thwaprMobile picture and video sharing network Thwapr launched its beta program last week. Their product, which lets mobile phone users share photos and videos with one, two or thirty friends by texting one another, works pretty well.

Yet the company made a startling decision: Despite having two Apple Quicktime veterans in its CTO and COO slots, Thwapr deliberately chose not to start out with an iPhone app.

thwapr-sendWhy not? Because it opens up Thwapr to a much larger network of people: Those who don’t carry an iPhone or iPod Touch, and those who do, but who don’t bother with apps. By December 31, there’ll be an estimated 78 million iPhone and iPod Touch users, says ad network AdMob. But how many of them install apps?

In three years, there will be 400 million video phones in use worldwide, according to Infonetics Research. Not just Droids and BlackBerries, but the cheaper “feature phones” that wireless carriers give away will have video cameras and players. Thwapr wants them all.

To be sure, Thwapr has an iPhone app and apps for other top app platforms coming soon. But these apps are friendly wrappers for a video system that already works, no installs required.

thwapr-playCTO Eric Hoffert gave me a long demo of Thwapr this afternoon. I’m impressed: Thwapr automatically supports 169 mobile handsets, many of whose owners don’t realize their phone can play video. It plays on PCs and Macs, too. Nobody needs to download or install anything. Recipients don’t even need a Thwapr account. As Steve Jobs likes to say: Boom, it just works.

Nearly any phone with SMS and a data plan (it needs to support clickable links in messages) will automatically show a Thwapr picture or play a Thwapr clip. Thwapr figures out how to serve instant-play video to your phone at the back end, on its servers.

Here’s how it works:

  1. A Thwapr user shoots a picture or video, and emails it to her Thwapr account. From Thwapr’s mobile browser interface, she selects one or more people with whom to share the video.
  2. Thwapr sends the recipients a text message with a URL link in it.
  3. Recipients don’t need to signup, login, or even know that their phone has a media player. That’s because Thwapr figures out what model phone they have, with what software installed. The company has a database of how to serve pictures or video to each kind of phone.

In our tests, whenever I clicked the link in the SMS from Thwapr, the right thing automatically happened. “On an iPhone on AT&T, Thwapr serves Quicktime-based video that can play while downloading,” Hoffert explained. “On a BlackBerry 8330 or a Droid on Verizon, Thwapr serves streaming video in RTSP format. On a more modestly powered Motorola Razr feature phone on Sprint, it serves a downloadable 3GP video file delivered via HTTP. Thwapr knows the pixel resolution of your phone’s screen and whether or not it’s a touchscreen. We resize the video to fit.”

Props go to Hoffert for not invoking the fashionable Cloud in his demo, but Thwapr uses a cloud-savvy approach: All the video work is done on a server somewhere. Your phone is like a dumb terminal for Thwapr, which sends it an SMS that links to a video clip guaranteed to play. In tests, Hoffert said, Thwapr has sent the same video to 30 different types of phones at once. All of them played the clip nearly instantly.

As for the choice not to launch with an app, “It was definitely something we discussed a lot,” Hoffert said. “But there’s a quote by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke that any sufficiently advanced technology should be indistinguishable from magic. That’s our goal.”

Thwapr was founded in 2007 with funding of $3 million from angel investors. The company is headquartered in New York City and has 15 employees.