Views from Phanfare CEO and Co-founder Andrew Erlichson

Link New Phanfare release fixes some bugs

We did a quick release today that fixes some bugs in last week’s release:

  • Links pushed to facebook using the Phanfare Facebook app are fixed
  • Flash uploader now reads captions properly
  • Bug where Phanfare did not allow you to authenticate to multiple Phanfare sites simultaneously is fixed
  • Video from the 3Gs iPhone now converts properly. Note that we still have the rotation issue if you take video vertically, although we do support manual rotation of the video for proper display on the web.

Let us know if you see any other problems.

Link DSLR Hunter – Find me a good setup for under $2000.

People often ask me what camera they should buy. If they want a DSLR, I tell them that Nikon and Canon both make great cameras and you can’t go wrong with either system. But personally, I shoot exclusively with Canon and have a big investment in Canon, so that is where I can give advice.

First, I buy mostly from B&H photo in NYC. I like them because they plainly mark whether an item is USA warranty or gray market, and they have never shipped me used equipment passed off as new. They are also super knowledgeable on the phone if you have a question before purchase. Friends tell me that Adorama is also excellent. I am pretty much an Amazon shopper these days, but for cameras, I still buy at B&H.

I own a 5D Mark II, but I have used the digital rebel cameras and they are all excellent, if not quite as sturdy or full featured. Today, my recommendation would be to buy the Canon EOS Rebel T1i (Body Only). Avoid the kit lens. It is not very good.

The question of which lens to buy is actually much more difficult. If you want a zoom, the one to buy is the Canon EF-S 17-55mm. I still live in the world of 35MM in my head (old habits are hard to kick). The sensor in the Rebel is smaller than a 35mm sensor. If you multiply the focal length of your lens by 1.6, you get the 35MM equivalent focal length. That puts the zoom in the range of 27.2mm to 88mm, a great range for walking around.

The 17-55 lens is also f2.8, nice and bright, which contributes both to low light performance and the ability to auto-focus.

Finally and most importantly the 17-55 takes beautiful photos. I primarily look at sharpness, vignetting and distortion personally and that lens is pretty good all around. The chromatic aberration is also under control. I have found that the ratings at Fred Miranda are pretty reliable. If you look at Canon Zoom Ratings, you will see that the 17-55 scores a 9.1 and is on the first page of zooms. Although the 17-55 is not a professional L lens, it scores higher than some L zooms in the Canon lineup. By comparison the kit lens is second from last of all the zooms rated. Avoid it.

In terms of cost, we have spent $960 on the lens and $799 on the camera, coming in at $1760.

If you really want to spend that $2000, buy a 50MM prime. The Canon 50MM primes perform beautifully. On a cropped sensor camera, that lens will provide the field of view of an 80mm lens, the perfect wedding and portrait lens.

Most primes, even fairly inexpensive primes, out perform even the best zooms in image quality in my experience. I own mostly L zooms. The big difference I have noted is auto-focus speed and build quality, which is far better on the L glass. I own a few L primes, and I can’t see that much of an image quality difference relative to my consumer primes. But the L primes are heavy and focus fast.

In terms of a 50MM prime, the two consumer choices are the f1.4 and f1.8. Both earned a 9 rating at Fred Miranda, but the f1.4 is far more popular. The 1.8 version is notable mostly in that it truly feels like a piece of junk. B&H is charging $399 for the 50mm f1.4 and $114 for the 50mm f1.8.

As you can see, the f1.4 brings us a bit over our $2000 budget, coming in at $2160. The f1.8 brings us in at $1875. You could even buy a hood for the zoom, which you really should buy. It helps increase the contrast of photos.

