messaging app
Keith Teare
just.me

Can A Messaging App Beat Standalone Social Networking? Khosla-Backed Stealth Startup Just.me Gears Up For Launch With iOS Beta

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Just.me, the new project from Keith Teare, co-founder of TechCrunch and partner at incubator Archimedes Labs, has launched in beta as an app for iOS. An Android app is coming soon — due this quarter, according to Teare. We’ve covered just.me before, when Teare previewed it last year at the South by Southwest Startup Accelerator but the startup has generally been in stealth mode. Today the iOS app is landing on the phones of a select few beta testers — ahead of a public release on the App Store, likely in about a month.

Just what is it?

So what is just.me? It’s a messaging app that can replace email, MMS and SMS. It’s also a public broadcasting platform — a bit like Twitter but without any posting limits and with multimedia content baked in. And it’s a personal journal stored in the cloud — à la Evernote. It offers all three forms of communication — shared, public and private — in one interface. When a just.me user creates a message, they choose whether it’s for their eyes only, for selected friends and contacts in their phone’s address book, or for sharing publicly with anyone.

The app interface offers three tabs: ‘only me’ (below left), which will send a private message to a user’s personal just.me cloud so they can save content for viewing later; the ‘shared’ tab (below middle) is a bit like email or SMS, enabling the user to create one-to-one or group messaging threads; and ‘public’ (below right) which posts the message to just.me’s public cloud — aka its Twitter-esque broadcasting platform, on which you have a profile and can follow and be followed by other users, and which also includes the Facebook-esque ability to like/comment on content. If those social networky features aren’t enough for you, just.me users can also cross-post a public message to Twitter and Facebook within the app interface.

compose_screen_three_sharing_modes

Just.me offers a range of media choices for sending messages — with text, photos, video and audio options all offered in the same interface. Messages can be built using a combination of media elements, to create a rich multimedia ‘filmstrip’ that the viewer can play back. Combining different components into one rich message reminded me a little of Google Wave but Teare rejects the comparison — saying the now defunct Wave was “too complicated and too geeky”, and that just.me is “closer in spirit to a mobile Facebook”.

While there’s technically nothing here that sending an email-plus-an-attachment can’t already achieve just.me is aiming to simplify rich media sharing, streamline everything for convenience and speed within a single app and converge the functionality of a journal app, email client and social network in one.

Unified mobile messaging vs web 2.0 walls

“We’re combining something that you would have to use a lot of different apps to achieve today,” says Teare. “It’s really a unified message creation platform or publishing platform or private journal platform for that matter. But it’s a unified message creation platform where you can publish to everywhere you want to publish from a single app and get the benefit of a record in the cloud, really of your life as you do it, without having to think about doing it.”just.me

“If Facebook was built for mobile and it decided to centre on the address book it would probably have a lot of [just.me's] features,” he adds. “If you really try hard on Facebook you care share with friends or save it for yourself or be public but it takes a lot of effort because it isn’t built to facilitate that really. It’s all built around this centralised architecture. If Facebook was built today it probably wouldn’t be centralised — it would be built for mobile.”

One thing to note: there’s no crossing just.me’s distinct communications streams; you can’t privately reply to a public message (short of copying and pasting the contents into a new message) and vice versa. Group threads are a little more flexible: the person who started the thread can add/remove participants but there’s no ability to forward a thread. The aim, says Teare, is to “stay true to the intention” of the person who originally published the message — whether it was private, public or shared.

The original idea for just.me — which Teare says first came to him back in 2008 — was to create a “post-PC social network”. But since then the concept has evolved, and is now better described as “an upgraded messaging app”. In an age of mass smartphone ownership designing a new messaging system makes more sense than building a walled garden social network, argues Teare, noting how “trillions” of messages are sent smartphone-to-smartphone, via SMS, email and so on — far more than are sent within walled off social networks — meaning it’s simply a much bigger opportunity.

