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Tuesday, February 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft alums picture photo sharing made easy

Seattle Times technology reporter

A group of former high-ranking Microsoft executives has emerged from retirement to start an ambitious company that aims to simplify the sharing of digital photos and other media over the Internet.

Vizrea, their Seattle-based startup, created a platform for organizing and sharing collections of digital media. Its formal debut is Wednesday at the Demo conference in Phoenix. It's also participating in the 3GSM World Congress wireless conference next week in Barcelona, Spain.

The company is also announcing a key launch partner: mobile phone giant Nokia, which is bundling Vizrea's product with its Nokia Album image-organization software.

Besides handling photos, Vizrea's technology could offer a new way to share music and video collections online. But for now, Vizrea's product is aimed at users of high-end camera phones who have struggled with balky software for sharing photos with friends and relatives.

"We're solving that problem first and will apply that technology to other problems going forward," said founder Mike Toutonghi, 43, who previously started Microsoft's eHome division, which created the Media Center version of Windows XP.

After he left Microsoft in 2003, Toutonghi found that products for handling and sharing media collections "were really just too hard to use." He started Vizrea in 2004.

Toutonghi talked up the business with Microsoft pals, including former Senior Vice President Brad Silverberg, who led a faction that pressed the company in the mid-1990s to embrace the Internet and fixate less on Windows. He left a few years later to become a venture capitalist.

Silverberg connected Toutonghi with Brad Chase, 45, another former senior vice president and key player in Microsoft's Internet push. Chase, a photo enthusiast, was looking to advise a company and signed on as Vizrea chairman.

Also backing the company financially and serving on its board is Ben Slivka, an engineer who worked on Microsoft's first browser and was part of the Silverberg faction.

Slivka, another photo enthusiast, was looking for a better way to share digital photos. He also holds the record for the most images posted on Vizrea so far — 2,600, including a shot of a Maserati MC12 he spotted while on a trip to Paris.

"I think that really getting that scenario right and making that easy for people is very compelling," Slivka said. "As far as I can tell, no one else is doing a good job at that part."

Indeed most camera-phone users don't use the photo-sharing features, largely because they're frustrated with them, said David Chamberlain, an industry analyst at In-Stat in Scottsdale, Ariz. He said camera phones are still lacking the "ecosystem" of products and services that developed around digital cameras.

Up to 850 million people are expected to use camera phones to transmit images by 2010, but so far only one in 20 users of the devices prints or stores images online, according to an In-Stat survey released this week.

Toutonghi took on a similar challenge when he developed the Media Center, which has a simple interface for navigating and viewing photos, music, TV and video content on PCs.

Vizrea's product is a mashup of several emerging consumer technologies, built on a new platform designed to be simple and user-friendly.

Vizrea offers camera-phone software for quickly transferring full-size images from a camera phone to a PC or Web site; PC software for organizing, sharing and printing digital photos; and a Web site-hosting service that lets users create personal Web pages to display photos, write blogs and share photo collections.

The phone software figures out the best way to transfer photos off a device — via a Bluetooth radio connection if a PC is nearby; over the Web or over the cellphone network.

The photos pass through Vizrea's servers, which send the photos to the user's storage area on a PC or a Web site. Users can assign images to different collections and decide which collections should be shared with friends.

A basic level of Vizrea's service, including 50 megabytes of online storage, is available free at vizrea.com. The company plans to make money by selling a premium version with more storage capacity and selling ads on the basic version.

For now, the phone service works on Symbian-based phones with the Series 60 interface — mainly higher-end Nokia phones such as the 6682, N70 and N90 — operating on a carrier providing Internet access.

Vizrea's software development is split between Seattle and Prague, Czech Republic, where Toutonghi has a home and relatives. The company has five employees in Prague and 10 in the U.S., including nine in Seattle.

Among the Seattle team is Vice President of Engineering Brad Schick, a former Microsoft development manager.

Toutonghi also recruited his brother Steve to serve as vice president of product management and services. Steve used to work at TiVo while Mike worked on the rival Media Center, so they couldn't talk about work at family gatherings.

"Now people try to keep us quiet about work," Mike Toutonghi said.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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