To be fair, the hood for 17-55mm hood is a bit of a compromise. It has to accommodate the lens in wide angle mode and hence is not as tight as it could be when zoomed in. (The ultimate hood design is the hood for the Canon 24-70mm f2.8L. The lens projects out as you go wide, so that the hood is always the perfect size for the focal length. Note that this is my ‘walking-around’ lens, but it’s darn heavy. It works best onf a full frame camera like the 5D Mark II. On a rebel, it would become a 38-112mm, which is great on the tele side but a bit not wide enough for my tastes. But I digress)

Don’t buy a front filter for the lens. Many salesmen will try to sell you a daylight or UV filter to protect your lens. The lenses are already coated for glare and most issues with white balance can be fixed after the fact. Putting a filter on a $1000 lens to me is like putting a plastic cover on your sofa. Who are you saving it for? But the hood can protect the lens if you drop the camera or hit it against a wall, so might be a nice investment regardless of whether it is well designed or not.

If you choose to step up beyond the Rebel, keep in mind that the 40D and 50D do not take video. Although the video features on my 5D Mark II are quirky, I truly love having video available and find it very useful for shooting quick clips. It works best when the subject is not moving away or toward you (no re-focusing required) like when shooting someone on stage or blowing out the candles at a birthday party.

Any modern DSLR will provide you amazing photos compared to a point and shoot. The low light performance is where its at. But don’t waste that by getting a dim zoom lens. Make sure you use a lens that is at least f2.8. If you can’t afford the nice canon zoom, buy a cheap Canon prime lens. For example, the 35mm prime lens will turn your rebel into a 56mm fixed focal length camera. For many years the 50mm was the standard lens shipped with SLRs.

Link Transparency

One goal I have for Phanfare is to be as transparent as possible with our customers. When you entrust your photos and videos with a company, you want to know what is going on within the company. It’s a partnership between the company and the customers. In that spirit, here is some roadmap information so that our customers know what to expect from us.

This release was intended to move away from freemium and go back to a 14 day free trial (I will write about why in a future entry). In addition, we put back in the simple web hosting model that was so adored by our customers. We deprecated the social networking a bit, in that it is harder to find, and a bit harder to use. Forums has some color on what is harder to us about the social networking so I won’t go over it again here.

We are planning a pro version of Phanfare to be released during the summer. The Pro version will include the following features, broadly.

  • Much more customization of the look of your site
  • CNAMES
  • Phanfare navigational banner removal
  • Phanfare subsites. You will be able to designate a set of albums to http://yourname.phanfare.com/soccer, for example, and that subsite can be open or have its own password. Subsites should address a bunch of diverse situations including wanting to share a subset of albums with a client, or put up a public site of albums for your soccer friends while having your main site be password protected.

In addition, we plan to polish the Phanfare Premium offering a bit, including better tracking of who is opening your sharing invitations so that visitor reporting is more interesting.

We have not yet announced the pricing for Phanfare Pro. Note that the initial product will not have the ability to sell your own prints.

We are moving away from unlimited storage for new customers. This will happen mid-summer. Expect to see storage limits on both Premium and Pro accounts, plus the ability to add more storage. We are doing this because we want every customer to be profitable. As currently designed, new customers with small accounts subsidize old customers with big accounts. I don’t like it when my best customers are the ones I don’t make money on. It’s not healthy.

For now, we plan to leave our existing customers with unlimited storage accounts. I realize it would be a negative surprise if we were to suddenly impose storage limits when none existed when the person signed up. We will continue to evaluate this issue from time to time.

We have some lifetime customers that we signed up early on in our existence. Those customers will get Phanfare Pro accounts.

Note that having everyone pay their fair share for storage enables a bunch of features that can be included in the product without worrying that the storage use will be high. For example, storing RAW files and higher definition versions of video are no issue if everyone is paying for the storage they are using.

All these changes are aimed at rationalizing the business in sensible and simple ways. Like any lemonade stand, it is important that the cost of the ingredients be less than the selling price of a cup of lemonade.

We realize that some people will find Phanfare too expensive. That is ok with me. The truth is, delivering the Phanfare service is tremendously expensive and archiving your fullsize original photos and videos is a luxury item. We live at the high end of the market and cater to prosumers and serious amateurs. This has always really been true (70% of our customers have digital SLR cameras) but in the last six months, we have come to grips that this is where the market lies for us.

Yesterday’s release is one half the story. Without knowing that we plan to impose storage limits on new users, you might wonder how we could afford to lower the price. And without knowing about the Pro version planned, you might wonder what features will be used in lieu of the current groups feature.