His view is that centralised social networks are unnecessary when you can build a decentralised network by utilising the information in people’s smartphone address books. He argues that this decentralised network has advantages for the privacy-conscious since users keep hold of their own data — being as it’s not uploaded to a central repository (Teare has written before how the address book was stolen by web 2.0) — although the just.me system does encrypt and store a copy of users’ email and phone numbers in order to identify when a user’s contact signs up for the service so it can alert them that their friend has joined.

justme-publicIn keeping with its messaging ethos, just.me is not a member’s only club: content is fully viewable to those who have not signed up — by following an emailed/texted link to just.me’s cloud to view the content in HTML5 form. Signing up to just.me is a prerequisite to tap into its full range of features though — for instance you can’t reply to a message without joining.

Crossing Rival Paths

Asked about how much cross-over there is between just.me and a service such as Path, the self-professed BMW of the social networking world (vs Facebook’s Chevy), Teare points to their different approaches to sharing, with Path offering a “single sharing paradigm”  — i.e. with your chosen group of close friends — versus just.me’s tripartite, multi-functional approach, supporting private, group and public messaging for journal, email and broadcasting use-cases.

“Path is a well designed app with a singular purpose. For users who solely want to share with a small group of friends, and share everything with the whole group, it is very effective. And of course it is wonderfully designed. just.me isn’t better or worse, it’s just very different,” says Teare. “just.me is a messaging application not just a sharing app.”

“Another difference — and I think a big one from a privacy and user-control point of view — just.me achieves sharing by enabling the user to work with their own smartphone address book. Path on the other hand has a centralized cloud based address book on its servers, similar to the older centralized social networks like Facebook and Google Plus,” he adds.

As for any comparisons with Google’s social offering Google Plus — which lets users group contacts into different pigeonholes (Circles), and share different content to different circles or share publicly with the web — Teare says just.me doesn’t require you to create circles of contacts ahead of time. The app also learns who your groups are — based on who you’ve shared with previously — so it gets easier to share the right stuff with the right people the more you use it.

Show me the money

Just.me raised a $2.7 million Series A round back in 2011, and has considerably more in the bank — thanks to an additional $1.5 million in venture debt — so it’s not currently looking to raise a new round (even if its funding is far more modest than Path levels of cash). Just.me has raised funding from Khosla Ventures, SV Angel, Google Ventures, True Ventures, Betaworks, CrunchFund (which is of course tied up with TechCrunch in several ways, including the fact that our parent company AOL is an investor), and individuals including Don Dodge and Michael Parekh.

While just.me will be free for people to use, including free cloud storage to save all their messages (at least initially — and the hope is to keep storage free forever to individuals, says Teare), the plan — eventually — is to “charge brands for everything”. Teare envisages companies using just.me to reach consumers who have specifically opted in to be contacted by them.

Paid for brand accounts and promotional content that appears within the just.me public cloud — with each paid for post likely spaced a set number of posts apart from the last one — is where Teare sees the business model for the service. Fans of brands will be able to choose to add a brand’s just.me account to their phone’s address book in order to receive messages about offers, sales and coupons, he says. And since the brand will not get direct access to the just.me user’s contact information they can’t realistically spam them as the user can cancel the relationship at any time.justme-someone

“We’ve taken an attitude to advertising and the business model. It’s our belief that mobile is not a platform where targeting consumers is the right way to deliver meaningful messages to them,” says Teare. Rather the way to monetize mobile is to “build relationships between consumers and vendors” — by empowering the consumer to opt in to communicate with brands they like.

“This is great place to declare a relationship. We’ve patented the idea… of using the address book as a place to declare that you like a brand. By so doing the brand has now got your permission to send you personal messages — it could be money off offers, coupons, promotions, just information, whatever is appropriate.”

Just.me’s look and feel comes courtesy of head of design, Alex Komarov. The entire Just.me team is 14-strong, with nine in engineering — roughly split, according to Teare, between iOS, Android and web development, plus the middle and back end; and with four working on user interface/design. It’s using Amazon S3 for media storage and Amazon DynamoDB for metadata — its infrastructure is “massively scalable”, adds Teare.

Just.me is launching its iOS app simultaneously in 10 languages: English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, French, German, Spainish, Portugese, Italian and Russian, with a plan to continue adding more languages “until we’re comprehensive”. The aim, Teare adds, is to build a “global” user-base.