Thanks to the rise of smartphones, an exciting space is evolving: the future of messaging. In addition, startups like GroupMe have contributed innovation in the form of simple group messaging to take us beyond the confines of traditional SMS. I’ve been on a mission to find a suitable replacment for SMS messaging and break the shackles of relatively expensive text messaging plans. To me it makes absolutely no sense to pay for a text messaging plan on top of a data plan, especially when the cost for carriers is essentially nothing. As smartphone usage continues its explosive growth, I expect many others will reach the same conclusion.
In my search, I tried several alternatives, each with their own shortcomings, and eventually settled on Textie. Because of its simple UI (that incidentally looks nearly identical to the native SMS app developed by Apple), I naturally gravitated towards it as my solution. However, Textie has one large weakness: its user experience is soley dependant on iOS. So it’s great for iDevice-to-iDevice messaging, but less than ideal for anything outside of that. Not shockingly, friends became annoyed by the cluttered mixture of random letters and numbers preceding my name as the sender followed by the actual message. Another downside is the lack of group messaging. After playing around with GroupMe and realizing its benefits, it’s hard to forego group messaging.
I also tried Kik, twice…briefly. Honestly, I couldn’t get past its horrid UI. Besides that huge adoption barrier, it also refuses, for no apparent reason, to integrate with my contact list. Both of these made more sense after discovering it was created by former RIM employees. Simply put, Kik completely wiffed on user experience.
Past a minimal feature set and functionality, user experience is a critical differential advantage that fuels adoption. What the messaging space needed was a player dedicated to user experience that seamlessly integrated innovations like group messaging.
Enter Beluga: Beautiful, Simple, Cross-Platform Messaging
The real advantage that clearly differentiates Beluga is the user experience. The Beluga team has managed to create an experience that many applications want but few have: users want to use the application namely because it’s a joy. Not to mention, they’ve smartly and seamlessly integrated features like group messaging, pictures, and location awareness. Clearly, they put in a lot of effort thinking about how it should be used:
It’s perfectly minimal.
Nothing out of place or tacked on. It ditches over-used chat bubbles in favor of a streamlined Twitter-like timeline, complete with profile pictures. The options to turn location on and take a picture are located unobtrusively directly below the window to compose a message. Again a testament to well thought out design with regard to the user experience.
Everything from creating a group, or pod, to sending a message requires a minimal number of steps and can be accomplished quickly. In addition, messages, maps, and pictures load quickly.
It integrates features smartly.
Surprisingly, the map is actually one of the best features of the app. The way location awareness is integrated makes a ton of sense to the point that it is actually useful and fun. The usual reaction I get is “wow, that’s really cool.”
Here, my brother-in-law and I were playing around with Beluga while he was visiting his family in the UK. It’s a fun way to see where your friends are all over the world. It could also be very useful in close proximities to see where friends are instead of asking them where they are when trying to meet up. A nice aspect of the integration is that it can be turned off or on when sending a message. So it’s not inherently intrusive like Google Latitude.
In time, the Beluga team will be rewarded for their efforts. Expect to hear about Beluga as the next big thing along the lines of Twitter and Foursquare by the end of next year as it follows the coveted “hockey stick” adoption curve. It’s rare when an app makes it to the restricted real estate of my iPhone’s homescreen so quickly. The only two to have done it as quickly are Tweetie (now Twitter for iPhone) and Reeder, both masterfully crafted to provide an unmatched user experience.
Wisely, Beluga also tackled the multi-platform issue from the beginning by launching with iPhone and Android apps, SMS support thanks to Twilio, and, hereto overlooked by competitors, a website. In doing so, Beluga has laid the foundation for not just a group messaging service, but a messaging platform for the future.1 The website is brilliant, not only to support other devices not running iOS or Android, but also to provide a seamless messaging experience. Messaging should not be tied to a specific device, it should be immediately available wherever you are and on whatever device you happen to be using. With the website, Beluga makes that possible. I would love to see them take it further with browser extensions that provide alerts and the ability to send messages.
As by far and away the best messaging alternative, Beluga is off to a fantastic start. Sure, there is room for improvement, but, by continuing to smartly integrate features and avoid bloat, it has a real opportunity to become the default messaging platform. Can’t wait to see what they have in store for this year’s SXSW.
Don’t get me wrong, group messaging is great but in reality its a feature that any platform competing in this space should have. Until now, my friends and I had been using GroupMe as our group messaging service of choice. However, it’s dependency on SMS is a deal breaker for me.↩
@simplekitchen and @cafegrumpy, 2 of our favorite NYC merchants, were on Fox 5 today. Thanks Heather and Caroline!
Great example of a merchant use case for Venmo. Love the story of the guy running in to grab a cookie and yelling “Venmo me.”
I’m curious as to others thoughts on “trusting” a merchant. If you’re not familiar with the trust concept, basically it allows someone to pull money from your account rather than you having to pay them. Would you feel comfortable allowing a business open access to pull money from your bank account?
I ran across an interesting Quora discussion on the topic where I found Rocky Agrawal’s comment particularly compelling. He makes the case that we already do this with interval billing for say utilities and businesses’s that hold our credit card information, e.g. Amazon. There is an implicit trust when we upload our credit card information onto a site where we trust the business not to unlawfully charge our credit card. Of course, we have a recourse should something like this happen by contacting the credit card company to rectify the charge. With Venmo, you do have the opportunity to reverse the charge and, if that fails, it seems you would have the same opportunity to take it up with your credit card company.1
Personally, I think this would be awesome for the establishments I frequent, my Cheers if you will. In particular, I would love to see every taco truck support Venmo.