Whenever you talk about the future, you risk being wrong or late. But our engineering team has traditionally executed very well and I expect we will get the things done that I described above during the summer.

Two companies that come to my mind when I think about transparency with customers is USAA and Vanguard. I am a customer of both these companies and I find that they consistently communicate their core values and share much of their internal workings. I hold both these companies up in my own mind when I think about building Phanfare into a lasting company.

Link Phanfare down for scheduled maintenance

This morning (Thursday, June 25th, 5am Eastern Daylight Savings Time) we are upgrading the Phanfare system. The major changes that you will see when we come back up are:

  • New corporate home page and marketing pages
  • Free accounts no longer offered to new people. New prospective Phanfare customers enter a 14-day free trial with no restrictions. If you have an old space-restricted free account, it will continue to work.
  • Site URLS at yourname.phanfare.com now available
  • Optional site passwords
  • New ‘Publish” button on web client, mac client, pc client that will publish any given album to your Phanfare site
  • New versions of Aperture, Lightroom, Picasa, and iPhoto plugins that use the new site publishing metaphor, understand what a Phanfare site is.
  • New versions of the Phanfare Mac and PC screensaver that take multiple Phanfare sites as inputs. (The old versions showed your content and friend/family content, optionally)

Be sure to upgrade your Phanfare tools. If you have setup someone with a Phanfare screensaver, you will want to download and install the new one for the person. If you don’t, they wont’ see new photos and videos unless you keep using our social networking tools.

My workflow, for example. I have about 40 some odd people who are connected to me within Phanfare. I have them broken into friends and family, but every single album I have ever created is available to both. I also have a few Phanfare groups, but only one has content that was published by others, the progress photos from a house renovation.

When Phanfare comes back up, I am going to login and go through our migration wizard. I am going to choose to publish every album that is published to my groups and to friends and family to my Phanfare site. Phanfare reserved my old “Phanfare 1.0″ username for me, so all my content will be at that URL.

Phanfare groups still works, but since I like the new Phanfare site stuff, I will likely download and re-upload the albums of our renovation progress that are in other people’s accounts. That will make my Phanfare site complete.

I will need to manually upgrade the screensavers on the home computers and my parents’ computers. I will manually configure them to show pictures from my Phanfare site, my brother and sister’s phanfare sites, and my co-founders Phanfare site.

I had gotten used to the automatic notifications that went out so I will need to now remember to notify people when I publish new albums. But I will probably go back to my old habit of only notifying close friends and family, except around major life events where I will notify a larger set of people.

I use facebook, although I have a bigger set of connections there, not all of whom are close friends. I will selectively publish albums to faceboook from time to time so my facebook friends know I am alive.

The biggest hassle for me will be dealing with Phanfare groups. Also, I used to maintain a Phanfare site for my old neighborhood (we moved to Princeton from Metuchen, NJ) and now that Phanfare sites are back, I will recreate that. In January 2008, I had made that neighrborhood site a Phanfare group in my account, but many of the neighbors never quite figured out how to signup to see the photos. Making it an independent Phanfare site will also allow me to hand off control to someone who still lives in the neighborhood to maintain it. Groups allowed that too, but it was a bit more cumbersome.

Let us know about your problems and bugs by emailing support@phanfare.com when we come up. We know there will be some.

Link We have not given up on social networking

Jefferson Graham wrote that we have given up on social networking. This is not exactly true. I believe that social networking is a very engaging way to share with friends. Facebook has excellent tools for keeping in touch with friends, especially distant friends (the weak link).

But what I do believe is that it is not Phanfare’s role to provide the basic social networking infrastructure. That is best provided by facebook and hence, we have built conduits so that you can share your photos and videos on social networks, while securely archiving the originals at Phanfare.

At the same time, our customers, who tend to be photography enthusiasts, like having their own site. When you are sharing with an audience of people who may not all embrace social networking (grandma) or sharing with people who are not your friends (colleagues, etc), it is convenient to have your own site. Having your own site gives you a sense of ownership over your media. Rather than living as some node within some ecosystem, it is your real estate. And so we brought back the site hosting model that was originally our hallmark.

