Interview: Phanfare co-founder Mark Heinrich on the death of free photo-sharing services

Stuart Dredge Cameras, CES 2007, Interviews, Web 2.0, Wi-Fi

phanfare_founders.jpgWhile at CES last week, I caught up with Mark Heinrich, chief technology officer and co-founder of Phanfare. It’s an online photo and video sharing service that stands out through its use of a subscription model, charging $54.95 a year.

“We have the audacity to charge our customers money!” he told me. “That’s why we call them customers, and not users. And because there’s no advertising, we don’t turn your private photo albums into some kind of billboard for adverts or print-ordering services.”

Phanfare started in January 2005, and now has over 5,000 users, 80% of whom pay the annual subscription fee (as opposed to the monthly or lifetime options that are available). And Heinrich has strong views on the prospects – or lack of – for Phanfare’s free competition.

“I think the free sites are going to go away,” he says. “The ones that order prints are struggling. They’re not making any money ordering prints for people, and they don’t know how to monetise videos yet. And some sites are trying to go the freemium route, where some features are free and others are premium. But that’s a disaster: it’s got all the costs of the free model, with none of the revenues of the subscription model!”

phanfare.jpgPhanfare works by you downloading an application for your PC or Mac, into which you drag new photos, which are then automatically uploaded to your online Phanfare album.

This includes some neat features, such as the way lower resolution web versions are uploaded first, ensuring people can see your photos straight away, while the original hi-res versions then upload in the background. Most photo-sharing services work the other way around, uploading the hi-res versions and only then creating the web-viewable thumbnails.

“Why should you be waiting 30 minutes for your albums to be online?” says Heinrich. “Your website can be ready in a minute. After all, you don’t really care about the full-size versions except for prints.”

Phanfare does support photo printing, although it has opted to link to a range of providers like Kodak, Shutterfly and Snapfish, rather than force people to one particular service. He says another advantage of Phanfare is the fact that since your hi-res originals are stored online, if your computer dies, you can simply download the Phanfare client to another one, and re-download all the hi-res photos.

“We also do video,” he says. “We make two versions of your video, too, a DVD-quality version, then another one that we convert to Flash. It’s like YouTube, except three times the quality. Although YouTube and Quality is an oxymoron…”

Oof! So how is Phanfare evolving? The key news at CES was its launch of a downloadable slideshow, which can then be played offline. Looking forward, mobile phones may become more of a factor too. Heinrich says Phanfare users can already email photos and video clips from their phones, with 3GPP videos then being converted to Flash movies.

“Some of our customers are doing that, but I have to say, it’s not that many,” he says. “They’re not that interested, mainly because the cameras aren’t that good yet. Eventually they will be better though. I don’t think the camera companies are paying attention to it, as they just think phone cameras suck. I think that’s a mistake.”

Heinrich is excited about the potential of Wi-Fi and mobile networks to take computers out of the loop when it comes to acquisition – getting your photos onto services like Phanfare. He talks about wireless SD cards that automatically synchronise images from your camera when in range of a Wi-Fi network or hotspot, for example.

“However, even if the PC is out of the loop for acquiring the images, you’ll still want to manipulate them on there,” he says. “That’s where I think our model works. On the other services, the only way it can work is some horrible Web browser interface to manipulate your images.”

Heinrich says Phanfare would like to strike deals with camera manufacturers to be included in the box when people buy new cameras. Meanwhile, international expansion also lies ahead, although the service already has a number of users in the UK, Australia and France.

By Stuart Dredge | January 15th, 2007