Birdeez app flies toward birdwatchers' iPhones

Startup EcoLek will demonstrate the app for identifying birds at Demo Fall

While some people think social, location-based mobile apps are for the birds, others might like to use them for that very purpose. That's the idea behind Birdeez, an iOS app created by three partners in California who have birdwatchers in their sights.

There are 48 million birdwatchers in the U.S., according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of them rely on printed field guides to identify and learn about the birds they find, while some use mobile apps that just translate those books into digital form and take up more than a gigabyte of phone storage, according to Jeff Simeon, who co-developed Birdeez with Patrick Toerner and Thomas Kuo.

Though they'll be at Demo Fall this week in Santa Clara, California, pitching yet another app to go on consumers' iPhones, the three partners are really trying to work at cross-purposes to the plugged-in, always-on society.

"We're really passionate about getting people outside, exploring nature again. Kind of unplugging from their computer screens," he said. Simeon has worked as an environmental educator, while Toerner is a recent graduate in economics and Kuo is an electrical engineer. Their company, EcoLek, grew out of a business-school project at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

The mobile age opened the door to a new way of identifying birds, taking advantage of the peculiar capabilities of smartphones, Simeon said. He calls Birdeez "Foursquare for birds."

"A lot of what determines what birds are around you is your location and the time of year," Simeon said. "The device knows both of those things."

Using the phone's location awareness and calendar, Birdeez can build a customized list of species that a birder is likely to see, he said. That helps users narrow down the possibilities more quickly. To identify what they are looking at, a user chooses among options for the shape, size and color of the bird and then chooses from a list of photos of likely candidates.

When the right choice comes up, the user clicks a "Spot It!" button to add that bird to the list that he or she has seen. Birders who are interested in more than just personal satisfaction can claim bragging rights by automatically sharing the identification via their Twitter accounts, Simeon said. Facebook integration is on the way.

Ultimately, Birdeez may feed users' sightings into current likely bird lists and into a special social network, Simeon said. On the Birdeez network, members could set up profiles that include information on their results, the gear they use and their birdwatching activities, such as upcoming trips, he said. But EcoLek is using a lean development strategy, starting small and waiting to see what users want before expanding the product. Birdeez also is currently limited to birds in California. And though the data available for a given area may someday include real-time data on what other birders are seeing nearby, that capability will require a lot more work, Simeon said.

The app runs natively on the iPhone and talks to EcoLek's servers for information such as local bird lists. It will be available free until Oct. 10, when it will shift to a "freemium" business model, Simeon said. Eventually, one feature that paying customers will get is the ability to access the appropriate bird database information in areas without mobile network access. He declined to name a price, saying the company plans to explore what users want to pay. In addition to iOS, the company hopes eventually to deliver Android and HTML5-based versions.

Ads aren't part of the business plan today, despite the potential for advertising in what the Fish and Wildlife Service called a $36 billion annual market in 2006. Advertising gives a company two sets of customers, and EcoLek prefers to have just one, Simeon said. But as an early-stage startup, the company is keeping its options open.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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