What we have given up on is trying to provide tools to social network within Phanfare. But that is more about how we approach integrating social networking concepts versus giving up on the genre. In fact, by integrating with facebook and flickr, Phanfare is much more social than it would be by itself. But I will say that Jeff’s headline is more catchy than: “Phanfare deprecates internal social networking infrastructure in favor of integrating with facebook and flickr.”

Our Phanfare facebook app is one of the most popular apps we have amongst our customers. Using the Phanfare facebook app, Phanfare customers can move an album of images (downsampled to facebook resolution) in one click. And once there, your facebook friends can comment on them and tag them.

Link Simpler Site URLs and Site Passwords Coming (back) to Phanfare

The Phanfare customer survey results are in. An overwhelming majority of you want your own destination URL (yourname.phanfare.com) and optional site passwords.

I am pleased to announce that we have overhauled the Phanfare tools to support simple web hosting of your photos and videos at yourname.phanfare.com. This change will make it easier for you to use Phanfare and for your viewers to see your content. We are rolling out these changes on Thursday, June 25th, 2009. Your old Phanfare username is reserved for your use.

Phanfare’s social networking tools (adding friends, getting automatic content notifications when friends and family add content, Phanfare groups) are still in the system for those who want to use them.

Phanfare’s new sharing model is simple. Every album is either published or not to your Phanfare site. You can share URLs at an album or site level. If you have a site password set, your viewers will be asked for the password before being allowed to view.

We have created a new contact list to hold your commonly used email addresses. It will be populated with your Phanfare friends and family as well as people that were in your Phanfare address book prior to January 1, 2008.

You can also share your site and album URLs with Phanfare’s built-in email tools. The invitations to view your albums will not require viewers to sign-up to see your albums. When composing invitations to view your site, you can utilize addresses from your new Phanfare contact list.

All Phanfare tools are updated to support our new simple web hosting model. Be sure to download the latest version of your favorite tool on Thursday morning at http://www.phanfare.com/apps.aspx. The Mac and PC client automatically update themselves.

For Phanfare long-timers, you will rightly see these changes as bringing back the original Phanfare sharing model that was so adored by all of you for its simplicity and sense of ownership. Of course, it comes with all the new functionality that we have added in the time since, including an amazing iPhone and iPod touch app for managing your Phanfare site and plugins for popular tools like iPhoto, Picasa, Lightroom and Aperture. We have built conduits to move photos and videos to Facebook and Flickr. Phanfare continues to use Amazon S3 for storage, providing you the peace-of-mind that your content will be preserved for generations to come.

I am also happy to announce that we are lowering the price of Phanfare Premium to $49.99/year for all our customers, effective at your next renewal.

Again, all these changes are schedule to be released this Thursday.

Link I love my new Verizon iPhone

I am traveling down Interstate 91 South in New Hampshire, returning from my 20th Dartmouth Reunion, enjoying pretty decent data access on my iPhone 3G, even though there is zero ATT service on this stretch of the road. I am getting a few hundred kilobits/second.

Ok, there is one small detail I a left out. I am using a MiFi 2200 Wi-Fi hotspot in the car. This little device, smaller than a deck of cards, connects to the Verizon data network, establishes and EvDO connection, and puts up Wi-Fi cloud around itself.

Using the MiFi, my iPhone is essentially a Verizon iPhone. I use data more than voice, so this really does bring the better Verizon coverage to my iPhone. The device is battery operated, although you can plug it in or attach it via USB to a charging source, such as the 12-volt adapter in the car.

No doubt, this is an expensive solution. The Verizon EvDO card is over $60/month. But, truth-be-told, I have had EvDO service for over 4 years now since I find it useful when traveling. The sad truth is that while the ATT 3G network is faster than the Verizon data network when it is available, it is often not available.

When we hike out west I like having the security of a cell phone when we are on the trail. This is the first summer in 11 years where I don’t own a Verizon cell phone, and it will be nice to have the security of the Verizon network while using my iPhone.

