Simple mobile file sharing grows up: Meet the new wave of phone-to-phone apps

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It’s 2013, and we carry little computers in our pockets everywhere we go. We live in a world that’s more connected and social than ever before. But, inexplicably, we still can’t use our smartphones to share our data, files, and memories with each other easily and seamlessly without using email or some type of formal cloud service like Google Drive or Microsoft’s SkyDrive.

Phone-to-phone file sharing hasn’t yet caught on—seriously, are you using it yet?—but the biggest name in mobile hardware is finally waking up to its utility. At WWDC a few weeks ago, Apple trotted out iOS 7, and one of the mobile operating system’s new features is AirDrop, which permits one iOS 7 device to directly share files with other iOS 7 devices. Google built mobile file sharing into Android 4.0 last year.

This idea of “simple mobile sharing” has been around since the early days of Bluetooth, but using it in the real world has always been a hassle, and as a result it has never really caught on. Honestly, when was the last time you bumped or tossed or beamed your contact information to someone at a party or conference?

But a new wave of simple mobile sharing apps—let’s call it mobile sharing 2.0—is ironing out some of the hassle, and adding cool features to the basic one-to-one sharing model that Bump introduced four years ago. New apps like Hoccer and Phrizbe make it fairly easy for you to walk into mixed company, and share content with pretty much any creed of smartphone in the room.

New simple mobile sharing apps

Neither Hoccer nor Phrizbe requires Bluetooth—each can send files to other devices via Wi-Fi or cellular network. Instead of sharing files directly, Hoccer uses an intermediary server to push files to the receiving device. Phrizbe can work through an intermediary server, too, but it can also share files via a direct peer-to-peer connection over Wi-Fi. Apple AirDrop, meanwhile, uses Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to support direct sharing with other iOS devices.

AirDrop, Hoccer, and Phrizbe don’t require physical contact between two smartphones. You can execute the share with just a few taps on your screen, and you can forget about email and drop boxes entirely.

Phrizbe is a relatively new player in the space—the service launched at TechCrunch Disrupt NYC at the end of April. Like Bump and Hoccer, Phrizbe has taken pains to move from being strictly a mobile platform to connecting with PCs. The company has only recently finished its Windows 8 app, which runs on desktop PCs and tablets.

The Phrizbe Windows 8 app for tablets.

“Our mantra is ‘click, pick and share,’ and we’re obsessed with making sharing from any mobile device just that simple,” says Phrizbe president and cofounder R.J. Holmberg. “People need to be able to share from their phone or tablet with no setup and no need to deal with platform or OS walls.”

Microsoft was interested enough in the Phrizbe file-sharing concept to work with the company on building a Windows 8 app. The result is a clean and simple-looking app that works especially well on tablets.

On Phrizbe, after you select the contacts, photos, or videos you want to share, and specify the people you want to share with, you make a swiping motion—and the file appears to fly off the screen toward its recipient or recipients. This user interface effect reinforces the idea of throwing content to people much as you might throw a Frisbee. You can see a video of everything in action here.

It started with a Bump

Bump, the category pioneer, defines the first wave of mobile sharing technology. When two phones running the Bump app physically bump together, a remote server identifies both devices, and sends down whatever files the users have asked to share—photos, videos, contact information, or whatever other files they have stored on their phones.

But Bump can’t auto-detect other Bump users in a room. And it doesn’t send files to more than one recipient at a time, as AirDrop, Hoccer, and Phrizbe do.

The Bump mobile sharing app.

Bump cofounder Dave Lieb says that the company intentionally omitted these proximal and one-to-many sharing tricks from the app. “We could have built a one-to-many aspect into our app, but we really haven’t seen compelling use cases that people want to use that for,” Lieb says.

Lieb says Bump’s simplicity is crucial to its usefulness. “We wanted Bump to be something where you could be done in a half a second,” he says. “We wanted it to be so easy, your mother could do it. Most of those other solutions can’t promise that.”

After Bump, the next big milestone in mobile sharing came when Google decided to add the Android Beam sharing function to Android. Devices running Android 4.0 or later can use Android Beam. When two such smartphones are placed back-to-back, they rely on NFC (near-field communication) to share files with each other. Like Bump, Android Beam can share files with only one other device at a time—but because it does this sharing directly via NFC (and doesn’t depend on a network server), it’s potentially faster.

