Mobile Messaging March Madness

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Editor’s note: Guest author Semil Shah is an entrepreneur interested in digital media, consumer Internet, and social networks.  He is based in Palo Alto and you can follow him on twitter @semilshah.

On Thursday, I used Yobongo all day, which helped me find a new lunch spot, run into an old friend, and meet a Yobongo co-founder. That afternoon, I thought it would be a good time to write about the new group and mobile messaging wars for TechCrunch. A few hours later, Color Labs launched, to put it mildly. And, as I was editing this post on Friday night, Disco appeared, the new group messaging client from Google. Along with SxSW and the NCAA basketball tournament, this is surely March Madness.

What does this explosion in mobile social apps mean. We’re witnessing an entirely new class of companies that are being built primarily for the mobile phone and tablet experience, not PCs or laptops. These companies are using basic social activities and leveraging smartphone capabilities to provide consumers with cooler features in exchange for the chance to construct more intimate networks. Just within the last year, larger forces like Facebook and Foursquare have released new mobile features to allow users to combine check-ins with location-based picture-sharing. Perhaps messaging, broadly defined, is converging toward more context-specific communications that leverage and combine bits of information our mobile devices already are aware of.

Only within the last year have things started to really gather steam. The first wave of these apps leveraged the mobile device’s camera, which produced apps like Instagram, PicPlz, and Path, services that combined the basic social activity of snapping and sharing pictures to build a different kind of pyramid and, perhaps, a different kind of network. Location services have done the same with GPS sensors. Videosharing has proved tougher, though companies like uStream and SocialCam show promise. SoundCloud enables users to capture and share sounds from their daily lives, and IntoNow recognizes audio waves from television shows and movies (and maybe commercials?), like Shazam, to connect users around favorites shows. The accelerometer has been leveraged by Bump Technologies’ sharing service, and Apple, which has already entered living rooms with Apple TV and designs for convergence, may turn the phone into a joystick.

Simultaneously, others began building mobile messaging applications, some with social ambitions in mind. These new tools enable more intimate communication platforms, as users continue to fight for Inbox Zero and doggy-paddle within the huge Facebook ocean.  As Dave McClure argues, Facebook doesn’t “get intimacy.” Today’s dominant social networks are established enough to provide authentication, but are too big to offer granularity. In the mobile messaging world, these are the short text messages we send to our companions, buddies, classmates, kids, and our parents that never reach the level of a status update or tweet. No company better captured the mood around this intimacy tension than Beluga, whose users were anthropomorphically transformed into “pods” of whales, dancing across oceans in search of new waters. Of course, Beluga was then harpooned by Facebook.

It’s early days for this new class of mobile messaging upstarts. Currently, the space is organized around four types of activity: group chat, SMS replacements, randomized/localized discovery, and relays. In the “group chat” category, there’s GroupMe (SMS group messaging with push), Fast Society (geared to young, ephemeral groups), Rabbly (anchored through Facebook connect), Whatsapp (free SMS with multimedia), among others. Those designed to supplant SMS with group functionality are KiktextPlus, and the aforementioned Beluga. A new Y Combinator company Convore recently launched a new take on real-time Internet relay chatting around interests. There are also international successes, most notably SMSGupShup from India. These companies acquire network effects through people that users already know.

On the other side, there are services built around the notion of acquiring new networks through more random connections. Perhaps the most controversial applications are those that enable discovery and chat with new people, or strangers (the “Chatroullete Derivatives”) such as MessageParty (YC alum), Matt Hunter’s company TextSlide (featured in the The New York Times), Yobongo, and of course, Color Labs. Most of us have already either connected or reconnected with all the folks we know online, and the next evolution is for services to help us discover new connections. This element of discovery drives these services to help us build smaller networks around our core groups of friends and family, or to build newer networks with folks we don’t know yet but who have similar interests or location patterns. While using Yobongo for an entire day during slack time between meetings, there was something primal and immediate about the experience, filling the niche for hyper-local communication that Twitter is too big to cater to. This isn’t to say Yobongo or others will succeed, but they are pushing the boundaries in this arena, and I suspect we’ll see more incarnations of this concept for some time to come.

Mobile and group messaging is attractive to investors, entrepreneurs, and users alike. If designed well, they could leverage network effects to amplify participation and enable the application of proven revenue models. This is a new class of social company, built entirely with mobility in mind from Day One. They are designed within a post-PC/laptop mindset. These companies will begin by drafting behind the lead cars in the social networking race. The most recent entrant into this red ocean — Color Labs — may have just made the waters a bit more red. We oftentimes take for granted that all of the established social networks will persist over time and satisfy most of our needs. Some realize building seamless, easy-to-use systems will create significant value for larger players because they weren’t originally built with mobility in mind. And some will perhaps break through and create their own lasting social experience.

Photo credit: Flickr/kidperez