Color, once Silicon Valley’s most-hyped mobile app, is recasting itself at today’s f8 conference of Facebook developers, the New York Times reports. But just six months ago at the official launch of Color, founder Bill Nguyen told Fast Company that, “Facebook is broken.”
It’s a sensational move, even for a man known in Silicon Valley for his dizzying pivots.
To understand why, rewind to March 23rd, when Nguyen said Color, backed by $41 million in VC money, would become the Facebook killer. “Everything that Facebook built as a technology is based on old technology,” he said. “IBM didn’t survive the PC, none of the PC guys survived the web, and I don’t think any of the web guys will survive the Post PC world.”
But VCs, technophiles, app enthusiasts, and Nguyen watched the app spectacularly implode. Shortly after the app’s release, users started fleeing Nguyen’s “elastic network”–a social network that would shift based on people’s proximity and level of interaction–and rating the app a measly one or two stars out of five, a death knell. In order for Color to work, enough users had to be in the same location, but because Color hadn’t built any groundswell, users arrived to a social network that more closely resembled a ghost town. “Within 30 minutes [of the launch] I realized, ‘Oh my God, it’s broken. Holy shit, we totally fucked up,” Nguyen told Fast Company this August. “I thought we were going to build a better Facebook. My reaction was like putting your finger into a light socket. You know something went very wrong.”
So guess where Nguyen intends to put the new Color app? “It dawned on me that Facebook IS the platform. This is the new operating system,” Nguyen says of his company’s Olympic gold medal-level pivot. “I mean you can’t survive without it. It’s the everything.” It dawned on Nguyen that instead of trying to build an entirely new social network from scratch, why not just glom onto the most ubiquitous one? “I think that this evolution that’s happened over the past six months is, ‘Oh my God there already is this great invention, and it’s called Facebook.” So instead of trying to kill Facebook, Nguyen is trying to pull a Mark Pincus and sit atop the social network. “Instead of being scared of it [Facebook], we’re all in,” says Nguyen. “So if Facebook kicks us out, we’re toast. Done. Dead.”
The new version of Color, which will bear the same name, pulls in photos from users’ Facebook friends and share them via Color’s mobile app. The new Color will also let users create, edit, and share group photo albums, a function users can’t do currently on Facebook, the Times reports. But Nguyen tells the Times Color will let users “visit” one another–tune in to video broadcast by Color users wherever they are (at a concert, wedding, or business meeting, for example).
As part of the relaunch, Nguyen not only visited the Times. He has been making the rounds with a heartfelt mea culpa. For instance, he now admits to having barely ever used Facebook before the original Color launch. But how could an entrepreneur who managed to get $41 million in backing have been so behind the curve of grandparents all across middle America? “I think it was all this stupid arrogance,” he says, “like I was above it. Like Facebook is stupid.”
When Nguyen spoke to Fast Company in August, he boasted that in his 15-plus years in Silicon Valley he had zero interest in trying anyone’s creations other than his own: “I never use anyone else’s products. I never do a competitive matrix, ever. My entire life, I’ve never done it. I could care less what other people make. I have no interest whatsoever. I mean, I literally don’t think there’s anything to be learned by other people’s stuff.”
But this week Nguyen is singing a slightly more humble tune. “I’m actually a little more cautious,” he tells Fast Company about the new release. “I don’t want to turn our customers into guinea pigs again.” Nguyen chooses his words carefully in defining today’s unveiling: it’s not a “relaunch” but a “preview product demo.” Instead of flipping a switch and making the app available to the masses like last time, Color is taking a more iterative approach, giving the App to 100 users to test while his developers perfect it. Of course, the always press-hungry Nguyen has cleverly chosen his tester user base: journalists and influential bloggers, a handy way for him to co-opt any potential criticism. Expect to start seeing the first reviews pop up online soon. “The press, customers, they’re all audience to me,” says Nguyen. “It’s my job to entertain them. I had this joke once, I think my career is really this concept of infotainment. I inform while I entertain.”
[Image: Getty Images]