Needs no ghost come from the grave to point out the messaging app space has multiple giants already, whether it’s Facebook-owned WhatsApp, Facebook’s in-house Messenger app, or the pioneering Asian messaging platforms that kicked off the messaging app craze, such as Korea’s Line and Chinese firm Tencent’s WeChat. Or, hey, Snapchat if you’re one of the cool kids.
No matter: U.S. startup Invi reckons there’s space for one more messaging play. Not a little one either. Co-founder Iddo Tal (still) sees a gaping hole in the market for a North America-focused messaging platform giant to flourish — and, he hopes, become a global marketplace for content distribution. Such stuff startup dreams are made on.
He and his team have been plugging away for more than three years now (we first covered them two years ago when they announced a $3 million seed round), starting out with a different idea. And launching multiple apps to test different messaging approaches. To date their various iterated messaging apps have had some 285,000 downloads, says Tal. So they clearly have a long way to go to build that massive content-distribution messaging marketplace of their dreams. They’re now launching out of beta.
“We were experimenting for a while. We really launch an MVP and experimenting with it, but the launch is today,” Tal told TechCrunch on Thursday. “We are being featured by Google worldwide… We were on a beta so far testing, and today’s the launch… In the last few days we saw a dramatic spike in the traffic and we know that we are ready.”
Ready for what? Where exactly is the gap Invi reckons is there for the filling? Firstly it’s in North America, for something locally “flavored” (vs those giant Asian messaging platforms); and secondly on Android — because he says the native messaging experience has lots of room for improvement (vs iOS which has more functionality via iMessage).
But what about Facebook Messenger (an app which has been downloaded more than one billion times on Android)? It’s hampered by the baggage of being associated with the Facebook brand, argues Tal. Well, if not fb then Snapchat? That’s not messaging in the texting sense, he says, adding that the point is U.S. teens are still sending a metric tonne of plain old SMS texts.
“A lot of people just text. If you talk with a teenager — we talk with hundreds, all the time… [and ask them] how many messages you send a day in general on your phone, they said ‘I sent 200 messages’. And how many of them are Snapchats? They said 15. And how many WhatsApp?… I sent 10. So where’s the 175 left? They said just texting… Opening the native SMS app.
“So between them and their friends all the communication between a person and his [closest peers] is always SMSes.”
So there’s the logic of the market opportunity Invi sees. Its messaging app combines SMS with additional messaging features such as basics like IM (for real-time messaging) and the ability to access the phone’s camera in-app to snap a quick selfie, with support for group texting (of up to 100 participants), plus richer media content viewing and sharing via something it calls ‘mini apps’ — aka widgets where users can view and interact with content from other apps, such as YouTube, right in the messaging window.
The app is a full SMS replacement on Android, meaning it replaces the native SMS client and enables users to text and receive texts from non-Invi users (as SMSes). Richer media content sharing via its mini apps require both users have Invi installed (non-users get texted a link to where they can download the app).
iOS’ walled garden approach does not support this type of deep messaging integration — so although there is an Invi iOS app it can’t support SMS and is more of a placeholder in case Apple changes its mind on opening up native messaging to third party devs (don’t hold your breath).
Invi has a spilt screen view, with mini apps accessed via a swipe down drawer at the top of the screen. If the user then wants to share a particular piece of third party content which they are viewing/interacting with they hit the red share button to shift that content into their current messaging thread. All without having to dive out of the app to copy and paste links. Provided, that is, the app they want to use is supported.
And therein lies the rub. The number of mini apps is pretty limited at this point. YouTube is one big name with the target teen demographic but Invi counts a Google Silicon Valley angel investor among its funders which likely helped grease the API wheels there. Getting other big name app brands onto its platform won’t be easy unless it scales users a lot. And it won’t do that unless it has the apps they’re after… Classic network effect.
It’s built some mini apps itself. Right now there’s only a handful. Others include Buzzfeed and Reddit. Tal says the aim, down the line, is to offer an SDK so developers can build their own mini apps to grow the number of widgets available. He’s even hopeful Snapchat could one day be an “Invi partner”. Which is a nice idea, but such a mega-platform has zero incentive to offer anything of the kind. Still, Invi can dream.
“We build a few [mini apps] ourselves. We did a partnership with YouTube — that they open up special APIs. And there are a few that we worked with their APIs but we’re playing with the idea to open an SDK for developers so every developer can hook up very quickly a mini app inside Invi so their content can be very easily shared and distributed among users, one on one, or in groups. It can be games, it can be content,” he says.
If Invi can scale its user-base substantially Tal sees scope for a business model based on helping other app developers spread their content “efficiently” by making it easier for people to share stuff via their messaging threads — and within large groups. Although I’d suspect most texting is one-on-one, or within small groups, rather than the “40 friends” example he cites (which sounds a lot more like #spam).
“The app will be always free for users, messaging will be free… The money will be taken from the app developers who want to get reach for their games or for in-app purchases,” he adds.
As noted above, the team has been working on their messaging play for three years+ at this point (for some comparative context: at a similar point in its development history WhatsApp had climbed into the top 20 iOS apps in the US). Slow development has been a case of making sure the product was right, says Tal, as well as doing a lot of research figuring out where there might be a messaging app gap — so talking to teens and studying their texting and sharing behavior.
He says teens talk about content when they’re texting but the process of sharing links to that content can break the conversation flow as participants have to jump out of the messaging thread to refer to whatever video or piece of music they’re discussing. Putting that rich media content within reach inside the texting app is Invi’s answer to that ‘problem’ — and to standing out in a very crowded space.
Whether it’s an answer that will convince enough users to replace their usual texting with talking on its platform remains to be seen. In many ways, SMS’ minimalism is exactly what’s so great about it.