For all the clever things smart phones can do these days – like stream movies and play 3-D games – the latest mobile craze centres on revamping one of the earliest phone applications, the text message.
Apps from a wave of new start-ups allow multiple people to participate in the same conversation on a mobile phone, like a group chat room or conference call held by way of text message.
The new applications, most of which are free, include GroupMe, FastSociety, Beluga, Kik, TextPlus, PingChat, HurricaneParty and Yobongo.
Several of these services have made their debuts recently, right before the opening recently of South by Southwest, the technology and music festival in Austin, Texas.
They hope to gain some attention at the festival, which attracts scores of technology enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists interested in seeing the latest innovative ideas.
Caleb Elston, one of the founders of Yobongo, which is based in San Francisco, said the timing of the app’s release, a week before South by Southwest, was “no accident.”
“It is the perfect storm of developers, designers and business people in a sphere where there is a natural social dynamic for networking,” he said. “Lots of services already help you connect with your friends, but the point of South by Southwest is to meet with new people that have your interests.”
The stakes can be high. The week long event has helped propel several companies, including Twitter and Foursquare, above the noise of the thousands of other companies vying for attention as startups.
And the group messaging startups face challenges even at this stage. Mostly, they must stay ahead of the curve of big companies like Facebook and cell-phone makers, said James E. Katz, a professor at Rutgers University, who studies communications.
The big companies, he said, might be looking to tweak their own services in ways that could eliminate the need for the upstarts.
“Those companies have shown themselves to be incredibly nimble and innovative when it comes to spotting new trends and jumping aboard,” he said.
Indeed, in early March, Facebook announced that it had acquired Beluga, leading many in the technology world to wonder if the flurry of interest around mobile group messaging services was over before it truly began.
At the same time, there is speculation that Research In Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, will bring its popular instant messaging service, BlackBerry Messenger, to Apple and Google smart phones. RIM declined to comment on its future plans.
The desire for the new group messaging services, their creators say, stems in part from the popularity of Facebook and Twitter. As those sites have evolved and grown, the start-ups say it has become harder to cut through the clutter to have a meaningful conversation.
“Try having a conversation on Twitter or Facebook with you and 500 of your closest friends,” said Steve Martocci, one of the founders of GroupMe. “They are limited by their broadness. People can’t say what they want or express themselves.”
To address that, GroupMe limits the number of people allotted to a single conversation to 25, although users can participate in as many groups as they like.
Many of the applications seamlessly switch between allowing users to chat within the service and via SMS, to accommodate people who do not own smart phones and times when participants wander into areas with weak data coverage.
The services are a little different from one another. GroupMe, Beluga, Kik, TextPlus, PingChat all allow people to create groups and invite their friends to chat in a group session.
HurricaneParty performs a similar function but with the specific goal of organizing a party or get-together. Yobongo allows its users to join a group chat with nearby people.
GroupMe and similar sites help transform the smart phone into a private social network, one that is ideal for trading inside jokes, organizing impromptu outings and coordinating plans at a larger event, like a concert or festival like South by Southwest.
Venture capitalists have been eager to cash in on the rush for these services. Kik, which is based in Canada, recently raised $8 million from the prominent firms like Union Square Ventures, RRE Ventures and Spark Capital.
GroupMe, which introduced its service last May, raised $10.6 million from Khosla Ventures, General Catalyst, First Round and SV Angel, among others.
“People have noticed that there is a gap in the market,” said Charlie O’Donnell, a venture capitalist at First Round Capital, which was one of the first firms to invest in GroupMe. “The value proposition for location tools that tell everyone where you are or help discover new stuff is not the same. For a lot of people, the response is that ‘I already like who I know and what I have. I just want to talk to my close friends and family.”’
Many of the application makers say they are already seeing growth. GroupMe says it sends a million text messages each day – double the number a month ago.
Yobongo, which began in early March, says tens of thousands of people have signed up for the service.
GroupMe says it sees potential in allowing advertisers to show ads that may be helpful in making a group decision, like a deal for a meal or group outing.
The service is working with several large music events, like Coachella and Bonnaroo, to be the official mobile application used to help festivalgoers keep in touch with friends that are also in attendance.