‘Breaker’ mixes content discovery with a messaging platform

Holiday dinners hosted by my wife’s family are bound to have three things: sugary desserts; copious amounts of wine; and heated discussions about politics. The exact mix changes depending on the holiday, but each of those things is bound to be there, just as sure as there will be a smorgasbord of different foods.
A new messaging app called Breaker wants to encourage people to have those conversations without requiring them to gorge themselves on turkey or guzzle untold glasses of wine every time they want to discuss something in the news. Instead, it blends content discovery features with a dedicated message platform.
The app works by asking people to identify their interests. Once they do, it will recommend content it culls from hundreds of different sources to them. If they like what they read and want to discuss it with someone else, they can do so right from the app, instead of switching between services like Nuzzel and WhatsApp.
Breaker chief executive Shailo Rao says the app is supposed to facilitate private, meaningful conversations. “Instead of broadcasting to all your friends or all the people who follow you,” like you would via social networks like Facebook and Twitter, “it’s all about having a focused conversation with just a few friends.”
Those conversations are facilitated by a feature that allows people to send the same link to multiple people either as a group or as individual conversations. This makes it easier to talk about things with more than one person without forcing people to participate in hellish group messages they can never escape.
Rao says this feature rose from research he did as an intern at Google, when he found that Google Chat users would often send links to multiple people at the same time, but didn’t want to lump everyone into the same conversation. This seems small, but in day-to-day usage it could make life a lot easier for people.

Breaker in action via its iOS app.

Breaker in action via its iOS app.

That’s the thinking behind another feature that allows Breaker users to hold conversations through the platform even if their friends don’t use the app. If that’s the case, Breaker will send an SMS message to the non-user with a link to a Web view where they can see the article being discussed and talk about it.
That isn’t the most elegant process — who wants to tap a link to have a conversation through a mobile Web browser? — it could help Breaker sidestep the problem of consumers being overwhelmed by the sheer number of services they have to use if they want to be able to communicate with all their friends.
“People have enough messaging apps on their phones,” Rao says. “It’s okay because there’s a centralized inbox with the lockscreen, so people can manage multiple messaging apps because that’s the pathway into them, but it is tough to get all your friends to download another messaging app.” That’s understating it.
There’s also the problem of convincing people to use another content discovery platform. Many could already use something like Flipboard or Nuzzel, which have the benefits of being around longer and name recognition, and they might not be keen to switch to a different app just to make it easier to chat with friends.
Breaker has raised $375,000 from Tandem Capital and undisclosed angel investors. The app is currently available on iOS, and will debut on Android later. Right now it’s available for free, but Rao says eventually the app could utilize in-app purchases or advertising, once it has a large enough user base to do so.
Will that happen? It depends on how well the politically-charged conversations held around dinner tables across the country translate to a messaging app, how many people want to download another messaging app when they can send links via existing apps without too much hassle, or how often people really talk about their interests with friends and family with any sort of depth or meaningfulness.

Cola builds a messaging app to enhance your conversations

The homescreen is dead. Or at least that’s what the many companies trying to make it so people never have to use the springboard from which they can launch countless apps would like you to think. Why bounce from app to homescreen to another app when everything can happen all in one place? Why hunt for an app when it can send up-to-the-minute push notifications right to your lock screen?
Questioning the foundational assumption upon which modern smartphones were built — this being that apps are discrete entities that rarely interact — has led developers to make software that breaks down the silos between services. These apps have snuck into software keyboards, made their way into one of the world’s most popular messaging apps, and found other ways to be omnipresent.
Cola, an iPhone messaging application that collects and presents information relevant to whatever its users are discussing, is exiting stealth today to enter that market. The app was created by former employees of Apple, Macromedia, AOL, and Adobe, and right now it’s asking people to sign up for its private beta test. It’s not clear when its creators plan to make Cola available to the general public.
Cola users will be able to schedule meetings, share task lists, and share their location through “Cola Bubbles” that present information without requiring people to leave the application. Eventually the app is supposed to get fizzier — sorry, add new features — that will allow its users to share information from third-party applications like the Fandango movie site or the FlightAware utility.

