Mobile phones have become slimmer, lighter, and laden with features. But the basic phone call has hardly evolved. Sidecar aims to change that.
As mobile devices have evolved to become smaller, thinner, and increasingly feature-laden, the way you conduct a voice call has pretty much stayed the same since phones were plugged into walls. Mobile start-up Sidecar claims that's about to change. The company is pitching its new "smart call" app for iOs and Android devices as the best thing to come to calling since, well, cutting those cords.
Imagine being able to carry on a conversation while at the same time using real-time video to show the person on the other end of the line exactly what you're seeing. "See What I See" video is just one of the features that comes with the Sidecar app that launched Tuesday.
"There has been tremendous innovation in smartphones in every area except the basic phone call," says Sidecar co-founder Rob Glaser. "Over 800 million people around the world have smart phones, the time is right to re-imagine what a phone call can be. That's the mission of Sidecar."
A Hard Pivot
Reinventing the phone call was not what co-founders Rob Williams and Glaser initially set out to do. They set out to build SocialEyes, an online social video service. But board member and chief investor Brad Silverberg of Ignition Ventures pushed the company to make a pivot–and not a small one. The team realized that it was better off ditching the video service and instead capitalizing on the growing mobile space. So, less than a year ago they began work on the Sidecar mobile app.
"We started from scratch at the pivot," Williams says, "It was incredibly scary, but Brad looked at us and said, 'Let's reinvent the phone call.'"
Silverberg, who worked at Microsoft in the 1990s on Windows and Internet Explorer, believed the Sidecar team was up for such a daunting task–Ignition Partners participated in the company's $5 million series A round.
In addition to "See What I See" video, Sidecar has focused on developing features that let users conduct a phone call and share content at the same time. So, instead of toggling between screens or ending a call so that you can take and send a photo, Sidecar's simple interface lets you do it all simultaneously.
Say you're trying to meet up with a friend in an unfamiliar place. Call your friend using the Sidecar app and it will locate both of you on a map so that you can easily find each other. Another cool feature: Text in mid-call using "Whisper Text," for those times when it's hard to talk.
For now, the application is free for download, but Williams says the company will introduce premium options in the future. The app also lets users make regular voice calls to non-Sidecar users for free over WiFi or 3G/4G networks. Sidecar-to-Sidecar calls can be made anywhere in the world. Williams insists that Sidecar is not competing with wireless carriers, but actually working to help make them better. Video calling services like Skype and FaceTime are perhaps closest to the space Sidecar is targeting but they're not direct competitors (at least for now).
Focusing on Users, Not Revenue
And as for the business model, Glaser and Williams say for the moment they're focused on users, not revenue. It's a strategy that works for some tech start-ups (see: Instagram) but one not all VCs are willing to buy.
"Facebook and Twitter have proven that if you can deliver tremendous value to millions of users every day, monetization will follow," says Jules Maltz, general partner at IVP, a late-stage venture capital firm that has invested in Twitter, Zynga, Kayak, among other start-ups. "They are the exceptions to the rule though. Most companies should focus on building a sustainable, long-term business that ultimately generates cash from customers instead of relying solely on capital from investors."
Have you tried Sidecar? Let us know what you think in the comments.
MAEGHAN OUIMET is a business and culture reporter whose work has appeared in Boston Magazine and Rolling Stone. She covers technology start-ups and innovations from the San Francisco bureau for Inc.com. @MaeghanO