Goldman Sachs and a bank consortium launch Symphony

A consortium of 15 banks — led by Goldman Sachs — are bankrolling a messaging and networking platform, Symphony (see Consortium of Leading Financial Firms Invest in New Communication and Workflow Platform — Symphony). David Gurle, an executive with deep messaging experience at Microsoft, Skype, Avaya, and Perzo (acquired by Symphony in September), assumed the role of CEO in October.

David Gurle source: linkedin

The effort appears to be motivated by the financials of Bloomberg terminal use —  $24,000/user/year — and as a result the consortium has dropped $66 million into Symphony, a standalone company. According to Kevin Duggan of the New York Post, Goldman has over 19,000 users, and other members of the consortium are using the tool as well.

Symphony acquired technology from Markit last year, and has incorporated collaboration and messaging assets of that company. Markit was also supported by the bank consortium.

1753815_1

Markit screen

 

In the recent press release, Symphony states that the core technology has been handed over to an unnamed ‘open source foundation’.

I hope to get a demo of the platform in the coming weeks.

 

Orange’s Libon app lets you take calls to your number over Wi-Fi

Libon, the WhatsApp and Skype competitor from French carrier group Orange, has an interesting new feature called Reach Me, which will allow people to send and receive calls over Wi-Fi using their mobile phone number, regardless of who their actual carrier is.

The Libon app has been around for more than two years now — Orange won’t say how many users it has amassed during that time, but the carrier group uses it to offer special calling deals through its local operators, and Libon chief Dominic Lobo told me that people are using it in over 100 countries.

The Reach Me feature is being pitched as a way to get around poor indoor mobile coverage. “If someone calls you, the call is picked up by your Libon service – all you need is Wi-Fi coverage in your home or wherever you are and you’ll never miss a call,” Lobo told me.

I reckon that also makes it an interesting proposition for those traveling overseas and looking to avoid roaming voice fees, though they would of course need to have a Wi-Fi connection, and Libon will have to have been enabled in the country where they are.

Orange will show off the Reach Me feature at Mobile World Congress next week, and will roll it out commercially during the first half of this year. Italy will be first, somewhere around the end of March. According to Lobo, Italy has a lot of Android phones (the feature will be available on that platform first) and enough existing Libon users to provide Orange with good data on the initial rollout.

In addition, Orange doesn’t have a carrier in Italy, making it a good showcase for the so-called “over-the-top” (i.e. provided over the internet like Skype et al) nature of the app. “We want to demonstrate that we can launch it in a market unrelated to ours,” Lobo said.

WhatSim becomes ChatSim as it expands to apps beyond WhatsApp

Last month, I reported on an interesting new mobile service from Italy’s Zeromobile called WhatSim that promised unlimited WhatsApp messaging anywhere in the world for just €10 ($11.60) a year. Well, a month later — and before it’s even shipped its first SIM card — WhatSim is already changing up its business model to move beyond a single messaging app, but it has also placed some restrictions on the service that make it less attractive to hard-core chatters.

It’s rebranded itself as ChatSim and it’s now supporting QQ, [company]Facebook[/company] Messenger, WeChat, Skype, Viber, Line, KakaoTalk, Telegram, Snapchat, [company]Twitter[/company], [company]Google[/company] Hangouts and [company]Apple[/company] iMessage in addition to WhatsApp. If you want to do anything besides sending text and emoticons on those services, though, you’ll have to buy credits. Each photo, video, voice message costs a different amount of credits, which vary depending on the country you’re in.

Those credits can also translate directly into prepaid megabytes, which you can use for any mobile app or to surf the internet. But be careful: Once you start buying credits, ChatSim removes the blocks on non-messaging internet traffic and a smartphone can eat up those credits (and your euros) pretty quickly.

Zeromobile also added some confusing fine print to its service that places limits on its supposedly unlimited plans. If you’re traveling the world and spreading your usage among different countries, then you won’t face any restrictions. But if more than 60 percent of your usage is in one of six geographic zones, then ChatSim will start throwing up roadblocks.

For instance, in the U.S., which is in a zone that includes 30 more countries ranging from the U.K. to New Zealand, you would be restricted to 25 MB of chat traffic before additional charges kick in. That translates into about 12,500 messages, or 34 messages a day, according to Zeromobile. That’s not a paltry number, but it’s a threshold any committed chat user can easily surpass.

So if you truly are a globetrotter living out of your suitcase, or business traveler who regularly travels between two of ChatSim’s zones, this service is a great deal (though your jetsetting ways would suggest you’re not exactly looking for a bargain). But if you’re generally staying put, then you might find ChatSim isn’t as good of a deal as was originally advertised.

Pushbullet is quietly becoming a universal message app interface

Back in November, Pushbullet added a way for Android users to send and reply to texts from the Chrome browser, with messages actually being initiated from a connected phone. Last month, Pushbullet arrived for Mac OS X and iOS. Now, the company has become more of a universal message manager with support for several messaging apps: The latest version of Pushbullet supports replies in WhatsApp, Telegram, Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, and Line.

pushbullet whatsapp mac

What makes Pushbullet appealing is that it replaces any web or native clients for those services, at least on a computer. When your Google [company]Android[/company] phone receives a message from one of the supported services, an interactive notification appears on your paired computer where you simply type your message and send it. Message recipients won’t know that you used a computer because Pushbullet is actually sending the response from your phone.

