Shozu – moblogging for the masses

Moblogging ????

For those of you that are not familiar with moblogging, it’s the short term for mobile blogging. Given the keyboards of mobile phones, and effort it takes to write longer text (unless you either are younger than 18 and have texted your whole live or own a smartphone with a full keyboard), moblogging is not about writing texts but about uploading and sharing photos. Compared to “regular” blogs the number of moblogs is fairly small, the most prominent non-geeky moblog i’m aware of it the moblog of Jamie Oliver, the famous british chef.

Until now i only loosely followed the developments wrt. moblogging and tagged it as “currently geek only”.

On one hand i knew about Nokia’s lifeblog efforts but didn’t like the walled-garden approach typical for mobile operators and handset manufacturers. Why the hell should i install some desktop software and only publish to a Nokia lifeblog community?

Opera’s mobile photo albums more or less have the same walled-garden attitude that only allows you to upload to their photo sharing community. You can either use the webfrontend (which is quite manageable if you happened to buy Opera Mobile).

Or you can upload your pictures by sending them via MMS or Email to an Email address that is specific for each photo-album that yu enable for moblogging. Since email has no built-authentification scheme, iconsider this approach a major security hole. Everybody that knows the email-address is able to post whatever picture he likes to the moblog. Implementing authentication e.g. via challenge response mechanisms on top of sms/email are at least cumbersome and costly and hence no option.

The more grassroots approaches taken by bloggers more or less use the same mechanisms as Opera. In order to upload the incoming mails to the blog normally some mail-to-xmlrpc script like this, running on the webserver takes the mails incoming at some specified mail-address and calls the Blog API (typically XMLRPC) to add the blog entry.

Shozu’s proposition

ShoZu tackles all the above mentioned problems and some more. After signing up with shozu (freeeeee right now), you can configure you’re primary photo sharing account. Right now you have the choice of flickr, buzznet, KodakEasySare, webshots and TextAmerica. A somewhat bigger garden but still walled.

But you are able to leave that walled garden completely by configuring “Other destinations”. In addition to the 5 photo-sharing sites mentioned above you have the ability to directly interface with a Blogger or Typepad account. Best of all you are able to interface to an arbitrary wordpress instance. This is what i did with this very blog, running on my personal webserver. If you happened to use some other system, you still can resort to setting up an email address as an “Other destination”. Thisshould you give all the options you need

After signing up the mobile client is provisioned in the usual way. You select your phone model and your mobile carrier and enter your mobile phone number and the application is provisioned via a WAP Push SMS. In addition to that the download URL is also shown on the web page, a plus if you want to provide the app to some of your buddies without paying for the traffic to the operator.

The app comes (as all the better mobile apps i know) in a number of flavours. A fully fledged symbian version for Nokia Series 60 smartphones as well as a slightly less functional J2ME version for the masses. In addition to these more common variants there is also a specialised Windows Mobile smartphone version with functionality comparable to the Symbian version.

Both “Smartphone” versions integrate seamlessly with the camera application of the mobile phone. What this means is that you can immediately upload every image you have shot with just one click. You can even change the settings to upload the images automatically. This is an ease-of-use i haven’t seen until now. It is this simplicity that brings mobile photo sharing from the geeks to the masses.

If you’re more into moblogging than simple photo sharing, you can add details such as the title of the image, a description and a number of tags before sending the image to your primary photo sharing service.

In addition to this direct integration into the camera app, you can start up the ShoZu app and send any of your pictures at some later time, manage the images etc. You can also send the imgaes to other destinations. Fortunately this does not mean, that the complete images are sent again. Instead only a notification goes to the ShoZu server, which in turn sents the image to the ohter destination.

Due to the restrictions of the Java sandbox etc. , the Java version of ShoZu lacks the smooth integration with the camera application but is simitlar to the standalone ShoZU smartphone version.

ShoZu’s underlyings

This functionality alone would qualify ShoZu for best moblogging too i’ve seen so far. But the best is yet to come.

In order to transfer the images shozu employs a special protocol that is specially tailored to breakdowns in connectivity that are so common with mobile networks. As i understand, basically something similar to the reget mechanism of ftp but transparently working in the background. So in theory you don’t have to worry about going out of coverage while uploading images.

That is one big advantage over browsed-based upload mechanisms that you normally only get with mms based upload mechanisms. But MMS are limited in size most often to 100KB or 300KB (and are prohibitely expensive). This isn’t sufficient for the images of modern cameraphones.

Shozu puts no limits on the size of the file, so that you can upload the full 1.3, 2.0 or more Megapixel images from your phone directly to your site. You can also check the “Scale to web size” option if you don’t need the big size or are not willing to pay the premium tariffs mobile operator charge per MB. These charges are even significantly higher if you are roaming. Hence ShoZu gives you the option to disable the sending of images while roaming.

