Photosharing site Zooomr cooked up a storm on the web. Yet, while its features are impressive, the age of its creator is all the more remarkable. Oliver Lindberg hooks up with Kristopher Tate to find out what it’s like to be a teen entrepreneur
Silicon Valley churns out web applications at a dizzying speed and there’s more photosharing sites than ever before. Zooomr, a service that’s localised in over 15 languages, is different. It’s got the blessing from Web 2.0 guru Michael Arrington who dubbed it ‘Flickr on steroids’, and indeed, it introduced features such as geotagging months before Yahoo!’s photosharing site followed suit. It’s remarkable, even more so when you find out that it was put together by a 17-year-old in just three months.
Kristopher Tate, now 18, is chief technology officer and co-founder of BlueBridge Technologies Group. Zooomr is his biggest achievement yet, but by no means his first. You see, Kristopher was a child prodigy...
“I started working with HTML at four. At five, I started doing everything on a Mac,” Kristopher tells me in a Skype video conferencing call from California. “It’s really interesting to look back at the old video tapes my folks took of me when I was four and five. It’s astonishing even to myself that I was working on computing and communication problems when I was that young. My father is a nuclear engineer for the US government, so I was lucky enough to be able to come to him with most of my mathematics problems for better clarification. Thinking back, it was at five when things started to take shape.”
Kristopher’s knowledge of computers and IT is completely self-taught, and he still remembers how he first got into it at an age when other kids were still playing with bricks and mud. “I was on the West Coast and there isn’t very much to do there,” he chuckles. “We had a TV but that wasn’t very interesting because we didn’t have cable. So my dad bought a Macintosh Quadra 660AV and I was fascinated. I remember the delivery truck coming in and the guy setting it up on the kitchen table. It was just the fascination of seeing something like a television, yet being able to manipulate and understand it.”
Kristopher started making apps that communicated between two Macs, then switched over to Linux for a while (“Apple started to become lame in the mid-90s”), eventually making his way to Windows development.
The way he develops today is still influenced by his early beginnings. “Much of Zooomr’s design was first drafted in a sketchbook and then adapted for the web. I’ve been using this technique for quite a while, mostly because when I was younger, laptops were pretty big and out of my reach. I’ve got one of my books right here actually.” Kristopher says, waving a blue notebook filled with notes at the webcam.
Something about Zooomr
At the moment, Zooomr completely dominates Kristopher Tate’s life and, when he talks about his creation, you realise he’s genuinely enthusiastic about it. He spends around 19 hours a day working, and gets very little sleep. In fact, when I send Kristopher an email to set up this very interview, he replies instantly, even though it’s the middle of the night in Silicon Valley. Now that’s dedication!
Since Zooomr went live at the beginning of March, the teenage entrepreneur has turned into a celebrity. The CEO of Technorati offered him a job, blogs from around the globe discuss his web app and Zooomr’s chief evangelist Thomas Hawk can’t stop raving about Kristopher adding a trackbacks feature in less than an hour while chatting to him. And several companies are rumoured to be in acquisition discussions with Zooomr, which recently introduced ‘portals’ linking photos together.
I’m just some guy with a camera. I try to document my life and, even before Zooomr, I tried to take at least one photo a day
Despite this buzz, Kristopher is down-to-earth and sees Zooomr as a natural progression: “I’m not sure about my celebrity status, but I hope that my successes send a strong message to people all over the world that if you believe in what you do wholeheartedly, most often than not, you will succeed. To be honest with you, anybody can do anything and I’m just one person with an idea doing what I think is cool, and I’m glad to see that other people can partake in it. I hope it brings people together,” he says. “I’m just some guy with a camera. I try to document my life and, even before Zooomr, I tried to take at least one photo a day. As a blogger and someone who was always wanting to share my photos with my friends and colleagues from all around the globe, it suddenly became apparent to me that I needed to use my skills as a web developer to essentially make a solution that understood the information inside the photos, such as the people, places and events that photos remind us of.
“I recommend that everybody has a camera of some form when they go about their day. I think there are so many neat little things that we’re experiencing. It feels almost natural to be able to take an image, a snapshot, carry it with you and later on share it with the world. There are so many neat things that happen in everyone’s individual lives every day that not having a camera around is unthinkable.” Language and culture is thus extremely important for Kristopher. He’s just learned Japanese and, a few months ago, had to apologise for his English, saying he had started to think in Japanese.
The great Zooomr/Flickr stand-off
Not everybody is overwhelmed by what Kristopher calls “a truly world-class, socially aware photosharing application”, however. Maybe not surprisingly, Kristopher’s critics have pointed out that Zooomr is a blatant rip-off and that it’s borrowed more than just the ‘r’ of Flickr’s name. Kristopher asks his detractors to take a deeper look. “While Zooomr may appear like Flickr today, I think that’s only a result of the fine folks over at Flickr setting the bar to a certain height. Zooomr at this stage is just starting to push that bar higher, and until we’ve cleared the previous height, I think it’s certainly expected that we’ll hear from some people who simply can’t see past the name alone.” Whatever you might think about the similarities between the two sites, there’s no denying that Zooomr forces Flickr to react. Zooomr incorporates a geotagging feature, closely integrated with Google Maps. And, just a few weeks ago, Flickr launched a similar functionality, tying in with Yahoo! Maps.
Another stand-off between the photosharing giant and the little start-up could have even wider-reaching implications. When Kristopher Tate asked Flickr for access to their commercial API, Yahoo! initially politely declined. But it started a big discussion on a Flickr forum, and Flickr founder Stewart Butterfield has now agreed to open up their API if Zooomr provides them with an API plus documentation. “I think data should be open,” Kristopher explains. “In this age of computing, it’s almost essential that we get all this information and make use of it. There’s just so much important information out there and if you can intersect, understand and overlay it, it becomes so much more valuable. There’s a tremendous push for them and others to open up their data. I think it’s absurd in this era to have valuable data that’s not even theirs, in this case individual users’ photos and their own meta data, locked up in a proprietary system.”
Whether Kristopher Tate is a one-hit wonder of a new web bubble or whether Zooomr is just the first of many life-changing web apps, only time will tell. In the meantime, the teen entrepreneur is enjoying the success of Zooomr, working on a new community package for the site and looking forward to starting college in his early 20s.