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Update: The Media-Sharing Mirage

Revisiting our review of Vizrea’s media-sharing service.

[This article was originally published on Friday, October 13. The following preface from author Wade Roush, added Monday, October 16, addresses the perceived shortcomings of the product discussed in the article, which were the result of an error on the part of the company profiled. -Eds.]

The Nokia N70 is one of 16 camera phones that have the ability to run Vizrea Snap. The software is part of a larger system designed to make it easier to share photos and other files with friends and across phones, PCs, and the Web. (Credit: Wade Roush)

My review of Vizrea’s media-sharing service, published here last week, was based on my tests of a loaner Nokia N70 camera phone that came to me preloaded with Vizrea’s mobile-phone software, courtesy of Vizrea’s public-relations staff.

In the review, I expressed disappointment that the software I tested could not automatically upload pictures taken with the phone’s camera to Vizrea’s website. I also couldn’t use it to notify my friends about the upload, or copy the pictures from the website to the user’s PC. On the phone Vizrea sent, these functions required several tedious manual steps.

After the review was published, I was contacted by executives at Vizrea. We ascertained that the phone sent by Vizrea’s public-relations staff contained an old version of the Vizrea software with fewer functions and with known bugs that prevented it from operating correctly.

The Vizrea officials helped me upload the current version of their software to the phone. Following more tests, I discovered that the phone now performed the functions that I had found regrettably missing in my first round of tests. To quote the original article:

“In an ideal world, I could snap a photo, give it a title or description, and be done with it. My camera phone would upload the photo to the proper media-sharing site behind the scenes. The site would send out automatic alerts to my friends, and would automatically download a copy of the photo to my PC, so it would be waiting there when I got home. But with Vizrea…each of these steps must be initiated manually.”

In fact, the Nokia phone loaded with the correct version of Vizrea’s software did perform much as I had said it should “in an ideal world.” Once the correct settings were entered, the phone automatically uploaded my photos to Vizrea’s site moments after I snapped them. Within a minute or two, the same photos showed up on my home computer. And if I instructed the service to notify specified contacts on my Vizrea friends list, links to the photos were sent out via e-mail or SMS.

Because I hadn’t received the correct software the first time, my article was more critical of Vizrea’s service than it would have been if I had had the opportunity to review the current product. Vizrea’s executives have expressed their regret about the situation.

[The original article follows.]

Wireless laptops, home broadband connections, and camera phones are nearly ubiquitous, at least in urban parts of the industrialized world. And several Web-based media-sharing services–including eSnips, Nokia’s Lifeblog, Motorola’s Avvenu, and Six Apart’s Vox–can fuse all the information those devices collect into online journals.

The vision is clear: multimedia diaries should document all our experiences and gather our favorite files so we can share them as widely as we wish.

The implementation, however, is flawed.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying out one of the services, Vizrea. The company’s first product, launched in February, was Vizrea Snap, software for Nokia camera phones that simplifies the transfer of photos between the phones, Vizrea’s website, and users’ home computers. Last month, the company added videos, blog posts, and podcasts to the mix. New social networking technology is also included that lets users view files from friends and swap comments. And they’ve also created a PC program for organizing these files and have made the system available for more types of phones.

“People who are really into social networking and use sites like Xanga, MySpace, or other services seem to get super-excited about being able to instantly share their content with their social network,” said Vizrea CEO Mike Toutonghi. “We wanted to build a robust, seamless platform that allows content to move easily between various devices and end up where users want it to be, already organized.”

While the idea is great, Vizrea’s technology isn’t nearly as robust and worry-free as it should be, especially if the company has its eye on the mass market. And it’s a limitation common to all the latest media-sharing services I’ve used.

Vizrea can do a bunch of neat things. I took some pictures around the neighborhood using a Nokia N70 phone, which includes a surprisingly good 2-megapixel camera. Using the Vizrea Snap software on the phone, I uploaded selected pictures to a personal account I’d created earlier on Vizrea’s website. I could add titles and descriptions to the photos and specify which album or “collection” they should go into. I also created blog posts and uploaded those to the Vizrea website. From that site, I could view all of my collections and blog entries, mark them as public or private, invite friends to visit my pages, and browse other Vizrea members’ collections.

What’s more–and this is what makes a service like Vizrea a real advance–I could view Vizrea blogs and collections from the phone. Up to now, most of our personal data has been stranded on islands. My songs are stuck on my laptop or my iPod. My photos, unless I make the effort to upload them, are stuck on my phone, my camera, or my PC. The TV shows I record are stuck on my DVR. But using Vizrea, I can upload my entire photo collection to the Web, then use the phone to show puppy pictures to friends when I’m traveling.

The same goes for podcasts and other audio clips, including MP3 songs. (While Vizrea doesn’t encourage the sharing of copyrighted material, it’s certainly possible.) If you don’t have one of the 16 Nokia, Samsung, or Panasonic phones that support Vizrea’s software, you can do most of the same things using a standard cell-phone browser and Vizrea’s WAP interface.

It all represents a step toward what social media theorist Thomas Vander Wal calls the “personal infocloud”: technologies that scatter your data across the Internet and reassemble them on demand, wherever you go and whatever device you happen to be using (see “The Internet is Your Next Hard Drive”).

The problem is that, so far, very little of this media-sharing is automatic or hitch-free. In an ideal world, I could snap a photo, give it a title or description, and be done with it. My camera phone would upload the photo to the proper media-sharing site behind the scenes. The site would send out automatic alerts to my friends, and would automatically download a copy of the photo to my PC, so it would be waiting there when I got home.

But with Vizrea and the other sharing services, each of these steps must be initiated manually. To transfer a picture I’ve just taken to Vizrea’s site, I have to close the phone’s camera application, open the Vizrea application, type in a password, select the data network I want to use, find my photo, choose the upload option, type a title, and target the picture to a specific collection. That’s not what I call seamless.

Adding to the frustration, several of Vizrea’s features didn’t seem to work as advertised. Sometimes I couldn’t log into the service from the phone. Using the phone or Web interfaces, it is possible to send e-mail or SMS invitations to friends to view your recently uploaded files. But my messages often never arrived on my friends’ phones, and when one friend clicked on the link in a Vizrea e-mail invitation, his computer crashed.

Some of those bugs can be chalked up to the fact that Vizrea’s service is still in its infancy; most software companies would stick the “beta” label on a product in this phase. The rest probably reflect the inherent difficulty of making four very different technologies–media recording and playback devices, wireless data networks, Web services, and PCs–work together. Our information infrastructure wasn’t developed to support “infoclouds,” and making the vision real is inevitably a big kludge.

But in the not-quite-ready-for-the-average-Joe category, Vizrea has plenty of company. None of the other media-sharing systems I’ve tried, such as Wallop, Vox, or Flickr, make the uploading and sharing process one-click simple or wholly automatic.

What we desperately need–and what Vizrea and its competitors are still struggling toward–are common technology standards and simplified software interfaces that overcome the differences between our info-gadgets and make content-sharing as easy as snapping a picture or placing a phone call.

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