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A primer on group messaging apps

If you follow our tech startup sister site TechCrunch, or if you've read any of the reports from the South by SouthWest (SXSW) conference this year, you've probably seen a lot of column inches given to current-media-darling "group messaging" apps. SXSW has a reasonable track record of predicting the Next Big Thing. It was where Twitter first came to many people's attention in 2007, for example, and it was an early success story for Foursquare in 2009, too.

My usual reaction to hype like this is to roll my eyes and avoid the apps in question altogether, although that might just be because I've never blagged tickets to SXSW. Eventually, though, TechCrunch's relentless enthusiasm wore me down, and I took a look at one of the commonly mentioned apps, Beluga. To my surprise, what I found was a slick, well-designed app that solved a communication problem I didn't know I had. That'll teach me to be cynical!

Before I explain what I liked about Beluga, an aside: there are a number of other significant group messaging apps, including GroupMe, Fast Society, Yobongo, the soon-to-relaunch Betwext Talk and the brand new, bought-by-Google Disco. However, international availability of these apps is spotty.

For example, at the time of writing, only Beluga and Yobongo were in the UK App Store -- this is probably because these apps incorporate free-to-the-user SMS features that are tricky to make work cheaply internationally. As I'm in the UK, this means I can't do a detailed review roundup of all the apps. Look for this in a future TUAW post by one of our American bloggers. I'll use Beluga as an example to demonstrate concepts that are common to all the group messaging apps.

Two final footnotes. First, Beluga was recently acquired by Facebook. Right now the app is small, neat and not plagued by obnoxious ads, but given Facebook's track record, that's likely to change. Proceed with caution. Second, Beluga demands to know your phone number when you sign up for it so that people who already know your number can add you to their own Beluga groups. Nothing bad has happened to me from giving my number out, but other TUAW writers found this quite off-putting.

Why group messaging?

Despite what would appear to be a very heavily crowded marketplace for personal communication tools, I think group messaging apps have a niche. Unconvinced? The big question is why would you use Beluga (or any other similar app) over the myriad alternatives we already have today? Well, let's examine the options. As an example, suppose you're trying to co-ordinate with a group of five indecisive friends, with varying levels of tech-savvy, about which pub you are going to meet at tonight.

Probably the most obvious solution is SMS. It works for anyone with any sort of phone, it gets people's attention, and it doesn't require anyone to be at a computer. However, SMS doesn't have reply all. Unless you want to tediously re-enter the distribution list on Each. And. Every. Last. Message. You. Send. Then SMS is a dead loss for many-to-many messaging. Plus, SMS's per messaging costs can quickly add up if you don't have an unlimited plan of some kind.

What about email? Email is probably what I'd have defaulted to in the past, but it brings its own problems, such as the eternal top-posting versus bottom-posting debate (I remain a resolute bottom-poster, but I'm very old fashioned in that regard), how difficult it is to add people mid-conversation -- i.e., the need to fill them in on what was said in their absence -- and the eejit who inevitably uses Reply instead of Reply-All, thus spawning disconnected child threads all over the place. Plus, not everyone in my life has a smartphone, and as soon as someone has to be near a computer the entire conversation slows to a snail's pace.

Instant messenger can work, but it only works well if everyone is online at once, and I've yet to find a client that can elegantly handle a user moving from device to device and keeping the account online on all of them (Google Talk isn't bad at this, but it doesn't preserve the conversation history; official MSN does a better job but the iOS client is ugly; and so on). It's also not very useful to non-smartphone owners.

Then there's Twitter. Twitter was originally designed for exactly this sort of thing, but most people's use of the service today is very different from that initial vision. Almost all of the tweets I send now are either news links, funny (well, hopefully funny) jokes or @-replies to people -- mostly other Apple tech bloggers. It's conversational, but it's rarely personal in tone. It's also very public in nature, which might not be ideal, depending on what you want to send.

The biggest obstacle, however, is that few of my friends use Twitter as an "I must read everything" service. Most of us dip in and out of the stream without ever trying to see it all, mostly because we follow upwards of several hundred people. So if I want to send a tweet to my London-dwelling friends telling them I'll be in town next weekend and asking if they'd like to do something, I can't be assured they'll see it. All this combined means Twitter is surprisingly useless for the sort of logistics involved in making five people agree on a pub to meet at.

Facebook messaging solves many of the problems with email, but it's still not much use for people without smartphones. Plus, not everyone in my life is on Facebook either.

So, it turns out I do have some use for a chat facility that is private by default and degrades to SMS for my friends who lack smartphones.

How Beluga solves these problems

In an interview with TechCrunch in December 2010, Beluga founder Ben Davenport said:

Our initial motivation was wanting to eliminate the pain of coordinating plans among groups of people on the move. We wanted to communicate with groups of our actual friends in real-time (and in private) from our phones. We didn't feel any existing solution really gave us what we wanted, and when we got positive feedback on our idea from talking to friends, we set out to create the best possible app for small private group communication.

The simplest pitch to imagine for these kinds of apps is SMS with reply all. They are typically small and simple apps, with a clean UI:

Beluga organizes your chats into "pods." Pods are private and can only be viewed by the people in the chat. You can add more people to a pod at any time, and if they're using the Beluga app, they'll be able to see the entire conversation history when they are added, solving the adding-people-halfway-through problems of email. Users with the app (which has an Android version as well as iOS) can use the native UI, but other users can receive messages via SMSes that come from a special shortcode dedicated to Beluga. When they reply to the message with an SMS of their own, Beluga will duplicate it to everyone else in the pod, thus solving the lack of reply all on traditional SMSes. Note also that the person sending that message has only paid for a single SMS, not one for each person the message was sent to.

That's the basic gist, but Beluga also extends these ideas with some extra frippery. Pods can have metadata associated with them, such as a location and a time, which can be handy for arranging to meet people using the service. People can tag their own location, and you can see where the participants are relative to the meetup location on a map:

In practice, my friends and I found the location tagging feature extremely buggy. About half the time, Beluga would hard crash for me when composing messages until I disabled it altogether. This might have something to do with my being in the UK, as I haven't seen any complaints from Americans about it.

Conclusion

Will group messaging be the next big thing? It's too early to tell, but with signs we might be in another dot-com style bubble for mobile apps, Beluga's acquisition by Facebook and Google entering the space with Disco, we haven't heard the last of these apps by a long chalk. But if, like me, you've been assuming the buzz around group messaging was more style than substance then take a closer look. You might be pleasantly surprised.



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If you follow our tech startup sister site TechCrunch, or if you've read any of the reports from the South by SouthWest (SXSW)...