Palringo could rule the mobile social interaction world

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Palringo is our application of the week! This is our first collaborative look at an application, thanks to the all new Application of the Week Panel who have weighed in with their experiences and helped test and play over the past days.

Quick word of warning: This is a long post. If you’re half interested in mobile social networking, do read on. If not, do a quick skim and remember to check out Palringo.

First — Twitter.

I am a Twitter user. I’m not as prolific as the likes of Pat Phelan, who like many nowadays, lives on the medium. I often wake up here in San Francisco to 30-40 text messages from fellow Twitterers around the world and I do find it an engaging way of keeping up to date with people.

You can, by the way, get a notification via Twitter (by text, if you like) every time we post a blog — we publish the headline and a link to the post on Twitter. Just look up and follow the username ‘smstextnews’ (http://twitter.com/smstextnews).

The biggest problem I’m having now with Twitter is it’s inherent limitations. More and more often, people are putting web links in their Twitter posts. The arse with that is when I click with my stupid standard Nokia or Windows Mobile browser, it’ll take a good week or so for the page to load up. So I don’t.

More recently, I’ve had Twitters from people saying ‘check out this picture from Flickr’ — and I don’t. I can’t be arsed. Not when I’m walking back from the gym or sat on a train. I can’t be arsed to wait for the sodding thing to load up. Useless.

And the shittest thing ever: QIK Twitter updates. I keep on getting messages from people telling me that they’re ‘broadcasting on QIK — join me’. Let’s be clear, QIK is a piece of genius. But a Twitter post telling me to click on a URL that I can’t possibly view with my piece of rubbish browser… hardly useful.

So these multimedia style ‘conversations’ taking place by Twitter, they’re all well and good if you’re on your computer (or, failing that, an iPhone with a WiFi connection).

Ultimately there’s not a lot you can do with 140 characters.

Why is Twitter good? Why are so many technogeeks loving it? Well, it’s ‘real time’ — it’s ‘happening now’. Someone told me the other day, I think it might have been perhaps Alex Meisl from Sponge — that, on average, a text message is read within minutes whilst an email is read within 48 hours. So when I get a note from Pat Phelan by Twitter, I treat it massively, massively different than when I get an email from him. His Twitters keep me updated with him. Likewise, tune into ‘smstextnews’ and you’ll get the odd update about who I’m meeting — now or soonish.

This kind of social connectivity that we’ve been experimenting with Twitter has been, let us not forget, largely the domain of the ‘TechCrunch 100,000’. Yes there’s lots of ‘users’ of Twitter. But there are 254 million wireless subscribers in the US alone (estimates CTIA). I’d go so far as to make this broadly sweeping statement: none of them have ever heard of Twitter.

Or Jaiku, or Pownce.

Worse — and this is the ultra biggie — when you explain the Twitteresque microblogging concept to a normob (“normal mobile user”), they generally don’t care.

The kiss of death for me, when I’m evaluating services, is care. It’s nothing short of horrific to witness, when you think you’re sat there with a brilliant service that you’d love for the normob to adopt… only to have them not care.

That’s, unfortunately, where we are with the Twitaiku (“twitter-jaiku”) style services at the moment.

The masses don’t give a toss.

I talked to Issah the other day — our 15 year old reporter from London. He’s a super barometer of what the East London youngsters are doing with their mobiles. He’d never heard of Twitter. Arse.

What’s the ‘problem’ with Twitter? Well… it’s text-based. It’s possible to use your mobile web browser (or desktop) to update. But the only way you can get updates to your handset without requesting them is to get text alerts. Which you naturally reply to — via text. So, it’s a text based service.

It’s useless for sharing photos.

It’s useless for sharing anything, actually.

But it paved the way. Text is great — up to a point — and more and more, I’m noticing my Twitterati evolving from pure text messages to trying to use the service to swap other media.

If they’re anything like me, these Twitter power users, then they’ll identify with this viewpoint:

What I really want is the ability to real-time share voice, video, pictures and text between my friends, work colleagues and the public.