Test drive

All this sounded very promising. So i decided to have a closer look und take a test drive. Signing up with ShoZu and doing bet basic set up i a matter of minutes. It took me somewhat longer cause i first had to find the details of my yahoo id and sign up for flickr too. The fact, that you must have an account with one of these primary photo-sharing providers may hint at the underlying business-model of shozu.

After signing up i immediately downloaded the symbian app (a lean 370KB) to my trusworthy N6630, took my first picture and sent it to flickr. Since my work place has very bad coverage i was wondering if the underlying protocol works its magic. Unfortunately the ShoZU client signalled that the photo was uploaded but it didn’t show up with flickr. This raises some soubts on ShoZu’s claims wrt. the transport protocol.

But since all subsequent pictures have shown up, i’m attributing this problem rather to some other component or an incomplete account set-up (either ShoZu or Flickr). This is even more likely because later all my photos showed up, even a photo where the battery went dead while uploading. But I’m definitely spending some more time on stress testing the stability of the transport protocol.

Wrt. to upload speed, even the High-Res (1.3 Megapixel) photos of taken with my N6630 at a german first league team handball game showed up on flickr seconds after it took them. With good UMTS coverage i was able to achieve transmission rates of 10 – 20 KB /sec, so the 300 – 400 KB pics took half a minute at most. The “Scaled down to web Size” pics (640×480 resolution, 30 – 40 KB) took only the blink of the eye to upload. If you want to have a look for yourself the whole photostream can be found at flickr.

The upload to other destinations also works as you can see by the photo accompanying this post. (BTW: Those that know the team handball rules immediately recognize that i had the chance to capture a rare moment in team handball history. Hint the photo is taken while the game was actually played not during some timeout).

Unfortunately the upload doesn’t quite work the way i would like it, cause the photo is not uploaded directly to the blog. Instead a link to a photoproxyservlet residing at shozu.com is included. But this is nothing a little tweaking of the xmlrpchandler code of wordpress couldn’t resolve. Maybe it’s time to start looking out / working on aworpress plugi just doing that, i.e. resolving all the media urls in ablogpost and uploading them to the local repository.

Verdict

ShoZu is by far the best moblogging tool i have seen until now and has the potential to bring moblogging to the masses. In current time it is the perfectly usable for uploading web-sized photos to photo sharing sites, blogs as well as citizen journalism sites of traditional media. The service is well thought out and targets and overcomes all the typical stumbling stones associated with mobile phtot sharing. The only non-minor flaw that i would like to be taken care of is a decent mobile version of the shozu website. Even with Opera, the current flagship mobile browser i wasn’t able to set up an additional “Other destination”.

Given the possibilities introduced by ShoZu and the likes, and looking at the photo above, there also big implications wrt. to copyright and IPR in general. Recently there was a big debate between the FIFA and the news agencies cause the FIFA sold the mobile internet rights to the FIFA WorldCup 2006 in Germany exclusively to T-Mobile and the news agencies as well as all the other media companies are not alloed to publish pictures to the games until 2 hours after the game. After long negotiations they finally settled down on 1 hour. Is the FIFA goin to ban mobile phones from the next WorldCup in South Africa? Right now you can get cameraphones with up to 7 Megapixel (ok, SouthKorea only) with the average new camera enabled smartphone settling down on 2 to 3 Megapixel and some having an optical zoom.
But before it is going to be broadly used for full-scale photos the data tariff’s of the mobile operators have to come down from their prohibitely high level. Fortunately for ShoZu, the first mobile operators are introducing reasonably priced flat data plans. E.g. with germany’s e-plus you get unlimited transfer volume for EUR 39,95. I expect theses prices to drop by halve in the next 12 to 18 month. Even better the transport protocol underlying ShoZu is agnostic to the underlying bearer. Hence the application does not stop working if your handset is connected via WLAN, a feature that is introduced into more and more new smartphones.

Hopefully the mobile operators do not come up with new hurdles. I received indications that the e-plus flat rate traffic is going to some proxy that can’t be bypassed. It seems that this proxy is a) “optimising” web pages (e.g. scaling down images) as well as doing some “optimisations” on the TCP level. Given the problems i had with aregular web page going through a similar proxy in operation at T-Mobile Germany, the definitely have the means to block a low-level protocol, even accidentially.
Wrt. to ShoZu’s business plans i’m not sure how they think things will work out for them. Somehow their model seems to scream “Buy m! Buy me!” in the direction of Yahoo, Google and all the other usual suspects. This will definitely tighten the range of upload choices to the end customer. Another possibility is to take a white label service provider attitude targeting handset manufacturers, mobile operators and media companies. Given the history of cognima, the company behind the ShoZu brand this possibility is not unlikely. The third option would be to follow the role model of flickr and come up with premium accounts and the likes.

Future

Cognima claims that the underlying protocol is a two way sychronisation protocol and that they will introduce two way communication into ShoZu in the near future. This will definitely be the time to have an even closer look at cognima and ShoZu.