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Sharpcast Beta review

sharpcast.gifI've spent several hours checking out Sharpcast Photos and thought I'd post my initial thoughts. Sharpcast has a great syncing technology, which they've chosen to showcase by deploying a photo-sharing solution with both Web and Windows clients. You can install Sharpcast on multiple machines in order to easily share your photos between them, and you can also share albums with specific people.

This isn't quite a review because I believe that utility of Sharpcast will largely depend on business model decisions that haven't been made yet: Sharpcast is more alpha than beta, as you are limited to 2GB of storage and the future pricing and limits are unclear. Case in point, Flickr offers me 2GB/month of photo upload (at a price), which guarantees its long-term usefulness for me; Sharpcast's 2GB total is nothing more than a toy to play with for a couple of months. I understand the need to not have to build up a massive storage farm just yet, but I take over 2GB of photos at a single wedding.

"Sharpcast Photos is optimized for accessing, sharing, and backing up photos." I kept this in mind when checking it out so that my comments would be contexted to the intended product. I also kept in mind my dad and my sister, because if I'm going to share, I should be able to share with my family (Flickr is not so strong in this regard).

So, going on the three activities that Sharpcast does list -- accessing, sharing, and backing up -- I've recorded my thoughts, followed up with a list of some peeves I had with the UI along the way.

Accessing

Accessing implies I'm viewing my collection of photos as well as my friends', but Sharpcast is a bit too weak of a photo-organizer to manage a collection. It would be great as an add-on to other photo-organizing software like iPhoto, Picasa, or Photoshop Elements, but by itself, considering that it doesn't even do photo import or any sort of editing beyond rotation, and it can't even print to your own printer, it will always be used after another piece of software -- I'd rather use it within that other piece of software, lest I have to go through the steps of creating the exact same album. This can be tedious if I've edited the photos, because I either have to create a folder with the photos I want to upload, or I have to do the exact same selection process inside Sharpcast as well. There seems to be a workflow issues of how to use Sharpcast in the process of transferring of photos to my machine, organizing, editing, and sharing.

None of this is worse than using the Flickr Uploader, but the Flickr Uploader doesn't pretend to be a photo organizer. The Sharpcast Photos client does more to act like iPhoto, so I expect it to be more like iPhoto.

Sharing

The contacts management feels very underdeveloped. It's hard to tell if my contacts have Sharpcast accounts, I can't add additional e-mail addresses to my account to make it easier for people to find me, there's no easy way to search for users, contacts can't setup profiles, it's hard to tell what the implications of adding a contact actually are, etc... The type of sharing that is intended is also unclear. Flickr has a very social type of sharing, which implies sharing with broad groups of people with comments, favorites, tagging, and easy blogging of photos. Sharpcast has more fine-grained sharing available -- allowing you to share with individual people -- which implies that another type of sharing is possible: distributing photos to a specific person, e.g. a client, as a more effective e-mail replacement. Neither type of sharing is particularly well expressed right now.

NOTE: Sharpcast is planning on updating its contacts and sharing features fairly soon, so all of this should improve.

Backing up

The default option in Sharpcast Photos is to compress. This immediately makes me think that Sharpcast is not a backup program, as the compression is 1/20th the size of the original (for my 8MP camera), just barely enough for a 4x6 print. You can turn off the compression, but I envision sending this software to my family, and neither my dad nor my sister would figure out to go to the preferences page and set it to full size. There is a lot of value to true backup: a friend's laptop with a year's worth of digital photos was stolen and the only photos that were recovered were those that could be downloaded from Flickr; if Sharpcast had been around to backup all of the photos, that would have been worth sending giftbaskets to the entire dev team. However, I think they need to get rid of the lossy compression option and expand the storage limits to make this part of the value.

