I have some friends who recently launched etendi BRIDGE, a product aimed at making family communication easier, especially when the family is divided by distance. You can view a slightly heavy handed video that gives a good overview of the feature set (though not the best sound). Features include calendaring, email (which they call ‘Thinking of You’ messages), a shared whiteboard, video messages, and notes. All the action happens in a pretty slick Flash interface. It also sends all traffic over SSL, which is the same standard that banks use, etc.
In addition to clicking around this myself, I set etendi up with my girlfriend and mother (yes, yes, perhaps they shouldn’t be in communication, but what can you do?). I ended up kicking the tires on the video chat with my girlfriend; video chat seems to be the killer feature. I was able to fairly easily set up the sound. I did have an issue with the microphone–at its default setting, the software couldn’t hear me, and kept giving me an error message. This happened even though I’d had no trouble using the mic at that level with skype. Video chat didn’t work for me, as I had no video camera. But my girlfriend also had issues with it; we didn’t have time to dive in, but it may be her system, as she has had webcam issues before.
One final note about usability–in general it is great, but when you are adding a user to your etendi house, no cues are given if the password isn’t long enough; the save button is just disabled.
From a web application developer’s point of view, it’s a very cool app that feels much like a desktop app. I’m not sure what it means for our society that there’s a niche for this type of remote communication application with children, but it’s a very cool app.
I’m not going to pretend to have done a wide survey of solutions in this space, but here are some other options that solve some of the same problems:
- roll your own solution with youtube/email/im/netmeeting/phpbb/phpgallery/etc: You can do this, but security is an issue–never put anything in an email that you wouldn’t put on the back of a postcard! However, make sure you read and understand the etendi terms of service. The amount of work to bring this together would be substantial to be feature complete with etendi. On the other hand, you can customize it as you like, and it is free except for your time.
- Facebook/other social networks: Facebook, and myspace and friendster, etc, solve some of the same issues. As far as I know, there’s no video messaging service that integrates with FB, but it does have most everything else (email, whiteboard, photo gallery ). However, with facebook, your child has to have an email address and there are as far as I know, no parental controls. Also, every bit of content you upload to Facebook grants them a right to use that content for any purpose as long at is up there (see the user content section of their TOS for more). But, it is prevalent, easy to use, and free.
- Ning: Ning lets you create your own private social network, solving some of the control issues. You can share videos, photos, blog posts and events. You can invite your friends, but again they have to have an email address to be invited. You have some pretty granular control over what members can do (you can choose to approve photos before they appear, etc). They don’t have quite as nice an interface as etendi does, but they do have 141 widgets you can add (and a nice API). You also have to deal with advertisements, or you can pay $25/month to remove them. Ning seems like a nice alternative to etendi, but is definitely aimed at more sophisticated (read, adult) users (users under 13 are explicitly asked to avoid Ning networks) and doesn’t have the tight focus on families.
etendi has been live for a few months, so I’m glad they are starting to get some press, and I hope they continue to update the blog. If you need to keep in touch with family over long distance and both ends have high speed internet and webcams, you should give etendi BRIDGE a try.
Disclaimer: I have worked with these FOLKS in the past, way back when I was concerned about testing Korean content, and have had a beer or two at their office.