Normally when you text someone on your smartphone, the recipient can’t tell if the words glowing on their screen were composed off-the-cuff or were carefully planned and edited—depending on the app, the most they’re likely to know is whether you’re typing or not. An app called Beam Messenger changes that by showing users what their conversation partner is writing as they write it, blurring the lines between texting and talking.
The free Beam app was initially released in November for Android smartphones; Alec Gordon, cofounder and CEO of Toronto-based Beam Propulsion Lab, which made the app, says the company is currently working on an iPhone version and a reworked Android version. Both are expected to be out by the end of June, and will let users have real-time text-based conversations with groups of people, Gordon says. A PC app is also in the works.
Beam’s commitment to showing everything you type may sound unappealing and creepy, but it illustrates the tug of war we sometimes feel with smartphones as they allow us to be both constantly connected and keep our distance. Texting is the most popular thing we do on our smartphones, and not just because it’s easy, quick, and can be done in places where it’s hard to talk; it’s also a good way to engage with people only when you feel like it, while avoiding the awkward pauses or verbal flubs you might have in a voice conversation.
Beam is betting that making texting more real-time and less filtered will lend it some of the intimacy of a face-to-face conversation while maintaining the unobtrusiveness of the medium.
The app is fairly simple: you can start a conversation within Beam with someone else who’s also using the app, and during a conversation both people see everything the other types in real time—anything typed can be changed or deleted until the person writing it presses “enter.” If one person is typing, the other can essentially interrupt by typing simultaneously; those interruptions will show up within the flow of the conversation. When both users don’t have the Beam app open on their smartphone screens, it works like a standard messaging app, showing you messages that come in from others.
Gordon says the biggest challenges to making Beam work relate to speed and pacing. The app must mirror what the sender is doing on the recipient’s phone as fast as possible while also preserving any delays that occur (if you pause during typing, for instance) so the pause is felt on the recipient’s end, too.
And with some people already uncomfortable with real-time notifications that their conversation partner is typing—such as the three dots that pop up on the iPhone’s Messages app—Beam may also have to work against the perception that the app is too intrusive.
“Definitely some people will find it, and do find it, a turnoff. It just feels very different,” Gordon says. “But a lot of new technologies, when they come around, do feel different.”