The original Path, an iPhone-exclusive (s aapl) social network designed around exclusive, photo-centric sharing to a very limited audience, proved a tad underwhelming in my opinion. But version 2.0, available Wednesday, is more than just lipstick on a pig. It’s a complete overhaul, and one that looks, feels and behaves like a much better, more useful piece of software.
If looks could kill
Version 1 of Path wasn’t ugly by any means, but the new Path is positively breathtaking. Little things like the timestamp indicator that floats into view while you scroll through your friends’ activity, and then fades away again when you stop moving, work perfectly. In fact, the small animations when you call up controls, and other bits of visual candy offered by the app all add up to an incredibly pleasurable browsing experience. I mention this up front because it’s that sense of pleasure that is Path’s single-biggest improvement in terms of convincing users to stick around and engage.
Path 2.0 succeeds immediately, without even scratching the surface, by having a surface worth coming back for, time and time again. It’s image-heavy, but not just a straightforward waterfall of pictures; comments and activities notes break up the stream, but never threaten to take over and make browsing paths a text-heavy endeavour.
More friends, but no overload
Path has also upped the max size of your circle, allowing you to add up to 150 friends instead of just 50. It’s a smart change; opening things up altogether would take away Path’s defining feature, taking away its ability to cut through the noise of sites like Twitter and Facebook and offer users a less noisy social networking experience.
The friends limit also makes its similarities to Facebook’s new Timeline feature more apparent. You can pick a cover image, just like in Timeline, and activity presents itself in a time-organized stream very similar to how it does on Facebook. Unlike with FB’s Timeline, however, Path isn’t strewn with apps, updates from relative strangers and other detritus. Its limited circles and limited activity types (location, check-ins with friends, music, simple status messages and photos) makes it so that your stream will stay clean, while still also providing plenty of opportunity for interaction.
Navigation is handled using the new swipe left/swipe right type interface that has become very popular since first appearing in apps like Twitter, and more recently, Facebook. It’s a good fit, letting you access your own settings and activity with a swipe of one finger to the right, and checking in on friends (plus finding more) with a swipe to the left.
You can add new contacts from your own address book, from Facebook or by inviting them, or by searching for them by name. A Twitter account tie-in would be nice, but for this kind of sharing (closer friends, relatives) I think the options are effective as is.
Areas where it might be too simple include the lack of a landscape navigation mode, which I think could add a lot in terms of making picture viewing more flexible, especially for landscape shots. The app also cries out for an iPad version, where it’s easy to see the interface being even more of a pleasure to navigate. I wouldn’t be surprised if all these options were in the pipeline, however, so it may just be a matter of time before we see them addressed.
The Path to greatness
From checking out who has seen which photos and sharing simple feedback via icons, to letting people know the music you’re playing right now through direct integration with your iPod app, Path no longer feels like a closed book where not much goes on. Instead, it comes across as a much, much more enjoyable version of Facebook, with an interface worthy of design awards and sharing options that actually let a user feel like a simple set of advertising data to be mined. The only time you’ll run into any commerce in the app is when you use the built-in camera, which presents you with live filters, four of which are available as paid upgrades through in-app purchases at $0.99 a piece.
If Path sticks to this kind of freemium setup, as founder Dave Morin suggested it would in conversation with our own Colleen Taylor, while also keeping the base product this appealing and easy to use, I think it will become a shining example of how you can turn a so-so idea into a great one through intelligent redesign.