Layer, a new startup launching at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2013 today, is ambitiously attempting to build a communications fabric – a “layer,” if you will – for the Internet. The technology, initially available to developers in the form of mobile app SDKs and open sourced components, will enable text, voice, video, file-sharing and more across applications, whether those apps run on iOS, Android, or even the web. You can think of it as something like a Stripe for communications.
The company was founded in March by CEO Tomaž Štolfa, founder of vox.io, and Executive Chairman Ron Palmeri, who previously launched a number of notable companies as managing director of Minor Ventures, including Grand Central (now Google Voice), OpenDNS, Scout Labs and Swivel. Palmeri is also the founder of MkII Ventures, and co-founder of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2011 runner-up Prism Skylabs.
Explains Štolfa, most developers today want to focus on the final experience, not building the infrastructure for each application feature. “If they want to build maps in their product, they don’t have to rebuild the entire maps stack,” he says. “If they want to accept a credit card payment, they don’t have to rebuild the entire credit card stack. But they have to rebuild the entire communications stack if they want to send a message from one user to another.”
In doing so, developers have to solve some very difficult problems – authentication, security, cross-device synchronization, offline message management, and more. To just get a few of these things right, a good team might need a few months at least. To get all of them right, they would probably need more like six or nine months.
Layer’s alternative, then, involves adding fewer than 10 lines of code to integrate messaging into app. It’s also fewer than 10 lines of code to add other things, like voice or video. The idea is to simplify the process of adding these communications capabilities to apps, while also eliminating concerns surrounding infrastructure, or how to manage scaling.
Initially, Layer is going to be available as an iOS or Android SDK for mobile app developers, but the team plans to introduce web support soon. They’re also offering a set of open source components called the Layer UI kit. These components (for iOS 7 and Android) work with the SDK, allowing developers to quickly build out specific user interface features, like an address book or a message sorter, for example.
“Those things are to make it easy for developers to understand how services can be exposed in the client,” explains Palmeri. “The SDK is the thing that allows us to do very secure connectivity from a device to the cloud. But the cloud itself is where the scale comes in.” He likens this extensible architecture to something like Amazon Web Services – where a developer pays as they scale, but it remains more affordable than building out their own infrastructure instead.
The company plans to incentivize app developers to stay on the platform, even as they grow, by pricing it as free to start, then charging affordably for the cloud infrastructure when the developers become successful. (Pricing has not yet been set, however.)
The benefit to having a lot of apps using Layer is the network effects it could bring. Imagine, for example, that all the messaging apps out there (e.g., Path, Whatsapp, LINE, WeChat, Viber, MessageMe, etc.) could actually talk to each other. Users could then choose their preferred platform based on design or feature set, and not just which app had the most of their friends using it.
And as more apps adopt the technology, user demand could push other apps to do the same. Eventually, Layer plans to open source more than the UI, which could mean that bigger companies (think Google, Facebook, Microsoft/Skype) could interconnect with Layer-enabled applications, too, via APIs.
To be clear, Layer isn’t only for text-based messaging. As noted above, it’s designed to support any sort of communication, including voice calls, file and photo sharing, or even video. And the company is working to make media sharing more robust as well, so that when users send each other a link – like a link to an Instagram photo, for instance – the recipient would also see a preview of that content in the app (not entirely unlike how Twitter Cards work today, e.g.).
On stage, the company demonstrated some of the advantages of building apps with Layer, showing off how cross-platform communications could be smarter by syncing message state across devices. As a notification is read on one device, the notification is killed on others. This sort of intelligence would be built into Layer’s SDK.
The company is putting together a small but representative sample of 50 beta testers, who will integrate Layer into their apps. These include everything from a communications service for doctors and nurses, to a dating app, and even an app for children.
Interested developers are able to register their interest here, for when the platform opens up more broadly. In the meantime, the Layer website will feature sample code and guides, to help developers better understand the technologies.
Layer is advised by Jeremie Miller (inventor of XMPP), Jure Leskovec (Computer Science professor at Stanford), John Maeda (President of RISD), Dom Leca (Sparrow, Google), and Ryan Sarver (Twitter Platform).
Disclosure: One of Layer’s seed investors is CrunchFund, a firm founded by Michael Arrington, who also founded TechCrunch. CrunchFund is not involved in selecting Battlefield participants.
Question & Answer From Disrupt Judges
Judges: Rich Barton (Zillow, Barton Ventures), Tracy Chou (Pinterest), Ellen Levy (Silicon Valley Connect), Hunter Walk (Homebrew Ventures)
Q: Why use this instead of Google Hangouts or Apple’s iMessage?
A: It’s important to support iOS, Android & the web with a non-ad supported business model.
Q: How is adoption with developers?
A: We’re working with a set of developers already. We have a close circle (the first 50 in the early access program). To get developers, we need to be good at documentation, support and offering use cases. We’re also open sourcing UI components to help developers build with Layer.
RB: Are there any apps using Layer now?
A: Couldn’t discuss specific apps by name now.
Q: Will users understand that Layer is out there? Will users have a relationship with Layer?
A: It’s important for developers and users to own data. We talked to developers who want to have their apps interconnect and when users begin to understand this, that will develop the brand.
Q: Will developers scale on Layer?
A: It’s very important to have companies scale broadly, similar to AWS. Looking for a network effect to happen.
A: If you provide core feature, uptime has to be close to optimal. Placement of data centers is critical. Open DNS guys are involved in building this.