The Mi-Fi is not perfect. I found that after being idle for several hours, it turns off the Wi-Fi network and hence essentially needs to be rebooted before you can use connected devices again. But given that it is close at hand, this is not too much of an inconvenience.

As an added bonus, the Mi-Fi supports up to 5 devices (a limitation probably imposed by Verizon) and so my laptop and my old iPhone, which is now the family iPod Touch, can also be on the network.

Carrying your own personal Wi-Fi cloud has never been easier. You could do it using a variety of devices for the past few years, but they were big and clunky and required multiple pieces of hardware. The Mi-Fi gives you a very convenient form-factor and built in battery that makes the concept significantly more useful. And by letting you share the expensive EvDo connection, it also makes Verizon’s EvDo service more economical.

Link Archiving and preserving digital photos and videos

I spoke at the Princeton public library yesterday on the topic of archiving and preserving digital photos. It was a good opportunity to take a step back and look at the alternatives from a consumer perspective.

Here is a scorecard I created showing how three basic solutions for archiving photos and videos measure up.

Keep on Your PC Home RAID Online Services
Geographically Distributed No No Yes
Survives device failure No Sorta Yes
Media available when and where you need it Sorta Sorta Yes
Deals with shifting formats No No Yes
Easy to put data in One Location One Location Yes
Easy to take data out One Location One Location Yes
Secure Yes Yes Pretty secure
Around in 20 years? No No Maybe

The three approaches to archiving are leaving the data on your PC, running and maintaining a home RAID server, and subscribing to an online service, such as Phanfare. The assumption is that you want to preserve your full size original images and archival videos for at least 20 years.

Here is a quick explanation of the attributes:

  • Geographically distributed – Is your data in more than one place, preferably in locations that are 20 miles apart or more, such that the loss of one location due to fire, theft or water, does not destroy your archive?
  • Survives device failure – Hard drives fail, computers fail. What is the level of redundancy that the solution supports?
  • Media available when and where you need it – Can you get to the media from a multitude of locations and at any time of day or night?
  • Deals with shifting formats – As time goes by, media formats change. Does the solution bring your data forward to new formats, both physical and logical? For example, bring your video forwrad from AVI to h.264, or deal with the sunsetting of one form factor of hard drive for another?
  • Easy to put data in – How much work does it take to add new data to the archive?
  • Easy to take data out – How much work does it take to retrieve data from the archive?
  • Secure – How sure can you be that the media will only be seen by people you authorize?
  • Around in 20 yrs – Will the solution last 20 years, with a reasonable likelihood?

As you can see, online services score very well compared to Home RAID and the PC solution. The PC solution is pretty much guaranteed to result in the eventual loss of all your data, so it’s hard to really call it an archiving solution, but since so many people only keep their photos and videos on their PC, it is worth mentioning.

Basic home RAID solutions also provide few of the benefits of online storage. They are not geograpically distributed. Academically, they seem to provide protection against hard drive failures, but in practice, there are significant caveats. For example, a RAID server will tell you when it drops a disk from the set, but if you are not listening for that alert, or if you then go and replace the wrong drive, you will lose your data. Furthermore, it is not that unusual to lose entire RAID servers either because of double disk failures, failure in the RAID hardware itself, or misconfiguration.

Nothing deals with shifting formats better than online storage. Online services regularly copy data forward to new formats and replace hardware as it becomes obsolete. Using your own RAID solution, you will need to do this work yourself from time to time.

Looking at the question of security, I gave the edge to the home solutions. Security is a complicated issue. The best way to truly keep a secret is to tell nobody. The act of putting the information on any device lowers the security relative to keeping it in your head.

Your home is likely a soft target and if somebody wanted to get the data, it seems easier to get it from your home than from a secure data center. On the other hand, when you put data at an online service, you lose some level of control and the risk of accidental exposure of the media probably goes up.

Whether online services meet your security needs depends on your outlook about the sensitivity of the data. Personally, I do have a preference that my personal photos and videos not be public, but if they were exposed, no great harm would come to me and I would suffer no financial loss. On the other hand, if your photos are so sensitive that exposure could put you in danger, then you probably don’t want them online.

