence of photos users can of course edit and override wherever they like.
As well as algorithms that place photos in a particular order, Hobbs says Linea is working on adding more features to make its algorithm smarter still, so it can do more than just create an incidentally pleasing order. Here, some of Linea’s future features echo Google’s recent photo-processing updates to Google+ — so again it’s not the only tech company converging on similar ideas about how to push photo-browsing forward. After all, one way to get users sharing more of their photos online is by automating the ‘prettification’ process. (Another example of similar thinking here is the vanity filter self-portrait tool Nokia recently added to one of its Lumia smartphones.)
Linea is readying a beta of a feature it will be rolling out called Intelligent Framing — which is about identifying “what’s interesting in a given picture” — so basically doing the job of a cropping tool and the human eye. “We’ll be rolling out more what we call composition based algorithms: finding what is interesting in a picture, if that’s a face, if that’s a landscape, if that’s a good angle on the picture.” After that, it has other updates planned aimed at making its virtual eye even more discerning.
“The next stage of that is organisation… with meta data on the photo so it might be based on location or it might be based on people or something like this to be able to help you organise the lines better. And then the third part of it is enhancing photos, so sharpness, being able to colour balance etc,” he says, adding: “Right now the stage that we’re in is really focusing on that first stage — which is composition — the beta is just about to go live.”
Linea currently has around 200,000 users, according to Hobbs — up from the circa 30,000 it had in its private beta as of July last year. Its largest group of users are in the U.S. but he says it has also gained traction in the U.K. and Middle East. “Coming up in June we’ll be going into a complete public mode where you’ll be able to — instead of just private sharing you’ll also be able to do public sharing as well, so think of it as sort of a Twitter for photos,” he adds.
The startup has plans to build an Android app in future, but Hobbs says it’s currently focusing on iOS and the web. When it comes to getting photos into Linea — a process that needs to be smooth enough to convince people to shift their shots from wherever they may be storing them now into Linea’s cloud — it currently lets you import from Photo Stream, camera roll, via the web using a drag and drop interface, or by uploading an entire photo library. In v3.3 of its app users can also select folders in Dropbox to sync.
“We will be, over the summer, rolling out a little more sources to be able to import photos from and so that will definitely be features that wil be coming. We’ve just been focusing right now on where photos are most likely in a mobile environment, which is going to be in Photo Steam. But certainly long term we plan to bring in as many sources as possible,” Hobbs adds.
Storage wise, Linea is offering unlimited storage for people who sign up for its public beta — and is currently not planning to compete by selling storage. “For the foreseeable future we’re planning on keeping the storage as something that we’re offering for free, and really being able to provide more service and additional add ons or prints as well,” he says.
When it comes to monetisation, Linea does already sell print photobooks in North America but that’s not where it sees the bulk of its future revenue coming from. It’s not yet seeking to nail down its business model — being focused initially on building out the product — but Hobbs says it sees various potential monetisation strategies, including licensing its technology to other types of storytellers.
“What Linea does is it means that you can quickly summarise a whole bunch of visual data in a really quick way. I think it’s great for journalists, I think it’s great for user-generated content and that’s somewhere we’re hoping to go with this visual summarisation,” he says.
“The more that we can get people to change the way that they’re browsing photos and get away from having to be database managers of their photos, the more we see our success coming about — so that might be in things like licensing, it might even be towards things like advertising if it isn’t a user-generated focus, it might be in something where it does become for extremely high users we’re charging on storage. But right now we believe really strongly that if we can crack the how to browse and look through hundreds or thousands of pictures that use will have a very good monetisation because you have so many different photos and so many different eyeballs on that.”