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As printing industry enters a new frame, LifePics updates Android app

by Brad Spirrison

If you have ever converted a photograph to a wallet, coffee mug or other everyday device, there is a good chance you tapped into the LifePics network of photofinishers to do so.

The Boulder-based company, which has a presence in 12,000 retail locations across the globe, is acutely impacted by the revolution in smartphone and mobile application consumption. Think about it: as smartphones increasingly make single-use digital cameras obsolete, businesses like LifePics need to make sure they offer a super-convenient way for consumers to use their service directly from the device.

Accordingly, LifePics has apps for the iOS and Android smartphone and Windows Phone 7 devices (with a Honeycomb app coming out soon). A new update rolled out today allows consumers to order photographs directly from the application.

In this edition of Meet the Makers, we check in with LifePics vice president Ken McDonald to talk about the increased demand for Android capabilities, how the company is addressing the macro trend of mobile app consumption, and features available for Android users that don’t exist on iOS devices.

Appolicious: LifePics is rolling out an update to its Android app. Describe the new capabilities.

Ken McDonald: We have added the ability for consumers to order photo prints and products from digital photos. They can pick up the products at one of the 12,000 retail locations around the world, often in as little as one hour. Previous versions of the app allow consumers to upload photos and view photos in the user’s online account, but did not allow for direct ordering from within the app.

APPO: For people who aren't familiar with LifePics, explain what the company does, how it makes money, and how crucial mobile media is to its overall operations.

KM: LifePics is the largest network of the best photofinishers around the world. We allow people to store, share, and order prints and thousands of other fun and creative photo products through their favorite local photofinisher or photo printer. Products available include all standard print sizes, from wallets to large posters, plus photo greeting cards, photo books, photo calendars, photo mugs, photo mouse pads, and many other photo gifts.

The core of our business model is charging a commission fee for orders that flow through our system to a local photofinisher. The more orders the photofinishers receive, the more we earn.Mobile is incredibly strategic in our business. Smartphones are quickly replacing point-and-shoot camera. As such, the key device in photography is quickly becoming the smartphone and it will become the place where consumers share their photos and order products from their photos.

APPO: LifePics has apps for Android smartphones as well as the iPhone and iPad. Describe the development opportunities and challenges that exist creating and updating your apps on each mobile platform.

KM: The biggest development challenge in mobile is weighing how similar we make the apps on various platforms. On one hand, you would like to provide a common user experience and leverage the same logic regardless of the mobile platform. On the other hand, some platforms provide unique capabilities and you want to take advantage of them. For example, on Android we have the ability to show the LifePics app in the photo sharing menu which is extremely powerful. That is something we are unable to provide on the iPhone platform.

APPO: What are the differences in marketing your apps on each platform and how do you drive downloads over time?

KM: We have millions of registered consumers, so we have the advantage of marketing to those existing users through email and through the existing web site. In addition, our retailers have the ability to reach out to consumers and tell them about the apps when they are in the store. Now that we a full suite of ordering apps (iPhone/iPad, Windows Phone 7, and Android), we are ramping up our social media presence and our messaging in some of the viral elements of our service.

APPO: Do you know the percentage of users who own Android-based smartphones relative to phones on other platforms?

KM: It is always hard to know for sure, especially given the rapidly changing nature of the market. We do know that roughly three times as many users visit our web sites from the iPhone/iPad as do from Android devices. Having said, that interest in photo ordering on Android has been highly requested by our user base. Adoption of our iPhone/iPad app has exceeded our expectations both in terms of number of new users and orders placed. As such, we have high expectations for Android as well.

APPO: Are there plans to develop a Honeycomb-based tablet application?

KM: Yes, we plan to bring it out this summer. We believe that while it is early for Honeycomb tablets, the market will likely take off in the near future.

APPO: How many people, internally and externally, are working exclusively on your mobile applications and offerings?

KM: We have approximately eight people internally who have been very involved in our mobile projects. Most of these people also work on elements of our web platform.

We provide a public API to partners who want to send us customers, images, or orders and earn a rev share in return. We have approximately three dozen partners in this program. Of these partners, the focus is roughly evenly split between mobile apps, desktop software, and photo web sites.

APPO: In terms of mobile media, what are the three biggest things (both challenges and opportunities) that keep you up at night?

KM: On the positive side, the usage of smartphones to take photos is absolutely exploding and some of the largest players in the photo ordering space have been slow to respond to this change. This has left a tremendous opportunity for a more nimble player like LifePics.

In terms of challenges, the trick is keeping up with all the changes. Mobile is advancing so quickly that we find that something critical happens almost every week. In order to excel in mobile, you have to watch these trends like a hawk.