He stalked onto the Internet, in the dead of night. Then, all of a sudden, he was everywhere.
Last week, a website promoting an app called Ben the Bodyguard blew up. A chorus of tech websites swelled to praise the site for its innovative design. Whatever it was, it was going to be big. "I'm hooked. I want the app already," blogged one. "With a website this well-designed, hell, I’d buy the app almost regardless of what it was," added another.
Some folks contacted Nerd Communications, the Berlin-based company behind the app, for press kits, but no one actually bothered to ask for an interview. Yesterday, Stefan Telegdy, the company's chief "Nerd" (that's what his business card says; he's the CEO), talked to Fast Company in his first interview to give the inside story on Ben.
Telegdy's the first to admit that his app will be, inevitably, something of a disappointment.
"No app on this planet can live up to the expectation that is projected into the website at the moment," he says. "It was meant to be a very soft launch," he adds quietly. "We fucked up really badly on that one."
The animated, interactive site is styled something like a graphic novel. Scroll down on the webpage, and a mysterious Frenchman named Ben strolls down a dark alley, offering terse Gallic musings about security in an inherently unsafe world. "I am not here to judge. I am here to protect. Photos, videos, whatever," offers Ben, as he wanders past the foot of a building where an S&M photo shoot is going on, the Craigslist-enabled fulfillment of some whacko's fantasy.
But what was the app actually offering? Days went by, then a week, and most of what could be found was speculation. Maybe Ben the Bodyguard would secure all of your Facebook and Google data, keeping it from nosy advertisers. Or maybe it would offer a remote-wipe feature, so if you lost your iPhone, with the press of the button it would be transformed into an ineffectual blank slate in the burglar's hands.
Here's what the app is. It goes on your iPhone or iPad, will be available in January or so, will cost five bucks or so, and will add encryption to selected things on your device. Photos, contacts, and notes are among the things that you can lock down with Ben.
Here are the things the app isn't: anything else.
"How do you lock down your email with Ben?" I ask Telegdy.
"You would call Steve Jobs and ask him to make that possible," Telegdy says.
"OK, so say I want to secure my photos," I ask. "I can just click a button within the Photos app to secure them?"
"That would be great," he responds, but again, Apple's rigid rules don't allow it. You have to open the Ben app, then go through and single out all the files you want to secure.
When Telegdy tells me Nerd Communications intends to launch a Droid app eventually, I ask if securing email would be possible then. He's noncommittal. "It could be a bit complicated."
So does Ben offer anything new?
It combines functions that other security apps already employ, Telegdy says. Some apps secure photos; others secure contacts; but none that he's aware of do both. Also, adds Telegdy, "if you're on a corporate level" where security is a real issue, then the Ben app isn't really for you. You'll be needing something more intense. Talk to your IT guy.
The main new feature of Ben the Bodyguard is its elaborate character design—the creation of a comic book world to go with an otherwise boring app. And the main question it raises is this: Does pouring resources into peripheral design elements of an app pay off?
When you talk to Telegdy, it's obvious that he's not particularly excited about security. His background is in filmmaking—Nerd Communications used to be called Nerd Films, when it started up in 2007—and he even wrote and directed a trailer that will be embedded as an easter egg in the app. The trailer "tells you all about [Ben's] early days and how he became so protective about other people's secrets," says Telegdy, declining to elaborate. (Nor will he say how much money the Nerds spent on the film or on the teaser site, though he does say that "we closed a well running company to the public for five months, just to develop an app that was begging to come out of our twisted minds.") We're "trying to find the essence of what we're selling," says Telegdy. "That's why Ben is so dark. He's a dark guy. He's French—he has to be." Ben looks a whole lot like Jean Reno, of The Professional fame, but Telegdy says Ben is a "genetic cocktail. Jean Reno is definitely in there. So is Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Alain Delon," for those who prefer their French films from an earlier era. "He's a weird mix of characters from French action films that I like."
But do users need a fully immersive world in a basic security app? Will they tolerate the nihilistic musings of some French muscle-for-hire, when they could barely tolerate the officious offerings of a simple paper clip?
We'll find out when the app launches next month. But if the app tanks—or even if it takes off—Telegdy might do well to turn his company's attention to innovative web design. As far as I'm concerned, Ben the Bodyguard's website has pioneered a new form of visual storytelling, a hybrid of web design and comics that has enormous potential. Some folks have declared that the Ben site was a triumph of HTML5 over Flash—but really, say Telegdy and his in-house programming genius, a guy named Karl Westin, scrollable animation like this has been possible in principle for ages. it just took the proverbial inspiration and perspiration: "The guys had to invent quite a bit for it," says Telegdy.
After the site went up, he got five calls from other companies wanting the Nerds to design similar sites. He declined: "We're too stubborn to repeat ourselves," Telegdy says.
But the Lumière brothers weren't too stubborn to repeat themselves when they invented a new type of storytelling—which Telegdy, a French film fan, should know better than anyone. Nerd Communications might want to return those calls—or, better yet, to set up a meeting with the folks at Marvel.