And what’s more, I want that RSSed to hell. I want it working and speaking to my favourite resources. That is, I want photos I share to be copied to Flickr with a ‘shared’ tag, date and (ideally) GPS timestamp, so I can always find them.

I want my videos streamed nicely to anyone who’s subscribed. If you’re watching real-time, great. If not, you should be able to catch up when you want.

In short, I want ewan.rss — that comprises everything I’m doing. Pictures, video, blog posts, the whole shebang. And I want it to WORK.

I can do all the above, right now. I *do* it. But it’s all over the sodding place. There’s a Flickr feed here, a MoblogUK feed there, an audio feed over there, a blog feed here, a Last.fm feed here…. geez. It’s all over the place.

And sharing anything is (excluding using ShoZu) generally a total arse.

If I’m talking with Krystal at SMS Text News on my phone about something and I want to send her a photo, I don’t want have to:

1. Go to main menu
2. Go into camera
3. Open lens
4. Take picture
5. Click Send
6. Click By Email/MMS/whatever
7. 14-clicks to find her address
8. SEND

I don’t want to ShoZu the image either — not in this context. I want to send it to Krystal now. Now. While I’m talking to her. While we’re in an instant messaging stream together. I want her to be able to access the proper full size image if she needs to, on the web. But I want her to look at the pic on her phone. Immediately. Not in 40 minutes. And I want her real-time feedback on it.

So if you’re sat on Agile Messenger, that’s er… not possible. You need to come out of it, send the picture, then return to it. You can, I know, send short audio bursts with Agile — works quite well, but the problem is the person on the other end is using a different IM player so they have to click to listen. It’s not real-time. If you’re using MSN on mobile, IM+, or any other mobile instant messenger… chances are it’s more or less exclusively text.

Which was fine in the 1990s.

But not anymore.

Enter Palringo.

Born in 2006, they just got a whopping $10m investment. They’re, amusingly for a mobile tech company based in Ipswich/Newcastle UK (= the middle of nowhere) … and 21 year old founder Martin Rosinki has a potential corker on his hands.

I’ve been following Palringo for quite a while but as the chatter across the internet increased, the arrival of the investment and the widespread availability of the client software, I reckoned it was time to check it out properly. I’ve recently been doing a lot of analyst style perspective briefings for various investment houses and in those briefings I’ve been pointing to Palringo as a possible huge, huge player in the months and years to come.

(Their post money valuation will, no doubt, put them at a bit of an uncomfortable price for many of the big players .. but they ought to get in quickly before the service hits critical mass).

Palringo is billed as a ‘voice instant messaging’ client/server service. For a long time I thought it was just-another-IM service. No. There’s a huge amount of work gone into the voice and picture interfaces.

Essentially, Palringo your integrated, persistent social media medium. Bit of a mouthful, but let me explain.

First of all, the clients. You can put Palringo on any Windows Mobile or Symbian device. There’s also a java client so, theoretically, if you close your eyes really tightly and pray, it might even work on a Motorola.

There’s a web based interface. It’s ridiculously poor at the moment. I’ll get to that.

Download the client and login. Now, the UI is appalling. Again, I’ll get to that, so just assume that you’ve spent days playing with it when you’re reading the following description, yes?

Login. Click on to a friend — in this case, we’ll use Krystal as the guinea pig. Type hi.

Palringo is running quietly in the background on her handset. She’s on an N95.

Her N95 makes a (disgustingly boring) noise to alert her. She pops up Palringo and sees my message.

To send a reply, she needs to choose her weapon:

1) Text
2) Voice
3) Photo

Just like you have an input box at the bottom of your MSN conversations, Palringo follows the same model, although you press the left or right controls to swap between communication methods.

She types hi.

I decided to speak to her. I select ‘voice’ and push down on my ‘enter’ button whilst talking away. Palringo records what I’m saying and immediately transmits it to the Palringo server. On Krystal’s handset, it says ‘Ewan: Voice message’ and a little dialog appears indicating it’s being downloaded. The process is quick — within a second, Krystal hears my message.