Samsung’s TV ads feature S-Beam file sharing. An iPhone user who asks to join in the sharing is told “Yours doesn’t do that.”

Samsung has embraced mobile sharing too. Known for augmenting basic Android functions with its own proprietary features and services, Samsung built its own file-sharing function, S-Beam, into the Galaxy S IIK and Galaxy Note II phones. You may have seen the expensive TV ads showing off S-Beam file sharing. Samsung’s tech works almost identically to Android Beam, but the file-sharing interface is slightly different, and Samsung has added the much-faster Wi-Fi Direct as an alternative to NFC for sending files.

Problems remain

Simple mobile sharing sounds, well, simple in theory, but walled garden ecosystems have prevented the technology from going mainstream. For example, an Android Beam user can’t share files with iPhone owners who use AirDrop. And a Bump devotee can’t share files with a Phrizbe user. But here’s the biggest barrier: Some peoples’ phones have mobile sharing apps and features, while others do not. It takes two to tango in the world of peer-to-peer file distribution.

Developers are getting creative in dealing with these problems. To accommodate Phrizbe have-nots, Phrizbe sends files to their email addresses—along with a link to the Phrizbe app (but of course). With the app duly installed on both devices, two data-loving friends can share files with just a few clicks, even if they’re on opposite sides of the country.

Still, a major pain point remains: If simple sharing services are to develop mass appeal, they have to enable us to share files and contact information in the wild, with people we’ve only just met. If a person that you want to swap data with happens to have the same service you do (environment-aware apps like Phrizbe will tell you if that’s the case), sharing information is easy. But this doesn’t happen very often.

Qualcomm and hopes for a future standard

Clearly, it would benefit everyone—consumers, phone manufacturers, mobile OS companies, the wireless networks, and app developers—if the mobile industry could agree on a simple set of standards. If mobile sharing is to go mainstream, we need a set of common protocols that all operating systems, phones, and carriers can adopt.

Such a standard would be built into phones just as Bluetooth is today. Simple mobile sharing would become mundane, commonplace, and blissfully unremarkable.

Bizzabo uses AllJoyn to detect nearby devices.

The technology right now that has perhaps the best chance of becoming such a standard is AllJoyn, which mobile chip giant Qualcomm is developing. AllJoyn (video) is a middleware platform that enables a mobile device to detect other nearby devices that it can share files with, and then lets it create a direct tunnel (via Wi-Fi) to those devices to move the files.

App developers like Phrizbe use an SDK from Qualcomm to build AllJoyn into their apps. The chipmaker says that about 40 apps in the Google Play store now include AllJoyn in their code. Qualcomm has released SDKs for Android, iOS, Linux, Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows RT, but not yet for Windows Phone 8 or BlackBerry.

Qualcomm’s senior director of business development Lauren Thorpe points out that many of the apps that now use AllJoyn are not specifically about file-sharing, but instead use AllJoyn to add proximal and peer-to-peer sharing capabilities to their apps. Phrizbe, for example, depends on AllJoyn for its direct peer-to-peer capability (without it, users would have to share files from the cloud). Another app, Bizzabo, relies on AllJoyn for its ability to detect other nearby devices that it can share with.

If AllJoyn became a standard, disparate apps could use it as a common sharing language. An AllJoyn-enabled Bump app could swiftly share contact information with an AllJoyn-enabled Phrizbe phone, for example.

IDC analyst John Jackson believes that Qualcomm is already positioning AllJoyn to become a standard. “Qualcomm is hunting around for a standards body to carry the AllJoyn standard forward and make it an open standard instead of just an open-source project,” he says. “It’s clear that standardization by a recognized and globally accepted standards body would help and put the technology in a position to be universally distributed at some point.”

However, Jackson adds that the old walled-garden issue is likely to rear its ugly head again. “Adoption would likely be limited for as long as various incumbent parties pursue proprietary paths,” he says.

And there, in a nutshell, is the conundrum that almost all mobile devices, media, and services face. Innovations like the iPhone happen in fiercely competitive—and protective—markets like the one we have today. But that same environment prevents competing companies and ecosystems from adopting standards that would permit their products to work and play well with others in the wild.

This story, "Simple mobile file sharing grows up: Meet the new wave of phone-to-phone apps" was originally published by TechHive.

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