Firespotter Trying To Make Old Industries Sweat Through Mobile


Mobile technology is disrupting almost everything on the planet, maybe even to a greater degree than the upheaval caused by development of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, according to Craig Walker of Firespotter Labs. But a few vital aspects of modern life that haven’t changed all that much since the 1950s, such as dialing phone numbers and ordering in a restaurant, have so far avoided mobile’s impact, something Walker and his startup would like to change.

Firespotter Labs is a project backed by *Google* Ventures and headed by Walker, best known for co-founding Grandcentral and selling that company to Google (NSDQ: GOOG) in order to create what is now Google Voice. Walker left Google in mid-2010 after the launch of voice calling in Gmail and in pondering his next move contemplated making an investment in a friend’s restaurant. That never came to pass, but Walker got a first-hand education in “how screwed up the inner workings of restaurants are,” he said in an interview Friday. “They’re being run the same way they’ve been run for the last 40 years.”

What emerged from that realization was Nosh, an app for both the iPhone and Android that lets users rate items on the 150,000 different menus that Firespotter has uploaded into its database so diners can consult a regularly updated set of data–rather than a static menu–when making the crucial steak-versus-fish decision. “Anytime the solution is. ‘here’s your piece of paper with information on it,’ there should be a mobile solution that’s better,” Walker said.

It’s exactly not the most novel concept, as everyone from Yelp and Foodspotting to Foursquare and Google let users comment on restaurants from mobile devices. (Walker politely ignored my introductory Freudian slip when I referred to his company as “Firespotting.”) He thinks his company’s edge is in having the menus themselves available for comments on specific dishes, rather than serving up general comments about the restaurant that don’t necessarily pertain to a single menu item, or lists of specific dishes that people liked at that restaurant without relevant commentary about other items on the menu.

That remains to be seen, as it’s a crowded marketplace right now for mobile apps that combine location-aware information with social sharing. But Firespotter eventually wants to be about more than restaurants, with the hope of generating 3 or 4 good ideas a year as a mini-incubator along the lines of Mixed Media Labs or Schematic Labs, the brains behind picplz and Soundtracking, respectively.

As such, Walker promises that he’s not done with telephony apps, although he declined to say anything further about what might be in store. But his experience at Google, which included a ringside seat at the battle to get Google Voice approved in the App Store, and as an entrepreneur has taught him to “find an industry that has avoided a whole lot of innovation” and attack it head-on.

Walker held forth on a number of other mobile-related topics:

On avoiding a mobile bubble: The big difference between 1999 and 2011, at least when it comes to mobile (the current Web IPOs are a completely different topic) is how little investment is required to build something on modern mobile platforms, Walker said. Companies that used to need tens of millions to build a product and a support infrastructure just to get off the ground can now come up with breakthrough ideas for far less up-front investment by using established developer tools and resources like *Amazon* Web Services or Google App Engine. (Insert Color joke here.)

On application discoverability: This is the downside to low barriers to entry. The only thing mobile developers can really do is focus completely on building a good product and building social context into their apps, so that the “first wave of dedicated users become your marketing machine.”

On “app fatigue: Firespotter has no defined threshold for when it might support another mobile operating system beyond iOS and Android, but it’s going to take an awful lot, Walker said. Should something like Nosh achieve scale among business users rating expense-account junkets, maybe they’ll have to do a BlackBerry version, but it seemed more likely that Firespotter is thinking more about HTML5 as the third way in the mobile world.

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