In response, Krystal decides to send me a picture. She moves far right to select ‘picture’ and the option to ‘capture’ appears. She presses the button, aims the camera, clicks and presses ‘back’ when she’s done. The image immediately uploads to Palringo and at the same time I see ‘Krystal: Picture Message’ appear. Clicking on that message, I get the option to view what appears to be a full size picture from her N95. I can save it to my handset or carry on communicating.

The whole experience is fascinating — because it’s so compelling. So immediately ‘real’ — all there in one window without arsing about. No secondary applications.

It works perfectly on any 3G connection — and it’s even smoother on WiFi.

So that’s talking with Krystal. But if I like, I can configure Google, MSN, AOL, Yahoo and so on — so I can talk to my friends whilst I’m on the move. I can exchange audio and pictures with them too… but since they’re not using Palringo, they’re sent links to listen to audio and view pictures instead. No problem.

Where Palringo really starts to get exciting is when it comes to groups. You can, it appears, create any number of groups. I made an ‘smstextnews’ group and invited the Application of the Week panel to join. I had to do the invite by traditional mail — there doesn’t (yet) appear to be an invite function.

Groups is something else though. Whilst I was sat in the restaurant at the Marriott in San Mateo, I created the group and Krystal and Barney joined a few minutes afterwards. The diners around me weren’t that impressed when almost immediately, a 15 second voice message from Barney blared out across the restaurant. It was Barney testing out the group voice function. Suffice to say it works but it was very, very loud. (There’s an option for changing that).

Within minutes Krystal was sending pictures of her dog Shopsy into the group chatroom and we were all interacting with each other. I logged out the service and came back in. Scrolled up. There was everything I’d missed in the past few minutes. Smart!

I got in the car and began driving back to base as Krystal and Barney carried on testing. I spent most of my 30 minute journey listening (and agreeing) to Barney’s Palringo analysis that he sent in a series of voice messages from the beach as he was walking about with his family in New Zealand.

I was driving across California, Krystal was snowed in just outside Toronto and Barney was walking on the beach in New Zealand. And we were all collaborating — or exchanging — or interacting, on an entirely different level than I’ve ever experienced before.

It’s hugely compelling, because it is *so* easy. By default, Palringo stays on in the background (there’s a power-save mode), so at any spare moment, it’s easy to send a picture into your group chat or whack a surprise voice message to a friend.

The key point with voice messaging — or ‘push to talk’ as they know it here in the States — is that it’s ultra quick. ULTRA quick compared to text messaging. So I found myself using it more and more often across the days as I played with Palringo.

Exchanging photos is something else. Palringo is, I think, very close to mobile nirvana for sending and receiving photos and audio. It’s what MMS should have been. You just click right (to select ‘picture’ as a medium) and then click ‘capture’. Your camera appears, you snap and the picture’s started uploading. Disseminating your real-time experiences by photo (and audio) has never been so simple.

It also changes the model on sending photos from your phone. At the moment I’m quite careful what I take pictures of. That’s because I know there’s a bit of involvement going on — I don’t want to take pictures of stupid stuff as it’s all going to be uploaded. But, … when I’m in a Palringo chatroom, I’ll take a picture of the sky, the table, the desk, the … whatever.. it’s so easy and so simple to show your chat companions how what you’re seeing. Integrate video streaming (which, I’m sure is on the agenda) and the experience will be phenomenal.

If the interface wasn’t so appalling, I’d have got all my normob friends on to it right away. I can imagine setting up tons of groups — ‘Ewan, Tom and James’, for example, as a ‘room’ to talk with two of my good friends from University. I think my other half would use this like no tomorrow. Just, the interface is such that she won’t. I can guarantee you she’d never-in-a-million-years look at it. Not now. Make it simpler and clearer and .. bring it on.

Now, everything you’re saying, sending or receiving is being recorded on the Palringo server. You can login on the web and review the individual chats and the group chats. In fact, if you fancy being a bit geeky, you can sit and watch it all unfold by refreshing the web browser. Alas, the web browser interface is … well, an after thought. It’s simply a database query wrapped up in a few HTML tags. You can’t ‘do’ anything with the information. You can’t subscribe to it. That’s stupid. Plain stupid.

