Strands.com launched a lifestreaming service this week that aims to pull together the company's wide range of services in particular media and online activity into one central place for users to share socially. The new Strands is a way to share your music, bookmarks, blog posts and other activity with friends, family and groups. It's a major entry into one of the most interesting sectors of the new web. We give it a mixed review below.Recommendation service
The first release of the product tackles usability issues that other services have faced and offers a sophisticated feature set that other competing services will likely learn from quickly. The next release from Strands will include an application of the company's recommendation technology to the aggregated user data and allow export of users' standards based "taste data." Before it can succeed in those next challenges, though, there are some key areas in which the Strands user experience will need to improve.
The Best Things About Strands
Incorporating a Wide Range of Services
Good lifestreaming apps are more than just RSS aggregators. Leading competitor FriendFeed excells in user experience, the super busy people at Profilactic add support for more services than you can imagine every week.
Strands is differentiated by its incorporation of the companies wide range of properties. The desktop iTunes tracker and song recommendation service is folded into Strands.com seamlessly. The company's several recent acquisitions of small but innovative online financial services should really be remarkable once those are integrated. Strands' mobile services like Party Strands, a social jukebox in use at clubs around Europe, will be a lot of fun to see integrated into the product.
Great Granular Control of Content Subscriptions
Strands makes it easy to unsubscribe to a user's Twitter updates, or music recommendations, with a single click. There are little features like the ability to subscribe to comments other users leave on a particular item that are very nice. Filtering by media type is much easier on Strands than it is on FriendFeed, for example.
Groups Functionality is Very Nice
It's relatively easy to assign friends to one or more groups, like co-workers, college friends or people interested in a particular type of technology. You can limit the sharing of some items with just selected groups and you can view what's newest or hottest in any single group. This is the kind of feature that will facilitate the mainstreaming of Strands. My family, for example, probably doesn't want to see every Twitter message I post - but I'd love to be able to shoot them one photo or another and have that appear in their desktop Strands viewer.
Hotness is the Hotness
While the recommendation features won't be applied beyond iTunes music until the next release of strands, right now you can view what the hottest items are in your whole circle of friends, in a particular group of friends or in the lifestream of one particular friend. When discovering a new person, for example, it's very cool to see not just the most recent items they've shared but also the items that their friends were most responsive to. Hotness on these different levels is huge and really helps overcome some of the challenges of the time-bound rush of a lifestreaming river.
It Looks Great
Strands has talented designers who have made the application very easy on the eyes throughout the service. That makes a really big difference, especially for non-early adopters.
Problems Strands Still Faces
Initial Experience Slow
Right now, you've really got to want to give Strands a fair trial if you're going to get anything out of it. While FriendFeed has an awesome friend recommendation feature that churns up person after person that you might like to follow, making it easily to immediately get a full experience of the service, that's not the case with Strands. Friend discovery is far more cumbersome than it should be. In an hour of testing I've only got 7 friends and that's ridiculous. Fortunately one of them (I'm looking at you, Turoczy) is a web app fiend. If that weren't the case then Strands would feel like a ghost town to me.
Likewise, every application should look at how Lijit performs the discovery of your various activity streams around the web. If everyone would just do it like they do then this whole sector would move ahead much faster.
Site Navigation Weak
Navigation through these rivers of information needs to be smooth. FriendFeed feels smooth, good 3rd party Twitter apps feel good to use. Strands requires far too many clicks to accomplish too little.
Users Want More
Presumably it's only a matter of time until there's a Strands mobile version. People are already asking for one and hopefully it will work better than Twitter or FriendFeed on mobile. Comments are delivered by email but it would be nice to be able to post them as replies by email as well. There doesn't appear to be any data export available yet. Hopefully it won't just be abstracted taste data that you can export in time. Finally, Strands.com needs an API. No matter how well funded and staffed a company is (and Strands has brilliant employees working in Oregon, New York, Spain and San Francisco) there's no way that one company can come up with the kinds of features and user experiences that a world of creative developers can.
Conclusion and Invites
For a just released beta product, Strands is very promising. The obstacles it faces are not small, however. If you'd like to give it a try, go to Strands.com, click on the main service link of the far left and then enter invite code "RWW." The first 100 people who do so will get in. Give it a try and let us know what you think.
If Lifestreaming apps are of interest to you, and they sure are of interest to us, check out the LifestreamBlog.com for a daily dose of in depth news about even the most obscure competitors that Strands will face in this crowded field.