Yet another app has joined the growing ranks of over-the-top mobile VoIP services, but Sidecar is offering up a twist on the usual VoIP format. The San Francisco-based startup is using the voice call merely as the starting point to a richer media session, over which it is layering video, photo, location and contact information sharing features.
Services like video and location sharing certainly aren’t new, but they’re often trapped within their own dedicated apps. Sidecar’s premise is that those kind of sharing features are most useful when consumers are already engaged in a phone call, so it should only be a simple matter of hitting a button within your phone’s dialer to launch a video session or send the call’s recipient your street coordinates, said co-founder CEO Rob Williams, a RealNetworks and Openwave veteran.
“All of the cool stuff has happened on the data side of the phone,” Williams said. “I shouldn’t have to jump out of my voice call to share that stuff.”
The Android version of Sidecar app has been available in Google Play for the last several weeks as a beta app, but on Tuesday it launched the commercial versions of its iPhone and Android apps, both available as free downloads from their respective markets.
The Sidecar client integrates with the phone address book, and identifies individual users by their phone numbers, so if other sidecar users are among you contacts, the app recognizes them. Once a call a Sidecar session is established, the participants can just have a normal voice conversation, but the client presents them with a several collaboration choices.
The app can turn on the phone’s front or rear cameras to create a “see what I see” video session, and it allows a user to snap photos and share them. With another button tap, Sidecar can launch an interactive map showing the relative locations of the two speakers, either one of which can then designate a specific coordinates for a meetup. Users can share their own contact info or the contact info of any user in their respective address books. The app even has a chat service, called Whisper Text, which allows customers to send private text messages during the call.
Given that Sidecar is a peer-to-peer service, Williams is very conscious of the fact that the company needs to achieve a critical mass of users to make the app useful. To get maximize that network effect, Sidecar is trying to make its app the first place customers look to when placing any call. All Sidecar-to-Sidecar calls anywhere in the world are free (for now). Customers can initiate any call within the Sidecar client even if the recipient isn’t a Sidecar user, though none of the sharing features will be available.
If the caller is on a Wi-Fi network, Sidecar will turn launch an HD voice session — which the recipient receives as a regular voice call — for no charge to any U.S. or Canadian number. After the call ends, the recipient gets a text message, inviting him or her to download the app. If the caller is on the mobile network, Sidecar places a normal circuit-switched call through the carrier’s voice network.
Sidecar originally launched as SocialEyes in 2011, a Web-based video chat service, but the company soon shifted its focus to the smartphone. Along with Williams, the company was launched by RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser, and is funded by Ignition Partners and the Webb Investment Network as well as Glaser himself.