If you want to ‘use’ a photo that you sent into chat… well, you can’t. You can view and save it via the mobile application or you can … well.. you look at it on the web.

Yes.. that’s right… you can, er, look at it. Some bright spark’s made the images pop up in a beautiful flash-based viewer. No word of a lie, I kid ye not: The options are — click on picture, view picture, close picture. D+

Not even D+, actually. The web is nothing better than an after thought.

My mistake, I think, is analysing Palringo in the context of a next generation mobile web service. That’s what, I think, it should be. However the developers have given next to no thought about extending the service at the moment.

The major problem with Palringo is multiple chat streams. If you’re anything like, me you tend to have 2 or 3 conversations going on at once. That’s a downright arse with Palringo, unless you’re in a group chat room. Try applying the existing instant messaging model and you’ll find yourself really, really pissed off.

Many of the Application of the Week panel — and I’m talking seasoned mobile geeks and entrepreneurs who KNOW their way around multiple mobile platforms — were struggling to get a handle on how to chat to people. Download it and have a play, you’ll see what I mean quickly.

Let’s have a look at the application on Symbian:

Here’s the main Palringo screen — this is where you get your notifications.

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Here I am in ‘smstextnews’ — you can see the list of people who are subscribed to the chat room along with their status:

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Click into ‘smstextnews’ and you’ll join the smstextnews chat. You can see I’ve recently sent a voice message, Krystal said Hi and Barney was the process of sending a voice message to us.

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I joined the chat room and Krystal saw me — and immediately sent me a picture:

This is us in the ‘group’ chat room, smstextnews. You can see I’ve recently sent a voice message, Krystal said Hi and Barney was the process of sending a voice message to us.

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I clicked on that ‘picture message’ note and up popped the photo:

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The immediacy of this experience is what makes Palringo phenomenal. I can really see the millions of Facebookers adopting and using this sort of method for near instantaneous (yet persistent) social networking.

I’ll go one better: Palringo is potentially better than Facebook because it’s mobilised. Palringo is what Facebook mobile should be.

But Palringo’s interface stinks.

It sucks. Sucks granny’s eggs. HUGELY. It is one of the worst conceived interfaces (both web and mobile) that I have *EVER* *EVER* seen from a $10m+ company. It’s not a bootstrapper anymore. It’s not just founder Martin in his bedroom. Therefore … let me take one more aim at the UI with my canon: IT SUCKS.

But the concept is phenomenally sound. The technical implementation is, once you get over the UI, excellent.

So the UI can be fixed. It must be fixed.

Speaking of which, here’s a look at the rather sparse web version of Palringo:

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It’s actually flash based — which, although rather pretty at points, is highly limiting in terms of manipulating the content — my content, our content — not a sniff of an RSS feed in site. Sure this isn’t a massive problem for your average end-consumer… but not even a hint of Facebook integration?

Enough of my perspective. What of the Application of the Week panel? Originally I was going to lift one or two comments from the panel’s feedback — however we got such excellent replies that I’ve changed things around and reproduced as much as possible below. I found it brilliant reading the panel’s viewpoints — keep in mind that each member either works in the mobile industry or is a self confessed mobile nut. We posed the following general questions to them — here, in no particular order, is what they thought:

How easy was it to get started (download/signup/install)?

Jonathan G: Pretty straightforward as S60 applications go.

Ed C: Simply 10/10. easy, informative and as it should be.

Pedro: Very easy to download, site identified my device straight away and selected the right version, although a little disappointing that I had to signup on the regular site which contradicts the .mobi concept.

Jonathan J: I downloaded the S60 version of the app to my Nokia E65 with no problems, using the Nokia installer in Nokia PC Suite. Installation & signup went fine.

Adam: Download and install good, recognised the device (Windows Mobile) and client installed without a problem. Left a bit unsure why I needed to use the web site to sign up and what it’s for really. Would have been nice if their homepage rendered specifically for the device screen size when browsed from the mobile.

