SXSW breakthrough of 2011? Group messaging services

Every year sees one or two companies come away from the annual South By Southwest tech-fest in Austin, Texas knowing that they are on their way to immortality. In 2009, it was the turn of Twitter and in 2010 it was Foursquare and Gowalla. This year is a little different but it seems that the title (King of SXSW) is being given to the concept of group messaging and the various companies providing that service.

Group messaging is an effective way of for groups of friends to chat while on the move, and it provides a service that established social networking giants Facebook and Twitter simply can’t match. Facebook has tried to configure its Groups functionality to address this need but it seems to have too much baggage to really succeed. This point was underscored by Facebook’s recent acquisition of Beluga, one of the biggest players in the group messaging space. Beluga bring a playfullness to the game: Groups are called “Pods”, but it also has some hard-core coding credentials as it was developed by three “Googlers” who also worked on Gmail and Adsense.

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In a sense, group messaging has been waiting for the advent of sophisticated smartphones in order to fulfill its potential. According to ReadWriteWeb, “SMS technology isn’t able to function in the same way, whereas smartphones can mix data and SMS and act as hubs for group communication. Smartphones, by using data, also bypass absurdly overpriced text messaging fees.”

Kik tends to agree in its strategy. “With Kik, we wanted to create a product that allows you to have a real time conversation with one or more people. We wanted to allow conversations to expand and contract naturally, just like they do in real life. And we did just that. In Kik you don’t create a group, you just add someone to the conversation…instantaneously.” But where Beluga and GroupMe have an advantage is that they are able to include feature phone users into the conversations, a fact which should have a profound effect on their global growth.

While it’s not yet clear which of the companies offering group messaging will pull away from the pack, it seems increasingly certain that this technology will go mainstream in a way that has yet to happen for pure location-based services. As ReadWriteWeb sums up: “…get ready for the oncoming mainstream explosion. Last year’s location-based apps took explanation and still haven’t gone mainstream. Sharing your location with the general public can be scary. Sharing your thoughts and ideas, your location and your pictures, with small groups of friends is the exact opposite. It’s natural, it’s friendly and it’s going to be huge.”

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