It’s Friday afternoon, just a week before this year’s South by Southwest tech conference in Austin, and Math Camp co-founder Paul Davison is barely sitting still in his chair as he excitedly describes his company’s new photo-sharing app, “Shorts.”
The new app, now available on iOS, is an attempt to let people view a glimpse into other users’—often friends and loved ones—lives through their smartphone’s camera rolls.
On one side, the user lets Shorts access his or her camera roll and upload—upon approval—photos and videos taken on the phone whenever the app is open. Ideally, users snap photos and approve them frequently throughout the day, facilitating an ongoing stream of photo uploads.
At the same time, app users could peek into friends’ photo streams for what the company hopes is an intimate look at day-to-day happenings in others’ lives. In many ways, it’s like seeing another person’s life through his or her smartphone’s camera lens. Additionally, Shorts naturally has commonplace photo-sharing app features, such as the ability to follow other users, post comments on photos, and “like” photos.
“Wouldn’t it be fun if you saw someone nearby and could learn about them through their photos?” asks Davison as he explained his team’s thinking when designing the new app.
Not surprisingly, discovering people nearby was the central purpose of Highlight, the original app Davison and the Math Camp team released in 2012. Using data from Facebook or LinkedIn profiles, the app notifies users when friends are nearby, allowing them to browse for nearby strangers as well so they can connect with folks who intrigue them because of common interests, for example. Highlight became particularly popular at South by Southwest that year given its focus on connecting strangers in the same area.
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However, one thing Shorts doesn’t let its users do is create any content with the app. They can only upload photos already in their camera roll. This is perhaps the main way Shorts is different from Snapchat, whose similarities immediately come to mind.
Snapchat, the popular ephemeral messaging app that debuted in 2011, followed up with a feature in 2013 called “My Story.” Essentially, after taking a photo or video to share with specific friends, users can also choose to add it to their personal Story, a collection of one’s photos and videos that any of their friends can see for 24 hours. The feature also now encompasses the option for an available community Story revolving around a specific location or event in which someone is participating, such as the NFL Super Bowl. Snapchat expanded the feature to the latter in 2014.
But do people really need another photo-sharing app? After all, there’s already Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook’s moments, and countless other smaller ones.
According to Ryan Hoover, founder of community bulletin Product Hunt and an avid app enthusiast himself, the answer is maybe. Though he noted via email to Fortune that Shorts likely won’t replace his frequent use of Snapchat for spontaneous photo-sharing, he suggests shifts in technology and trends have given rise to new social apps even if they don’t displace incumbents.
Davison shares a similar view. “When Facebook added filters, it didn’t stop people from posting photos on Instagram,” he points out, illustrating how entrenched some products can be even when new ones come along or others add competing features.
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So, what is going on with the Highlight app?
It turns out, not much at all. According to Davison, the company has entirely shifted its focus on Shorts. He also confirms no one is currently working on the original Highlight app.
Since its brief surge in popularity in 2012, Highlight seems to have faded away. Shortly after it debut in 2012, many users noticed that the app was draining their smartphone battery because it was active in the background. The company eventually fixed this, but early adopters had already moved on to the next new shiny app—and there’s a constant stream of these appearing in the App Store.
So for the past year, Davison and his small team have been playing around with what is today the Shorts app. A year ago, it released a prototype, then called Roll. It was even posted on Product Hunt, the popular website where Silicon Valley insiders share and discover apps and products. Since then, they’ve refined and tweaked the app, and it has gone through testing with approximately 500 of the developers’ friends and family.
To date, Math Camp has raised $5.5 million in funding from investors like Benchmark, DFJ, and Greycroft Partners.
But whether Shorts is the Math Camp’s future, even Davison can’t tell. By now, he’s accepted that twists and turns—like completely ceasing to work on Highlight—is “part of the entrepreneurial journey,” as he says. Today, it looks like the company has shifted to an app studio model, so to speak, and could end up building several social apps, depending on their success (or lack thereof).
This lesson here could be that a social app’s success is just as much about timing and luck as it is about a clever idea. It is a familiar one to many companies, even giants like Facebook.