The only real question is whether you can trust an online service to be around in 20 years. Size alone does not necessarily indicate safety since some very large money losing photo and video sharing services have been shut down.

In terms of trusting an online service, I think it is important to see if their business model makes sense to you. If it seems to good to be true, or if you wonder how they can ever make money, then they probably don’t and it will end soon enough. Also, look for transparency. Unlike most services you consume, online storage is one where you are really in a partnership with the company. You are investing significant time and energy and need the company to be a good long term partner. As with any long term partner, transparency and honesty are important attributes. When your partner is overly secretive or harbors secrets, it is hard to trust them.

One option that Phanfare offers is to send you regular quarterly DVD backups of your data. While DVDs are not that archival in the long run, the likelihood that both we and you will simultaneously lose the data is vanishingly small, and hence you are always protected by being a redundant storage location for your own data. This DVD archive can help mitigate the risk that the online storage service does not survive. Again, I am not saying we are going away, only that you should look for services that don’t hold you hostage and plan for all scenarios.

If you look at costs, you will soon realize that online storage services cost more than keeping the media on your home computer or building your own RAID. But the solutions are far from equivalent. If you do an apples for apples comparison of building a personal archive that has all the same attributes as a service such as Phanfare, Phanfare will come out way ahead. Storing your media at an online service is hence the most expensive solution, but also the only true solution to the problem of archiving and preserving digital media.

Link Internet TV

There is an article in the WSJ today that talks about people cutting the cable cord and going with internet-based TV. Makes sense to me. But today it requires you have both a TV and another device that hooks up to the TV (Roku, Mac Mini, Mediacenter PC, etc).

I expect that eventually TV will be delivered over IP and that the cable companies will have a diminished role (although they will have a broadband business). The question is, what is the motivator. Is Internet TV going to be better or going to be cheaper?

I think the driver will be that it is cheaper. You can’t make TV better. It is already great. It must be since people spend hundreds of hours a month watching it! If money is not object, you can create an amazing TV experience in your house with HD cable service (or FIOS) and a Tivo. But its expensive.

What we need is a Internet TV combined with something like Boxee built in. The TV experience would not initially be better, but it would be cheaper. The TV could even cost an extra $50 if it allowed the buyer to avoid subscribing to cable and only buy broadband.

Between Hulu and YouTube, there is sufficient free content, and if you want premium content on a pay-per-view basis, there is Amazon Unbox (which my dream TV would have built in).

Apple could do this product. They do have an Apple TV product, but the funny thing is that it actually does not include a TV. And it lacks Hulu (but has YouTube).

In my mind the way you get this done is by putting the technology into a bargain LCD TV, like Vizio. Price-conscious buyers already look to that Brand to save a buck and so they will like the idea of saving $700 bucks a year with an Internet TV.

Link Privacy – The Principle of least surprise

I commented on a blog that had issues with our privacy policy. I was surprised when I posted the comment that my face showed up next to the comment. No big deal. But since the blog is in the scott jones domain, I wondered how it had access to any photo of me.

I did a little sleuthing and noticed my profile picture came from Gravatar. Never heard of them? Neither had I. Reading the privacy policy, it is clear that Gravatar is run by Automattic, the people who brought us WordPress.com.

I use wordpress.com because we maintain a Phanfare Health Status blog there. It needs to be independent of Phanfare so it can reliably work even if Phanfare is down.

I was surprised to see that WordPress was sharing my avatar photo with a third party blog. I went into the wordpress settings and I see that they do make some reference to Gravatar. Nevertheless, I think that this use by WordPress violates good practice.

When you sign up for a WordPress blog and set it up to completely hide the WordPress brand, you certainly don’t expect WordPress to share this information with other blogs.

I know why WordPress is doing this. They are doing it because they want to compete with sites like Disqus, a startup in the business of tying together the conversation going on across blogs, tying back comments to their authors across blogs.

But with Disqus, which I use in this blog, it is completely obvious that I am carrying my identity with me across blogs. I have to login to disqus on at least one of the blogs, and the disqus logo appears across the network of blogs.

I find what WordPress is doing to be a bit sneaky and I think they can and should do better.

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