Dan: * Download – Very easy to install.You go to their website and select symbian from the drop down box in the downloads link on the main page and enter your mobile number. A SMS is sent and you download it via your mobile browser or just click on the download tab. Installation – From your mobile browser, just select the version you want (Symbian or Java) and install on your phone as normal. If downloaded off the site, send to phone as usual. Registering – Simple. Enter your email address and a password and you are a member. Change your nickname by clicking identity tab.

How easy was the application to use?

Jonathan G: Takes a bit getting used to the interface, but in general it’s pretty easy and very cool.

Ed C: To be honest I did not get the hang of it! I didnt find it that user friendly and there was no notes in the ‘help’ section to… well… help me. Things like MSN messenger were obvious but it took Ewan to explain to me how to access the group chat and still I did not find this overly easy to use.

Pedro: Easy for most part, although the app kept asking for which connection to use, despite having just selected it a few minutes before (network fluctuations?). Easily fixed by going through settings and choosing to remember the connection, but this should have been set by default (and by the way, remembering 2 different connections would be nice, e.g. 3G and Wifi).

Jonathan J: Easy in some respects. However I couldn’t download the pictures or listen to the voice messages in the group chat, they just wouldn’t download. When I exited Palringo & relaunched the app, the messages had all disappeared, presumably because I had read them! So I never got the pictures or voice messages. Earlier today I couldn’t work out why Palringo wouldn’t connect. I then realised that the auto connect option had changed from 3G to WiFi & because I was out it couldn’t see my WiFi. Would be good if Palringo put up a warning about why it couldn’t connect. It had me thinking their server was down.

Adam: Nice a quick, slick, generally well thought out

Dan: Adding existing IM is quite easy. Then you use it as a normal IM package like IM+ – sending messages etc.

What did you like about Palringo?

Jonathan G: While it’s great to have IM integration with all of your accounts (and it’s great), the real cool comes from using the voice and picture options. I really like being able to send voice messages across the globe in real time and could see using this in cases when it might not be safe to do IM, but too expensive to do a call.

Ed C: Liked the fact you can send pictures and push to talk. These options are very easy and obviously displayed.

Pedro: Different IM accounts possible, with a clean status /home screen. Chat room within a group of contacts is a good retro function, very IRC!

Jonathan J: User status, although I would love to be able to update my status on Facebook, Jaiku, Twitter, Palringo etc in one go! Group chat. Palringo could be a fun way for a group of friends to keep in tough. Also could be useful in a small company or maybe a sales team to keep track of your colleagues.

Adam: Nice interface and styling

Dan: The main thing is that its free! That is one GREAT thing as many of its competitors aren’t.

What didn’t you like?

Jonathan G: It’s yet another service and account … I’d much rather see this work on top of my existing IM or social net stuff. Getting my friends on is a hurdle… I’d also really like to be able to change the notification sounds. Not sure what it is about S60 IM clients, but they all have sounds you can’t change! At least we can adjust the volume. I also encountered a bug and was not able to add a friend, though I was added by someone else. The person I tried to add was also not able to add me… I contacted Palringo over Palringo, but did not hear back.

Ed C: Most of it to be honest! I dont think I got the best out of it as I couldnt work it out so user interface and no help instructions basically!

Pedro: Despite having the option of minimising the app, whenever a contact sends a message, only an audio alarm is given, no visual message. Left too many chat requests unattended, am not a popular friend at the moment…

Jonathan J: Kept asking for an access point to be selected until I discovered a setting to tell it to remember the access point. This should have been more obvious! It should have asked if I wanted to remember the access point. The online indicator didn’t fit on the screen (too many characters for the line). Solved this by changing my nickname but the software should automatically reformat. Could not login to my Windows Live Messenger account. Very limited Help.

Adam: There are of course a few niggly little features that could be as much personal preference as anything. The big issue for me was the photo messaging functionality. 1) You could only capture shots to send rather than photos from your device. I’m thinking of the scenario where someone comes online and you want to show them what you’ve been up to/seen/etc. 2) Photos to MSN Messenger on the PC worked well but from the PC to the phone didn’t work at all. I’m sure there is a good technical reason but if I’m sending pictures to someone it’d be good to get them back.