The “Cola Bubbles” will appear in-line for people using the app. For people who aren’t using it, however, the information will be sent through a link to a website. (Text messages are sent via SMS and will look the same across platforms.) This is supposed to make it so Cola users can use the app even if their friends aren’t, and it will also get the app in front of people who might not have heard of it.
It might still be frustrating for Cola users to make sure all their communications pass through the app. Non-users can’t initiate conversations; they’re restricted to responding to message threads started by Cola users. That might bother some people — how often do people start a new message thread? — but it will lead to some back-and-forth if a thread is closed or someone uses a new smartphone.
So how will Cola make money? “This is a free app. Everything you see now (and more) will always be free. Over time we will offer premium, for-pay features, so it will be a ‘freemium’ model,” chief executive David Temkin says in an email. “We have a set of ideas of what those features might be, but the first order of business for us is to get users using the app. For-pay features will come later.”
Temkin assures me that user information will not be shared with advertisers, and that communications through Cola are encrypted, with the company holding the encryption keys. This means Cola is more secure than unencrypted apps but less secure than other services, like Apple’s iMessage, that don’t hold the keys.
All of this is supposed to make Cola a one-stop app that makes messaging a little less frustrating. Like other messaging apps its utility is limited if users’ friends don’t use the service, and it might struggle in a world where many people have already downloaded a bunch of messaging services because the people they know are unable to settle on a single app through which they can all be reached.
Still, it’s clear that Cola is part of a growing movement to make it easier for people to manage their lives without fumbling around with a bunch of apps. Given how pernicious these types of apps have proven — like I said before, they’re everywhere, from the iPhone’s keyboard to Facebook’s Messenger — perhaps it really is time to ring a death knell for the iPhone’s homescreen.

Snapchat monetizes a feature that runs counter to its reason for being

Snapchat has released an update today that allows its users to pay for the ability to replay the photos and videos their friends send.
While the feature could help the company make some money,it could also damage the perception of ephemerality that made it popular.
People have actually been able to access a single disappeared snap (message, photo, or short video) for a while now. These second chances to see old messages are what the company refers to as a “Replay,” which were previously free and available every 24-hour period. (The first taste is always free.) Now the company wants users to pay 99 cents for a pack of three Replays.
Snapchat has also pulled Replays out from behind several layers of navigation. Instead of living inside the “Manage” section of the app’s “Settings” page, Replays are now available by default. A free-and-hidden feature’s now “freemium” and readily apparent.
It’s similar in concept to Tinder’s decision to restrict the number of people a user is allowed to express interest in each day. The specifics differ — Replay is being expanded instead of restricted — but the concept of asking people to pay for tools they could previously use for free is the same across services.
Yet, this also feels like a much bigger shift. The whole appeal of Snapchat is that most of the content shared to it will be viewed once before it’s sent to oblivion. Making it easier for someone to view one of these items again, thus providing another opportunity for the item to be saved, runs counter to all that.
There is one notable restriction: Users can only Replay an item, whether it’s a photo or a video, once. This means anything sent via the service can be viewed a maximum of twice — provided the item isn’t part of the not-so-ephemeral Stories — at any time. That’s good, but I can’t help but wonder if it will be enough.
For Snapchat, the rules of communication aren’t supposed to be flexible. Tinder could introduce metered matches because the concept of meeting people (whether for hookups or relationships) remained the same. But Snapchat has now popularized and, indeed, monetized, a concept that runs counter to the notions that made it popular in the first place.
Today it’s paying a little less than a buck to re-watch some videos or take another peek at a photo. What might it be later? A few dollars to view a snap more than twice? Doing away with the restriction when teens don’t pay for Replays? Perhaps that won’t happen, but it seems more likely than it did yesterday.
On the upside, now it’s a little clearer why the company has been cracking down on third-party services. I used to think it was because it really believed that people shouldn’t be able to save content sent to them via its service. Now I think the company was just protecting a future monetization strategy.
Oh, the difference a single feature can make.

Tango down: Bangladesh blocks messaging apps amid protests

Bangladesh temporarily blocked the messaging apps Viber and Tango on Sunday after intelligence agencies asked the country’s telecoms regulator for help in quelling opposition protests. Reports suggested on Monday that the ban had been lifted early in the morning, allowing the apps’ traffic to move freely again after an outage of around 18 hours. The agencies had reportedly been concerned that they could not monitor communications between “terrorists and militants” that used the apps – anti-government protestors have been carrying out a transport blockade for a couple of weeks.

The soaring growth of messaging apps is likely to be a tsunami in work tech

I saw a chart today that confirmed what I have been seeing across the board in the increasingly mobile workforce dependent on companion devices:

Screenshot 2014-01-14 10.18.10A 200% increase in the use of messaging and social apps, and a 150% increase in the use of utilities and productivity tools from 2012 to 2013. These are the leaders in companion use.

What does this mean for work tech? It’s obvious : those vendors of work technology products that can become a key part of this adoption, the surge of time spent on handhelds — and soon wearables — will come to dominate the next era of ‘computications’. And just as surely, those that remain wedded to the old PC-and-a-browser form factor of work tech will fade into the background.