Group messaging: the next big thing?
The next big thing in mobile communications seems to be group messaging, and that's no real surprise. If we take a look at the currently entrenched communication platforms, not many of them do more than messaging one-to-one or one-to-a-few well. Sure you can have group chats using traditional IM protocols, but they are inherently transitory.
Going mobileBy taking our group conversations mobile, having something that can be both accessed instantly and is able to message everyone at once, regardless of where they are or what device they're using, is critical. Having easy access to the history of that conversation is also important, so that anything that was critical or missed can be recapped.
Solutions like Facebook's messaging service allow you to do just that on the desktop or on a smartphone, but it's limited in its scope because it can't include those without a smartphone. It's true that these days more and more people have smartphones capable of running applications or accessing Web services; but even Facebook sees the value in the new breed group messaging methods, as was made apparent by its purchase of Beluga.
SMS or app-based?Broadly speaking, there are two approaches emerging in the group messaging space. One focuses around the lowest common dominator, the SMS message. Services like GroupMe start off by enabling text messages to be sent to one number and bounced out to many. This approach is the most inclusive of all, enabling all cell phone users to participate regardless of whether they have a smartphone or a simple 'dumb phone.' The problem with this solution however, is that the cost of SMS messages is inherently built into the conversation, regardless of whether you want to receive any messages at the time or not. It also means that you could end up getting tens of text messages hitting your phone at once, as everyone responds to a message, without any control.
The second approach is to use the push-notification abilities built into most current smartphone platforms, to leverage app-based messaging systems. This messaging solution has the advantage of connecting people through data, rather than SMS, removing the per message cost. There are other benefits of using this kind of group messaging paradigm too. More than text can be sent, including pictures, locations, videos, or anything else that can be sent over data that the service providers see fit to include. Apps like BBM, Kik, and Ping Chat work on this principle, and allow an experience more like that found with traditional IM protocols.
There are a few drawbacks to an app-based system however, and they make it hard for one service to win-out over others. Firstly you've got the problem of the apps themselves. Any particular messaging service is only as good as the number of people you can message using it. That means an app-based solution can only succeed if all your friends happen to have the app installed and are using one particular service. It's getting increasingly difficult to get non-first adopters to join yet another system, so persuading all your friends to jump on another service is a challenge at best. That's made easier by cross-platform applications, but it leads to the second drawback -- what about your friends who don't use smartphones? The problem of the lowest common denominator raises its head; those without smartphones, or access to the mobile Web, can't be included.
A combined approachSome apps bridge the gap between app-based systems and those built around SMS. Beluga, for instance, will let you invite non-smartphone wielders into the fray over SMS, to which they can reply and message the group. This has the benefit of covering all bases, but the SMS experience is far from excellent, and can't possibly replicate the in-app experience. GroupMe has also recently introduced in-app messaging over a data connection for both iOS and Android, falling back to SMS when your data connection drops out. Both of these apps, and others, bridge the gap between purely SMS or in-app messaging over data based systems.
At the moment there are quite a few phone-to-phone messaging apps available, each battling it out for our attention and now adding group messaging functionality. We've also got dedicated group messaging apps entering the messaging war, but none of them seem to have reached the critical mass of user adoption required to win-out.
One to rule them all?With Facebook's purchase of Beluga, we could see a winner in the making. Facebook has the benefit of a massive user population, far outstripping any other messaging or social networking service. If it could leverage its existing user base of millions, with a convincing group messaging service that covers all bases, all platforms, and makes it easy to use, then we could see group messaging powered by Facebook take off. Looking at Facebook's purchase of Beluga in this light makes it seem a smart acquisition, and certainly one to watch.
Whether Facebook will be able to conquer all with Beluga remains to be seen. A native app-based system is more likely to succeed in the long run, and there aren't many other services that have the capability to blend an existing user base and household name, with a convincing messaging service like a Facebook-powered Beluga. RIMs BlackBerry-only BBM is the only other challenger that comes to mind. With rumors of BBM going cross-platform, we could see another contender on the stage for group messaging domination. I wouldn't bet against Facebook however, it has a knack of continually being the next big thing.