Dan: Having all your contacts in one window is not to my liking. They should be on their own imo. It would be nice if you could set it all up on the website (as it doesn’t seem possible).

The best feature is…

Jonathan G: Voice Chat

Ed C: Push to talk and Picture sending functions.

Pedro: It can be uninstalled. Too many competitors, prefer Fring.

Jonathan J: Group chat.

Adam: Being able to zap a photo over to someone, hopefully at their desk, to taunt them with what you’re doing and it not having to pay for an MMS to do it. Would be fantastic when roaming.

Dan: It been an all in one IM application so you don’t need different ones for different clients and its FREE!

Other comments?

Ed C: Definitely has potential and I think would be a great app for me to use if I knew how. Seems well built though and I encountered no bugs (or did i with bad user interface) some explanation of how to use the app would be a big positive. I will keep the app installed and use it for msn messenger on the move but thats about it!

Pedro: Cannot see the point of exchanging photos or the push to talk, I haven’t used those functions in any desktop IM version.

Jonathan J: When I closed Palringo & tried to relaunch it, nothing happened & I had to reboot the handset. Seemed an isolated fault. Would be good to have a photo against each user (like Jaiku).

Adam: In its current form it’s not really standing out against any other mobile IM clients. Getting the photo functionality sorted would, IMHO, start to give it some differentiation.

Would you recommend this to a friend/colleague?

Jonathan G: If you want to do inexpensive voice chat this seems like a solid
choice. Not sure I’d choose it just for IM…

Ed C: Probably not but thats because most my friends are not mobile geeks like me and would have no need for msn and general instant messaging on the move.

Pedro: No, other apps do the same better – the lack of visual alarms when minimised is a show stopper as far as I’m concerned.

Jonathan J: Yes

Adam: Not at the moment

Dan: Yes

Thank you panel! I’ve actually got one more expanded perspective from panel member Barney to publish shortly. I’ll get that up in the next few days.

I’ve been rather direct about Palringo — both in terms of positives and negatives — and the panel have been pretty direct in places.

Care to check it out for yourself? Pop over to Palringo, get it on your handset and meet us in the ‘smstextnews’ group chat room to have a play.

Then let us know your thoughts here!

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6 Responses to Palringo could rule the mobile social interaction world

  1. James Whatley February 5, 2008 at 10:41 am #

    Psst.. You *can* send pictures from within Agile.

    I’ll give Palringo a go though, nice review.

  2. MarkW February 5, 2008 at 3:14 pm #

    Nice summary. I’ve been trying out Palringo for a few weeks now but you hit the nail on the head about getting normobs to adopt it. I made my wife try it out one night on her new 6120c. She thought it was very clever, but doesn’t seem to find it compelling enough to actually make sure it’s running on a daily basis. Very annoying. And when I secretly start it up and then hide it, she doesn’t hear the alerts – so I have to fall back on boring old voice and SMS. I think the key here is a much better interface and integration. They’ve made a good start and, as you say Ewan, the potential is huge, but I fear this one could sink if they don’t make it comfortable to use. Unfortunately my friends and business contacts don’t go in for data plans and smartphones, so unless I can get my wife to use this stuff I’m left talking to myself!!!

  3. Jeb February 5, 2008 at 10:53 pm #

    I wish I knew the test was over. I would have sent in a report. In brief it would have said great software. I could not add a contact to my contact list or to a group. Either way I used it and enjoyed it. I think these guys have a ways to go but have a good path layed out in front of them. I may continue using it, I’m not sure yet.

  4. HeavyLight February 6, 2008 at 8:25 am #

    Thought the name looked familiar — I’d very briefly tested Palringo last September and left my status message as “gui? What gui?”

    Now if Google snapped them up and mixed Palringo up with Jaiku…

  5. Martin February 6, 2008 at 10:14 am #

    We’ve been reading your comments with interest, and take all feature suggestions to heart.

    One thing to note, is we are currently in the middle of a significant UI revamp, which will address the UI concerns raised in the review 🙂

  6. dan March 28, 2008 at 6:43 am #

    good review. Have a look at our beta service at http://www.weglu.com. Dan

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