UI peeves

The text of the Web client is very small and features green text on blue for selected menu items -- not the best choice in my opinion. I also had trouble with the toolbar layout: visually, albums/thumbnails/images all appear at the same level, when in fact thumbnails/images are scoped by a particular album choice. The combination of low readability of text and navigation layout choices meant I had trouble finding pages I wanted.

The text of the Windows client is also very small, and I don't envision the mouse drag targets being easy for someone like my dad to use. Also, the drag and drop relationship between the albums and contacts in the left pane doesn't seem very sustainable -- the more albums/contacts you have, the further you have to drag. This is compounded by the fact that all the confirmation messages in Sharpcast use 'this' instead of saying what this is, for example, "are you sure you want to share an album with this contact," "delete this contact," and "remove this album." In combination with the small mouse targets, I can see my dad dragging an album to the wrong person quite frequently without realizing it.

In switching between the Web and Windows client, I had trouble keeping track of the what the thumbnails and images view were for, especially as they do not act the same in both clients. In the Windows client, you can use the thumbnails view to select multiple images and do bulk operations, like rotate. In the Web client, selecting an image in the thumbnails view takes you right to the images view, which greatly lessens the utility of the thumbnails view. For the Windows client, I don't know why they don't make it possible to do bulk operations in this view as well -- Adobe Lightroom sets an example for how to do multiple selections in a very similar layout. In fact, I wonder if it's even necessary to have both a thumbnails and images view in the Windows client.

Here are some other miscellaneous peeves: * Share button (Desktop client): it doesn't seem to care which album I already have selected, instead bringing up a list of every album. It's nice to have a way to share multiple albums at once, but this wasn't what I was expecting with a button placed directly below the list of albums. * User names:Is there something about databases that I don't know that requires usernames to be 6+ characters in length? * Images view: there doesn't seem to be a good way to get the UI out of the way if I really want to see an image (without going into slideshow, which requires you pressing pause). On the Web view, the slideshow image is still fairly small for those "best viewed large" sorts of photos you see on Flickr. On the Desktop view, I did finally figure out that you can hide the Properties pane, but that's still note quite enough. * sub-albums: I find these confusing, as each subalbum doesn't even initially inherit the properties of the parent album. In fact, I have to redo the sharing steps of the parent album, there is no way to just set it to inherit. It's also difficult to figure out how to get the parent album to subsume the subalbum. * I had trouble figuring out how to delete an empty album on the Web client because clicking on an empty album brings up an upload page for that album, whereas clicking on non-empty album brings up a page with a link to 'album properties.' I eventually figured out that clicking on the little lock icon in the upper right corner of every album thumbnail takes you to the "album properties" page.

Final thoughts

Right now my opinion of Sharpcast isn't negative, but at the same time I feel that the strength of Sharpcast is currently unfulfilled -- though I'll note that I can't and didn't use the mobile client. The problem with entering the photo space is that they set themselves up against photo-sharing sites like Flickr and KodakGallery, and with their Windows client they set themselves up against photo-organizing software like iPhoto, Picasa, and Photoshop Elements. In the photo-sharing space, Sharpcast still trails its competitors: features like comments, favorites, easy blogging, printing, downloading, etc... are all absent.

There are similar issues with the photo-organizer-like Sharpcast Photos desktop client. It looks and acts like a photo organizer, but it can't really do much photo organizing. In the end, you will have to stick to using iPhoto/Picasa/Elements to do your organizing, which means that using Sharpcast Photos takes more, not less time -- after you organize your photos in your software of choice, you then have to import those photos into Sharpcast and perform the same organizing. If Sharpcast's main strength is the fast and seamless sync, but I have to organize my photos twice, then the overall strength of Sharpcast comes out as a negative. Sharpcast must either equal the strengths of other photo-organizing software or integrate with the software I was already going to use. Given the sharing aspect of Sharpcast, the better route seems to be to integrate, integrate, integrate, because you aren't going to get all of your friends dropping their software to use Sharpcast, no matter how good it is.

