Sidecar app for iOS, Android seeks to give smartphone voice calls overdue respect

Sidecar, a born-again startup whose founders hail from Internet media services company Real Networks, Tuesday is launching an eponymous app for iPhones and Android smartphones that's designed to make it easier for people to share videos, photos and more while talking on those devices.

The Seattle/San Francisco-based newcomer, fueled with $5 million in Series A funding from Ignition Partners and others, has emerged from a previous startup called SocialEyes that launched last year to focus on video sharing. Sidecar's mission is to reimagine voice calling on smartphones by augmenting calls with the ability to easily share photos, contacts, videos and locations.

"All the innovations on smartphones of late have been on the data side, not the voice side, so that's where we're focused," says Rob Williams, co-founder and CEO of Sidecar, who demoed the app during a briefing at CTIA Wireless in New Orleans earlier this month. "Smartphones are powerful devices, so this is long overdue."

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In surveying smartphone users the Sidecar team learned that people want to share things while they're talking, such as showing people exactly what they're seeing or where they are, and that's what the Sidecar app allows. The app has been in the works for about a year.

In demonstrating Sidecar, Williams was able to fiddle with the app -- whose circular user interface resembles an old-timey rotary phone dial -- using just his thumbs. In addition to sharing videos (such as of the insides of the cozy cubicle we met in at the show), Williams was able to send "secret" text messages from one phone to the other -- a feature that could come in handy at a loud event such as a concert where you want to give your friends a glimpse of the band but wouldn't be able to talk over the music.

The free app, available via the Apple App Store and Google Play, allows free calling between Sidecar users anywhere in the United States and Canada, and it is free to use over Wi-Fi with any phone number. Those receiving calls from Sidecar users don't need to have downloaded the app themselves, though will be invited via text message at the conclusion of the call to do so.

How will Sidecar make money? The 10-employee company expects to strike deals with carriers and offer premium services, such as messaging and SkypeOut/SkypeIn-like services for calling into and out of different countries. Revenue from advertising might be another potential money maker for Sidecar. Williams emphasized that Sidecar isn't a voice service arbitrage play that the carriers would frown upon, but rather, is an attempt to reinvigorate carriers' voice business.

The app initially is clearly focused at consumers, though Williams expects it could weave its way into enterprises like any other consumer app these days. What's more, he said the app should be easily supported across enterprises in that it's built using standard technologies such as SIP and XMPP.

While Williams worked at Microsoft for eight years, he says Sidecar will stick with the Android and iOS platforms for now to avoid the additional development costs associated with building for other (less popular) platforms.

Bob Brown tracks network research in his Alpha Doggs blog and Facebook page, as well on Twitter  and Google +.

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