Sidecar app makes multitasking easier on smartphones
Smartphones may rule mobile. But a start-up called Sidecar believes the latest mobile phones could be smarter about the experience you have while on a good old-fashioned phone call. Its solution is the Sidecar app for Android phones, iPhone and iPod Touch that launched Tuesday as a free download in the Google Play and Apple App Stores.
By Sidecar's definition, smart-calling means that without leaving the app — and with just a couple of taps on a rotary-style interface — you can share your location on a map, photos, contacts, text messages and live see-what-I-see video with the person on the other end. Doing these tasks without the app would require extra steps.
I did all of that on the calls I made or received through the app, using an iPhone 4 and HTC One Android device. Still, for all its promise, my experience in the early going wasn't always smooth. Call quality was so-so. I encountered some dropped calls and a few other bugs.
Sidecar the company was actually born in February 2011 as Socialeyes, which at the time was pushing a free service on Facebook that let up to nine people at once engage in a video chat in a Brady-Bunch-like grid.
Socialeyes launched at the Demo conference and was co-founded by former RealNetworks executives Rob Glaser and Rob Williams. But Socialeyes shut down over the summer, and the start-up morphed into Sidecar, with a new emphasis on mobile. Glaser is Sidecar's chairman and Williams is CEO.
After downloading the app, I registered Sidecar with each handset's numbers.
You can make calls with a standard dialer or by tapping names, or numbers on a "recents" list, or by culling your contacts — which are divided into Sidecar friends or all the other contacts you have on the phone. Sidecar uses the phone numbers in your address book to match you with your pals on Sidecar.
No other information from the address book is transmitted.
The call is free to anyone who has Sidecar or if made over Wi-Fi to anyone in the U.S. and Canada, whether they have the app or not. If you do call friends with a mobile phone who don't have the app, they'll receive a text message inviting them to download it. If you don't have access to Wi-Fi, regular 3G or 4G calling rates from your carrier apply.
It's important to note that despite its Socialeyes' video-chat roots, the video during Sidecar calls is streamed live in only one direction. You can see what the other person sees or they can see what you see but not at the same time. You can swap views from the phone's front and rear cameras. So this is not the kind of two-way video call you might have via Skype, Tango or Apple's FaceTime. Sidecar explains that it's not trying to duplicate video calling but rather trying to add services on top of a regular call. And there are many scenarios where you might want to show your surroundings without talking face to face.
After the person sharing the video taps the "See what I see" button during the call, a window pops up on the recipient's screen asking if he or she wants to view the video. Say yes and the video appears in a few seconds. Same goes for pictures and map locations. The latter is handy for arranging a meet-up during a call. The "whisper" text messaging feature is useful if you can't hear each other or don't want to be overheard.
During my early tests, I could receive incoming calls through the app but could not make calls. Instead, I received a message indicating that the call had failed due to a server error. Sidecar told me the error occurred because I used a MiFi card to supply Wi-Fi. The phone and app interpret the MiFi signal as a Wi-Fi connection, but in reality I was tapping into Verizon's mobile network. Indeed, I could make outbound calls using my home's Wi-Fi network. Sidecar plans to address the issue in an update.
The way users hold the phone changes when viewing a picture, map location or video as opposed to just talking. To compensate, Sidecar adds a Smart Speaker feature in which the speakerphone comes on when the phone is held away from your ear and turns off when you move the phone back. Unfortunately, the speakers jumped on and off with the slightest movement of my hand. You can turn the Smart Speaker feature off.
One other bit of weirdness: When I tried calling a Sidecar exec at the same time he called me, I heard him say "hello" though the phone was still ringing. In lieu of a busy signal, when calling someone already on the phone, you get a "user busy" pop-up message.
Sidecar is taking a smart approach. But the execution could be a little smarter.
The bottom line
Free download for Android, iPhone and iPod Touch devices.
•Pro. Lets you share photos, live video stream, map location, contacts and private text messages during a call. Free Wi-Fi calling.
•Con. The app is still a little buggy. Call quality is so-so.