Venmo will charge your credit card directly as long as you do not have a positive account balance and you have not linked your checking account to your Venmo account. The order in which Venmo pulls funds is:  Venmo account  Checking account  Credit card.↩
Follow me for a second. For those with “smartphones” (that term almost seems antiquated, doesn’t it?), you’re currently paying around $30 for your data plan and most likely around $15 for SMS. That’s equivalent to $74.90/megabyte for text messaging. Compare that to $0.06/megabyte for your data plan.1The cost per megabyte for text messaging is 1,248 times greater than what you’re paying for data.
Because the carriers have a monopoly on their cash cow as the de facto means for communicating instantly. You know it’s ingrained in the culture when my technologically-challenged Dad (God love him) starts using it. There in lies the rub: SMS’ position in the minds of the masses is the biggest challenge in taking down it or at least having it priced appropriately. After all, it literally costs the carriers nothing to support SMS as they piggyback off the network laid for voice communication.
“The marginal cost of a SMS is 0. They do have a little cost/opportunity. As a matter of fact SMS messages are sent on the control channel. Initially SMS were implemented in the GSM standard as a control system, just like the ICMP protocol of the IP stack. Then NOKIA though to implement a actual instant message function using SMS. The Contol channel is the channel that your mobile listens to in order to receive calls. So for receiving a SMS a control signal is sent. Since bandwidth is somehow limited on these channels it could happen that in a situation of massive usage of texting the control channel gets saturated and normal voice protocol initiation is disrupted. To prevent this carriers nowadays apply a kind of QoS delaying SMSs until there is no risk of congestion. So we can state that the marginal cost is 0 and the cost/opportunity is also 0.
Another story is for the MMSs. Their cost/opportunity is even lower since they run almost enterely on GPRS thus using most bandwidht on normal data channels. Thus a MMS with pictures sounds and maybe video SHOULD cost less than a SMS.”
Obviously this isn’t revolutionary thinking on my part, but now we actually have the tools to do something about it. It’s 2010, we have twitter/facebook, IM, and good old fashion push email on our phones. SMS was all fine and dandy before we had these other means of instant text communication. But now, the need for SMS specifically is no longer present. [Though I would argue that there is an opportunity for a true SMS replacement as the other current avenues don’t quite fit the bill, but get the job done. But I’ll save that for another post.]
I don’t expect carriers to be readily willing to cut into the $109 billion of pure profit SMS is expected to bring in 2010, so this is a call for developers. I want to disrupt the mobile communication industry. Any takers in helping me out?
This is assuming you’re using only 1/4th of your 2GB monthly limit which is what I would consider as roughly average use per month for the average iPhone user.↩
Heard about Square yet? You will. Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, is trying his hand at disrupting credit card payments. The genius of this device is anyone (with a smartphone or iPad) can use it and begin accepting credit card payments. No merchant accounts necessary: the bane of small businesses everywhere and the reason why only 6 million of 30 million bother accepting credit cards. By cutting out the middle man and targeting small businesses, Square has real potential to be a cash cow in what will be a $633 billion market by 2014. But Square isn’t the only player targeting the mobile payment market.
Venmo hopes to get into the action with a slightly different approach. Although business owners can use their system, it is targeted more towards use among friends. I ran into a situation just last weekend where this would have been perfect. A friend and I had shared a plate of wings. Sure we could have asked the restaurant to split it between us or I could have just sent him money to cover my half via SMS using Venmo. For the college kid that needs money from home: Instead of parents wiring the money or sending a check, they could use Venmo. Or say your friend is going up to grab a beer and you call after him to get you one as well. Instead of putting it on his tab with a repayment promise, you quickly SMS Venmo to send him the five bucks.
Mobile payments are not only a win for businesses, but they’re also advantageous for consumers. Carrying cash and dealing with change is a pain. Rapidly phasing out are the George Constanza, back-pain-inducing wallets of yesteryear. Products like Square and Venmo, make a cashless-carrying society a reality. But the real reason this will be huge: they are pioneering a space that will become ubiquitous by leveraging the one device that people won’t leave home without, the mobile phone.
Certainly they have challenges: convincing people to give out their SSN or bank account info and providing means to assure that info is safe are major ones. Luckily, Mint has helped pave the way for them and the advantages are too great for people to ignore (i.e. no need for ATMs or checks, ease of use, paperless, etc.). Another challenge is seamlessly pivoting their usage model as technological advances dicate. European countries are ridding themselves of traditional, magnetic-stripe credit cards and the U.S. won’t be far behind. Seems that Square is well aware of this as they are presently looking for a RFID engineer to join them. And while SMS will unfortunately hang around until the last “dumbphone” perishes, Venmo will need to adapt once the grossly overpriced medium is finally killed off, which could be done most likely through a secure, well-designed HTML5 web app. Execution of these changes to deliver an experience that attracts new people and keeps loyal users will be the critical factor in these companies’ scaling success as the market grows and new competitors arise.
Since purchasing a cashless, front-pocket wallet, I’ve longed for the day when cash is no longer needed. Hopefully soon, all I’ll need is my phone.