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This past spring, the team at Path realized it was time for a change. The San Francisco-based startup had debuted its flagship photo sharing app (accompanied with a serious amount of media buzz and some mixed reviews) in November 2010, and had spent the first several months post-launch working to perfect the original product.
“Six months ago we stopped. We just said, ‘Okay, what are people really using Path to do?'” Path co-founder and CEO Dave Morin said in an interview this week. The company surveyed Path users and found that many were using the app to remember moments in their daily lives — it wasn’t just about sharing photos, it was about cataloging personal memories for themselves. “Ultimately we realized that we had to completely re-imagine Path.”
Path 2, the new version of Path that is launching Tuesday for both iPhone and Android, is what’s emerged from that redesign effort. But to think of this as the 2.0 version of Path would be a big mistake: Path 2 is a dramatically different product than the app the company launched one year ago.
A diary for a mobile and social world
Path 2 aims to be a “smart journal” that catalogs all the big and small moments of your daily life. Along with your photos and videos, the new app has features that let you keep track of your thoughts, the music you’re listening to, where you are, who you’re with, and even when you wake and when you sleep. You can choose to keep each update entirely to yourself, share it with your Path contacts (limited to 150 based on Dunbar’s number), or share it publicly via Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare (Tumblr support is on the way.)
Morin took me through an in-depth demo of Path 2, and for me it had the perfect combination that I look for in the increasingly crowded world of mobile apps: It was both beautiful and actually useful. Lots of people — myself included — maintain personal blogs or use social media sites partly for the same reason that they would maintain a diary: To personally remember what they’ve done. Every New Years’, I vow that I will be better about tracking the little things that make up my days by keeping a journal, but I typically start slacking off on it a couple months in. With Path 2, it could be a lot easier to keep my resolution: It’s on my mobile phone which makes it easy, and the social options make it more fun.
More complexity, more competition
With this redesign, Path is going more squarely into competition with services such as Evernote and even Facebook, the platform on which it was conceived as a much simpler photo-sharing app one year ago. When asked about this, Morin stressed that Path is different from Facebook on several counts: “We’re private by default and always will be, while Facebook is often public by defualt. We’re a tech company, Facebook is a media company. We’re a freemium business, and Facebook is advertising driven.” He was more accepting of an Evernote comparison, but pointed out that many people use Evernote primarily to keep track of their business lives. “What Evernote does for work, we do for life.”
This move also brings up questions for Path that weren’t there when it was a simple photo sharing app. When you position your service to be something as personal as a diary, users have the right to be a bit more demanding than they would with a more standard social app. For example: Path 2 still does not have a one-button export feature for all your content, although Morin says this is on the way. Right now, the only way to get all your data from the system is by sending an email request to customer service.
Also, the ability to view and analyze your Path data from other perspectives — say by zooming out to see an annual timeline, or a month view — is not yet available. These types of features could be made possible if Path releases an API, which Morin says is a definite possibility for the future.
But will it have staying power?
The question of money is an important one here. Many web startups don’t start thinking seriously about revenue in the first couple years of business, but if you’re going to use an app as your personal journal, you want to have confidence that it will stay around for a while. Evernote, for example, is a profitable business: The company charges $45 per year for its premium app and the company’s CEO Phil Libin has been forthright about his mission to make Evernote a going concern for the next 100 years.
Path, which has 20 employees, is not at a point where it can cover its own costs. Path 2 is a totally free app and Morin says he has no plans to start running ads. The business model is a “freemium” one, but for now the only premium products Path sells are small: Additional photo filter options and the like. Path has other premium offerings in the pipeline, Morin tells me, and the good news is the company won’t have to worry about keeping the lights on for a while: It has taken on some $11 million in funding since its inception.
All in all, Path 2 is a great looking app and it stands a chance to become a big hit in the months ahead. But if it wants people to really be serious about committing to the new app, Path could do well to outline its financial plans a bit more firmly for prospective users.