Zhang and her team were given deep access to Facebook’s platform in order to revamp Beluga’s product and make it more powerful. Zhang says she was able to ask Facebook engineers to create the exact tools she needed. The team hooked Beluga up to Facebook’s existing text-messaging architecture, as well as to Facebook Chat and e-mail. They designed Messenger’s user interface to make it easy to reach people by name, without having to remember phone numbers, e-mail addresses, or other specifics. “What Beluga could never have achieved [on its own] is the integration with the Facebook network and infrastructure,” Zhang says.
The team also had to address the social norms around different forms of communication. “We want to change communication so that you don’t have to worry about how the other person is receiving the message,” Zhang says. But she notes that people behave differently when using sending an instant message than they do when e-mailing or when text messaging, which costs money. Messenger shows the sender whether the recipient is available on a computer or a mobile device, to help users adjust their behavior and expectations.
“Trying to figure out the right way to build the technology has been the focus, but the question now is, What’s going to come out of group messaging?” says Rosenberg. He hopes that group-messaging apps can help people enjoy social media without being distracted from the people they’re with at the time. “We want to enhance the moment, not take away from it,” Rosenberg says.
Now that big players such as Google and Facebook have introduced group-messaging products, startups will have to work harder to compete. Google and Facebook can afford to provide group-messaging services free, to cement users’ loyalty and gain more data about how people behave. Startups, to keep their users, will have to provide better features.
GroupMe is hoping to extend its group-messaging tool to provide smart recommendations about how users might structure their social lives, according to cofounder Steve Martocci. Earlier this year, GroupMe acquired a company called Sensobi, which analyzes people’s behavior on smart phones to track how well they’re keeping up with contacts. GroupMe may eventually offer suggestions on whom to include in a group chat, or event, or point users to groups they have neglected for a while.
Facebook also plans to take its group-messaging capabilities further. Besides adapting Messenger to work globally (by navigating the intricacies of SMS in different countries), Zhang says, the “logical next step” is to make Facebook Groups and Events into real-time experiences.