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Tuesday
Dec062011

Sick of Facebook Connect? Trove Promises Less Pain for Developers and More Control for Consumers

You know the drill: try out a new service or app these days and you're confronted with a Facebook or Twitter authorization. Like us, you may cringe at how much is being asked for or mutter "fine" under your breath before hitting "accept." At that point, you hope the company doesn't misuse your info.

Now imagine if all your data, including photos, appeared on the device or new app where you wanted them, almost magically. And if you bought a new smartphone or tablet, you'd only have to download your favorite apps and they'd be ready to rock, no configuring necessary. Plus you wouldn't have to worry about privacy or security because you could easily control which apps saw/got which data.

Sound too good to be true? Trove is betting this scenario will become normal eventually, and it could happen even sooner if it succeeds at courting both developers and consumers.

Since launching its API in August, Trove has focused on developers. Their pitch: spend more time building products instead of solving "plumbing" problems. [ The founders first got attention for their developer survey of which APIs were worst to work with -- the overwhelming answer was Facebook. ]

Taking a page from the Twilio playbook, Trove is promoting the platform at hackathons.

"At these hackdays, Trove is valuable for 95% of the people in that room," co-founder Seth Blank tells LAUNCH. "If they integrate with us, it takes them 20 minutes. They can spend the rest of their day building their product rather than figuring out what to pull in."

Just last week, Trove's other co-founders, Nick Vlku and Jesse Emery, were among the winners of the Dropbox API hackathon. Their app -- built on Trove, naturally -- backs up all your social content into your Dropbox in one click. Seth says they hope to publicly release the app "within the next week or two."

So far, about 40 developers have built apps with Trove, and 65 apps have been built. Seth estimates it will take "anywhere from six to 18 months" to hit a critical mass of developers using Trove. That's also why the startup won't charge developers to use its API.

Getting consumers on board will come next. "What we have now is a terrific developer-focused brand and no consumer brand," says Seth. "That's something we need to build in the very near future." He thinks the consumer version could be called something like "my Trove" or "my wallet." Monetizing Trove will come later, in the form of advertising, payment services or paid content like music, according to Seth.

Some developers are already trying to give users more control over what data gets shared, for instance with a Chrome extension that lets them opt out of Facebook permissions when that awfully long list pops up in a dialog box. Chad Selph of Twilio, who posted his extension's code on GitHub, recently generated a huge discussion on Hacker News about the trust between developers and users, the scary amount of data Facebook sucks in and alternatives to Facebook authorizations.

Seth agrees with the HN commenters who said that using the extension could break the app because apps aren't built to deal with missing permissions. He says the frustration with permissions is a core reason they started building Trove.

"Practically speaking, this extension will not truly help users until applications begin to handle partial permissions effectively, and that won't happen until content providers change developer expectations away from a black and white view of permissions," Seth explains. "And at that point, the extension would be redundant. However, as a means of stirring the pot over expectations, this extension's doing a wonderful job."

Seth -- who has worked with gdgt, Songkick and Justin.tv -- Nick and Jesse began building the Trove platform two years ago on the side while they worked at well-paying jobs, getting feedback as they went along. They jumped into Trove full time in August after hosting two hackdays, the first in San Francisco and the second in New York.

"In the time between hackdays, we were dogfooding the product and writing more documentation. By the second hackday, we had a product people could use," Seth says. "That's when we reached an inflection point. Now it's really ready, now's the point where it's no longer bootstrappable, we need to get behind this."

Trove is working on closing a seed round, money it will use to beef up its developer-marketing efforts. The company's advisors include Danielle Morrill, Twilio's marketing director.

As for competition, companies like Embedly are focused on bringing public data, including videos and photos, into apps -- but not on user data. The only real competitor is the Locker Project, an open-source initiative that Singly is sponsoring and that will give people a "container for personal data" and developers an API to build apps that access that info.

Seth says the Locker Project is "trying to solve a similar problem but almost in the exact opposite way. I would go so far as to say it's a solution that hard-core engineers would absolutely love and no consumer would ever use." He argues that consumers just want their stuff to appear where they want it, painlessly and fast, not to make sure that it all goes to the right place first.

"I actually think we can make their platform more powerful anwyay," says Seth. "I see them as partners not competition." Although he disagrees with Singly's approach, he says, "We both hope that if we're wrong the other guy is right."

As every potential investor has told them, all this great plumbing won't matter if the average person doesn't feel safe using Trove -- no one wants photos popping up where they don't expect them, for example. And let's not forget Facebook's recent settlement with the Federal Trade Commission because of its broken promises on user privacy.

"We are immensely concerned about privacy and security," Seth says, though he notes it's an issue developers haven't raised with them. Trove has a number of measures "baked into the system" so that all sharing is 100% opt-in, and the founders have "a lot of ideas" to make privacy and security better for both users and developers.

As Seth points out, "If you look at this from a completely devil's advocate position, if we screw this up, we are dead in the water or we can't survive doing what we do. We have to do it well. We happen to do it well anyway and it's important to us to do it well."

The data users will want to appear anywhere will likely come from Facebook and Google. Seth knows Trove's biggest fights will be with these companies. "We don't care where you consume and create, we just want to help you. Facebook and Google want you to consume and create on their platforms."

Trove also wants to be built into hardware operating systems. One of Seth's example of Trove's potential magic is buying an iPhone and being able to see all your contacts' phone numbers and email addresses when you turn it on. But working with Apple is admittedly a long way off.

"It would be our dream to be baked into iOS. It would make every experience for every user on iOS better," says Seth, who acknowledges that he hasn't spent much time thinking about it because of Apple's famously closed system. "I think there's real potential to make that happen, but many years in the future."


SCREEN SHOT

This is one example of how Trove could appear to consumers. To populate a new photo-sharing service, a person could simply activate Trove, which is connected to that person's Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, Google Picasa and Twitter accounts.


CONTACT INFO

Trove
Website: https://www.yourtrove.com/
Twitter: @yourtrove
Blog: http://blog.yourtrove.com/
Demo video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZEsWnbrYdY

Seth Blank
Email: s at yourtrove dot com
@AntiFreeze
LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/sethblank
Google+: https://plus.google.com/u/2/118086737936443306746
Blog: http://sethblank.com/
AngelList: angel.co/sethblank

Nick Vlku
Email: n at yourtrove dot com
@vlkun
LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/nickvlku
Google+: https://plus.google.com/u/2/113099872454469509827
Blog: http://blog.vlku.com/

Jesse Emery
Email: j at yourtrove dot com
@ejesse
LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/ejesse
Google+: https://plus.google.com/u/2/113138163013833868989/