SXSW: LightBox, Gorgeous New Photo App Goes Android-First
LightBox is a beautifully designed new Android application, debuting at this week’s SXSW conference in Austin, Texas. The app, which describes itself as a “social camera roll,” is notable not only for its attractive design, still somewhat of a rarity in the Android world, but also for its business model: LightBox is building for “Android First.” What that means is that LightBox’s founders, Thai Tran and Nilesh Patel, are building Android applications that will eventually be ported to iOS, and not the other way around.
The LightBox photo app, a combination camera and photo gallery, is only the first of many the company plans to build. These apps, for the most part, will be designed to replace default Android features with professionally designed counterparts.
Android Gets Pretty?
Being an Android user myself for several months now after switching from iPhone, I have to admit that I haven’t completely gotten used to the far more “geeky” nature of the apps I find on the Android platform. It’s an ecosystem where functionality and feature set takes precedence over design - not that there’s anything wrong with that - but it’s a startling shift after years on the iPhone. There are exceptions to this, of course. The major application makers (Foursquare, Twitter, etc.) tend to deliver a relatively consistent experience across devices. And there are apps, like LauncherPro for example, that have an almost Apple-like feel and quality. But many of Android’s most exciting and unique apps have more to do with geeking out with your device than ogling mobile eye candy. A perfect example of this is Tasker, a complex but powerful tool that allows you to control every aspect of an Android phone. (Read more about Tasker here.)
In other words, there’s a lot you can do on Android, but it isn’t always pretty. LightBox may change that.
A Social Camera Roll
If you’re a die-hard iPhone user, you may or may not think LightBox is anywhere near iOS-quality. But you might be making the mistake of judging the app in terms of Apple’s design standards. Instead, this app uses Android-specific user interfaces, like tabs at the top and option menus. These are things Android users know well and expect to see, but leave some iPhone fans cold. So let’s just say this: for Android, this is a very attractive app.
LightBox is easy to use, too. The built-in camera function lets you snap a pic, optionally apply colorful filters through a scrollable interface above the photo and then tap “OK” to save the photo. On the next screen, you can add a brief description of the photo, set its privacy options and share it to your social networks.
This screen is definitely my favorite. Everything you do here is a simple tap of a button. You can choose to include location, set sharing options and configure privacy settings. Photos are always synced to LightBox’s own servers, either publicly or privately, plus the app supports Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr for now. Integration with Foursquare is in the works, as is support for other social sites like flickr, Picasa, Posterous and more.
Your photos can also be viewed within the app, as can popular public photos others are sharing. The nice thing here is that the photos are continually synced with LightBox servers, so they load quickly in full resolution, even when being pulled down from the Web for display. This syncing, we’re told, is done effectively so there won’t be a hit to the device’s battery, but I haven’t used the app long enough to determine whether this is true. I haven’t noticed any negative effects so far, however.
At present, there are some issues with application crashes, but to be fair, the app is actively being coded now. It’s very early. I won’t judge this app’s bugginess or lack thereof until its developers say it’s ready for testing. I’m assuming the problems I’m experiencing now will be dealt with in future updates.
“Android-First” is the Big News Here
But what’s most exciting about LightBox, is not just this app, it’s the company’s agenda going forward. LightBox will focus on building great Android experiences first, and iOS ones later. That’s a shift in thinking that’s well overdue, especially given Android’s market share numbers.
TechCrunch recently wrote up details regarding the company’s initial round, which will help the company grow its team. Investors include Index Ventures, Accel Partners, SV Angel, 500 Startups and angel investors Beth Ellyn McClendon (formerly UX Designer/Product Manager for Google Maps, YouTube, Android, and Google.org), Brian McClendon (VP Engineering at Google), Charlie Oppenheimer (EIR at Matrix), Michael Herf (formerly CTO of Picasa), Pasha Sadri (founder and CEO of Polyvore), Shishir Mehrotra (head of Monetization at YouTube).
LightBox will launch into private beta soon – a sign up sheet is here on its website if you want to participate in the upcoming tests.