Particle, the Justin Timberlake-funded microapp development shop, is dedicated to creating "massively small" products that provide simple, creative solutions to real problems.
When we first reviewed their Robo.to application, we weren't sure whether to be confused or delighted - but we knew there was more to the app than met the eye. Not long ago, we had a telephone chat with Particle CEO Rey Flemings; he revealed that Robo.to is to become the channel-surfer of the real-time web. He also told us what Particle is rolling out next. Read on for insights on the microapp universe - including monetization - and a few surprises, as well.
On Watching the Statusphere
Robo.to is an app that allows users to create soundless, 4-second video clips. These can be used as video avatars, sent as social-web calling cards, attached to all manner of links or geographical data, or simply updated with a line of text as one would update any other status-based message service. Of course, the videos and text can be automatically forwarded to the usual lineup of social networks.
What the newly launched TV mode allows for is topic-based surfing of all Robo.to content.
"It allows you to watch hashtags," Flemings explained. "As bits of content bubble up, you can follow that along with the video posts. Users go into TV mode through search or by clicking on a topic. People tend to lost about half an hour when trying this out, because it's fascinating to watch what people are doing."
For example, here's what it might look like to watch the hashtag #squee on Robo.to's TV mode:
Flemings did say that the clips will remain soundless. "One of the things we're trying to do is making it impossible to create bad content. Without parameters, people make all kinds of stuff... What we are doing on the audio front is to create more environmental sound - themeing, music, designing an experience."
On Being Massively Small
"Our mission," said Flemings, "is to reengage with the persistent snags of day-to-day Web use. We approach fairly contained, verticalized problems, apply a creative approach, and launch a massively small, feature-ful product to solve it."
So, what problems are the Particle apps designed to solve?
And there's a new app in the works: Uooo. The name, said Flemings, "is based on the sound you make when you see something you ought to be capturing." Like Robo.to, Uooo will present short-form video for the social web. Unlike Robo.to, Uooo will encourage users to point their cameras at the world around them rather than simply recording themselves. It will launch initially as a Robo.to feature.
Particle is trying to perfect the most concise expressions of the social web, a concept that's been ragingly popular ever since Twitter made tiny sexy and bloated networks began hemorrhaging users. The apps are small and lightweight enough for mobile browsers. The designs are compact. Even the product names are tiny and - dare we say it? - intentionally cute. But can these single-function, "massively small" products generate the massively large user base to generate revenue, and how do Flemings et al. intend to capitalize on their microapp suite?
On Finding Users and Making Money
Back at Robo.to's launch, we wrote:
Then there are the apps that, while nifty, don't have the power to become a continent or an island because they can't consistently draw users back. They become digital jetsam, and adoption declines after initial rounds of publicity are over.
We're not damning Robo.to to this particular fate, but we want to know: Why will we return to Robo.to and continue to upload content? What will remind us? Is returning even necessary? Has the Particle team succeeded in creating an app so tiny it's virtually invisible?
And without consistent user traffic prompted by that sticky, infectious property the best new apps have (hel-lo, Twitter!), how will Particle have the leverage to generate revenue?
In the weeks between Robo.to's rather quiet launch and our phone conversation with Flemings, we were told that the app's user base had doubled and hundreds of video clips were being uploaded each hour.
What Flemings could not share was specifics on exactly how many users the site has or how his team plans to monetize the app suite.
"Robo.to is a new product," he said. "It is a social serivce, the key focus is providing utulity and benefit and growing a community of users. Particle has products with much nearer term revenue propositions... Social products unlock their revenue potential at scale. There are certainly very strong ideas, but we're not publicly talking about those."
Flemings' purposely vague response left us disconcerted. We've been promised "revolutionary" approaches to social media monetization in the past, only to be confronted with freemium models, white-labeled apps, and endless streams of ads, none of which strike us as remotely innovative. Whatever these "strong ideas" happen to be, and however many users Particle needs to acheive their revenue-generating critical mass, we hope the results leave both users and Mr. Timberlake satisfied.