Sidecar app: A closer look

Sidecar is launching a new app on iOS and taking it out of beta on Android today. It’s an ambitious attempt to rethink what CEO Rob Williams calls the most common and least innovative icon on a smartphone’s screen: the phone app. The basic premise is simple: when you’re on a call with another Sidecar user, you’ll have large buttons to instantly share video, pictures, contact information, or location information with the person on the other end.

Those features aren’t necessarily enough to bring in users — especially since they require people on both ends to install the app. To help ease the way, Sidecar is offering a carrot to potential users: free Wi-Fi calling to any number in the US and Canada. That’s the carrot, but the "stick," as it were, is that after your free call is finished, your recipient will receive a text message letting them know you just called via Sidecar and giving them a link to install the app themselves.

(Image courtesy of The Verge) - Screen shot of the Sidecar app

While Wi-Fi calling is free, if you attempt to call somebody from a cellular network you’ll be kicked over to standard minute usage — unless the person you’ve called is also a Sidecar user, in which case you’ll have a "free" call that uses your data bucket. In all cases, your incoming call shows up with your own phone number, a function no-doubt made easier by relatively lax caller ID verification within the traditional phone system. In theory, that means that you could really use Sidecar as a replacement for your standard phone dialer without too much hassle (if you don’t consider promotional text messages to your recipients a hassle, that is).

If Sidecar is going to replace the dialer, it had better work well. We took a look at the app with founder Rob Williams, who tells us that the company did extensive testing to determine what kind of content people wanted to share before releasing the app. While "geeky" things like sharing documents was tested, the core options seem understandable on both iPhone and Android and, we’re betting, helped out by robust APIs on both platforms for data access.

Sharing video is simple, but unfortunately it's only one-way. Just tap a button during the call, wait for your recipient to accept, and you're streaming video over 3G or Wi-Fi. Williams tells us that the decision to limit calling to one-way is due in part to the company’s desire to focus on the "call-and-share" category rather than positioning the app as "yet another FaceTime or Skype competitor." Be that as it may, it’s a glaring omission in what is otherwise a clever video calling experience. In addition to the video, you can open up a "whisper" channel that sends text messages back and forth — we suppose so you can trash talk whomever it is you’re videoing.

In addition to video, you can share photos from your gallery or taken directly, any contacts from your address book, or locations. The location sharing in particular is well-done: you can share your current location or any other location on the map. Once you’ve shared any of these static pieces of media, they’re saved in Sidecar’s calling history for later reference.

All of the above functionality is technically available in other calling apps like Skype or FaceTime, but Williams hopes that Sidecar’s ease of use will set it apart: "We do think we have a very unique point of view on it, in terms of what category we created, which is 'call and share.' If you are running Skype today and try to send a photo inside a Skype call, it’s ten clicks." By contrast, Williams calls the interface "thumbable," and throughout the entire in-call experience the goal was to make everything work with just one hand and with as few clicks as possible. There are also options to automatically switch to and from speakerphone mode based on the proximity sensor.

Nice UI aside, the real question to us is deciding if you want to start depending on a startup’s app for something as core as dialing. Sidecar is actually the company’s second attempt at catching fire as a startup, apparently having decided to make a now-common startup "pivot" away from its previous "SocialEyes" video conferencing offering. The new Sidecar effort, on the other hand, is a bit more compelling in both its value proposition and functionality. Given that the company is offering free calling, we expect that it will need to start bringing in cash to offset those costs.

In that context, Williams does say that Sidecar has plans to start making revenue so it can stick around for the long haul. First up will be the traditional Skype model of offering international calling at a reduced rate as compared to traditional phone networks. Long term, Williams says that there are plenty of opportunities on the table should Sidecar reach scale: "Half of the revenue in telecommunications is still straight voice calling. It’s still a massive, massive market."

Options could include special offerings to enterprise customers, location-based advertising or search within the app (i.e. call your local pizza place now and have them show you an in-call picture of their latest pie coming out of the oven), and possibly even integration with other "existing value chains" like current telephone networks — should the carriers come calling, of course. Speaking of those carriers, Williams isn’t especially worried that their planned VoLTE or video calling features are a direct threat right now, both are far enough out in the future that he thinks Sidecar will have room to grow.

Williams also tells us that the company may consider jumping into the crowded messaging space and compete directly with Whatsapp, iMessage, BBM, and all the rest. However, it’s a crowded space and he believes that the best way for his company to succeed is to educate users on the in-call sharing experience first. "The best applications have a singular point of view. Instagram was better at pictures. We want to be better at calls. Once we have established that, we can look beyond."

Should you use Sidecar? We tried out all of the functions on both iOS and Android and came away mildly impressed despite the occasional bug. Call quality (at least on an AT&T One X) wasn’t especially good, but video quality was solid. On Android, we experienced a bit of lag both when loading the app and as the address book populated metadata for each contact (yes, you’ll need up to upload phone number information to the company).

Overall, the app works as claimed, but we would like to be able to opt-out of the automatic SMS "invite." Knowing that every person you call with the app will be advertised to is not exactly an endearing experience. If that idea doesn’t bother you, Sidecar offers a free way to call regular phone numbers without requiring they install an app to speak to you and enhanced calling features if they do install the app. Even though those are compelling benefits, we’ll wait to see if the company will turn off that SMS spam. Until then, Sidecar may be free, but it isn’t cheap.

This article was originally published on - Sidecar offers in-call media sharing, free Wi-Fi calls to US and Canada

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