I believe my opinion of Sharpcast could sharply turn on future decisions made regarding the current 2GB limit. There is something very powerful about fast and good sync, especially with photos, but the 2GB limit does a lot to undermine it. The software has to be written assuming a 2GB limit: the compressed option enabled by default and the software doesn't make any attempt to automatically import all of your images. If Sharpcast can somehow figure out how to affordably get rid of this limit, then it could rework its software to show off its main strength. With all of my photos already inside of Sharpcast, I wouldn't spend extra time adding them in and I would have a true backup of all my photos -- I would be willing to use it even if there were no sharing whatsoever. With all of my friend's photos inside of Sharpcast and shared appropriately, I won't have to worry about downloading their photos to my computer, lest they have to make room in their 2GB limit. If syncing is your strength, then the more you sync, the better the value.

Comments (2)

Hi Ken,

This is Gibu Thomas, CEO of Sharpcast. Thanks for your thoughtful review. The good news is that almost everyone of your peeves are being addressed and being remedied, the vast majority as quickly as in the next couple of months.

We are adding editing, printing, all the basics you would expect from a full-service photo solution. We are also building out additional features that our sync platform puts us in a unique position to do well. I can't go into all the details here for competitive reasons, but you will see them showing up soon enough.

Re: your specific comments about backup, this is something we message to our users. You raise a fair point that the web site is ahead of the product. The history here is that, we originally used to back up the originals. Then, in our user testings, we found that because we make it so easy to get stuff to the web, people would drag their entire My Pictures folder into the app, which results in a really bad experience over their home DSL connection. So, we came up with the compromise we did. This issue will be fixed as quickly as in the next release next month, with things like 2-phase uploads and background sync and the like, so people can have the instant gratification without waiting for gigs of pictures to make it over their 300K DSL uplink.

As for the 2GB decision, other than the reasons you articulated, we made the choice to not allow more, partly because we don't want people to use our service for back up, when we are still in early stages of our beta. Until we feel 100% confident with the system, we figured it would be better for you to be frustrated by the arbitrary limit than to be aggravated if something were to go wrong with your pictures. Re-importing 2GB would be a lot easier than reimporting your entire picture collection ;) When we are done with implementing the full backup functionality, migrating your entire workspace to a new PC, not just the files, but also all the meta data and settings, would be as easy as installing the app on a brand new PC and logging in.

With our Photo solution, our goal is to build the best all-in-one solution for sharing, syncing, accessing and backing up your pictures for the mainstream user. So, this means, we won't have all the features of a high-end Photo management application or a Photo community site like Flickr, but we plan to open our APIs so that we peacefully co-exist with them. We also plan to open client-side APIs, so that existing Photo management applications that are limited to one desktop can become a service that runs across multiple desktops, web and your mobile devices.

This beta version is intended to be a sneak preview to a future where you have access to your most precious information regardless of what device you are on and regardless of whether you are online; a future where you don't deal with point solutions for your backup or syncing or sharing. We will extend this Photo experience to other data types and existing applications, so you have a bridge between your various applications and services online and offline and you don't ever have to do the same thing twice.

In closing, you are probably a higher end-user than the average user we appeal to, but if you are patient with us, I am pretty sure we can delight not only your dad and your sister, but also you.

Thanks again for the thoughtful remarks.

Cheers,

Gibu Thomas
CEO, Sharpcast

kwc Author Profile Page:

@Gibu: I appreciate that you've stopped by to comment on the directions your company is headed and to respond to the comments in my review. It sounds like you have many good things in the works and I look forward to it. Sharpcast has the opportunity to solve a lot of pain for the proficient and non-proficient user alike, but the photo domain sets a high bar. There are SLR amatuers (like myself), complete novices, social point-and-shooters, digital professionals, etc... all can benefit from syncing, though all will have different needs when it comes to their photo workflow. It's difficult to satisfy all audiences, but I do hope that you are able to come up with solution(s) that find a happy balance.

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