If that sounds convoluted, take a look at this short video demo to see how it simple it is and how well it works; essentially, it replicates the way Messages on a Mac and [company]Apple[/company] iPhone or iPad are usable on multiple devices, but with more services.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/I7knbW5-jbw]

For Google Hangouts support, Pushbullet also requires that your Android phone have the Android Wear app installed; that’s likely the mechanism the software is using to push Hangout messages from phone to computer.

I’ve long been a fan of Pushbullet, mainly because it was an effective way to get links and other content from a computer to a phone. Lately, however, the Pushbullet team has extended the functionality to messaging so that you don’t have to be on your phone to see incoming messages or send responses. It doesn’t matter which device you’re using at a given time because you can interact with files, links and messages from the phone or a connected computer.

Pushbullet is free in the Google Play Store for phones and tablets running Android 4.0 or better. The companion app for a computer is available as an extension for Chrome, Opera, Firefox and Safari in addition to native apps for Mac OS X app and Microsoft Windows, which are in a beta version.

Kik CEO: “Hey internet are you listening? Messaging has peaked”

It has certainly been an interesting month for messaging apps in the U.S.

Around the same time the New York Times penned its zeitgeist proclamation that messaging apps like Snapchat will become hubs of content and commerce like China’s WeChat, we learned from Comscore that these apps have plateaued in the U.S. in terms of growth. The companies are still attracting new users, but the rate of adoption is slowing in the 18+ crowd.

Right on schedule, Snapchat launched its Discover media feature this week, showcasing content from companies like CNN and Vice in a big departure from its former chatting focused strategy. Was Snapchat leaving messaging behind?

Kik CEO Ted Livingston, one of Snapchat’s biggest messaging competitors in the U.S., has been wondering the same thing. Although the apps is ranked sixth in U.S. social networking apps by iOS download, and 26th in apps overall, Kik is also struggling from a slowdown in growth.

I caught up with Livingston to get his take on what’s happening in the U.S. messaging app world, what he thinks of Snapchat’s Discover tool, and whether a “WeChat of the West” is still possible. What follows has been edited for length, order, and clarity.

Kik just hit 200 million registered users, but the Comscore data showed Kik –and all the other messaging apps — have flatlined in terms of growth. What did you think of that?

I can tell you from Kik’s perspective, we’re not growing as fast in the U.S. as we were in the past. I can tell you it’s not bullshit. We were very relieved to see [the Comscore data]. We were thinking maybe there’s something wrong with just us, but it’s everyone. Hey internet are you listening? Messaging has peaked!

What do you think is happening? Is messaging not actually the future of social media?

App adoption in general is plateauing in the U.S. On top of that smart phone adoption has plateaued in the U.S.

Chat in the West is a commodity. When a 15-year-old kid says, ‘Can we chat on Kik mom?’ Mom is like, ‘No, why would I?’

For us that’s where the [WeChat-like] platform play starts making sense. One you have critical density among youth and you have these non-commodity services on top of chat, teens will bring in everyone else they know. They’ll bring in parents because they need to buy something for them, or a friend because they need them to plan events. The platform may become a ticket to the rest of the demographic.

So that’s where the future growth will come from?

Yes.

How does the plateau impact your plans in the present?

In a world where we are the only one plateauing, then we have the worst strategy. We’ve got to figure out how to keep up with everyone else.

When everyone is plateauing the question is what do we do now?

On that note, what do you think of Snapchat’s Discover? Is this the beginning of its big WeChat play?

Now it’s less about connecting with your friends as following brands. I’m like, ‘Oh shit, they’re just becoming a media company?’

Some have argued that media is just their first step in becoming a portal to other experiences, like gaming or personal budgeting apps.

I would say it’s definitely a step to becoming a platform…a broadcast platform (as opposed to a messaging platform). Snapchat started somewhere in between Kik and Instagram: private broadcast. But with the Stories feature they have gone more and more towards broadcast. So they are now a broadcast tool.

What is the best content to go from a broadcast tool to broadcast platform? To me it’s media. Makes complete sense.

Did you see that coming?

I did not, that’s not what I would’ve done. To me it’s very relieving because it takes some pressure off us. A messenger by itself is extremely difficult to monetize and it always has been in history. On the other side it’s brutally simple to figure out how to monetize a broadcast network like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and now Snapchat.

Maybe [Snapchat] has a great answer [with Discover] but it takes them further away from being the operating system that WeChat has been.

Can media do for Snapchat what it did for Facebook?

Snapchat is distancing itself from its core messaging feature with its new Discover product. Instead of offering new communication tools, it’s focusing on media content to hook users. It’s hoping that will keep people on the app longer and get them there more frequently, the same way it did for Facebook.

The time is right. Discover’s launch comes a few weeks after I reported that growth in messaging apps has plateaued, according to leaked Comscore numbers.

In the new Snapchat section you can surf bite-sized text, video and photo updates from 11 different news organizations ranging from CNN to Vice. It’s slick, sophisticated and stylish. It’s also a big departure from the original app. You can get the rundown on the details here or here.

Is Snapchat moving on from messaging?

Discover isn’t just a new feature for the ephemeral messaging app, which has an estimate of more than 100 million active users. It’s a dramatic shift in product vision, one that suggests Snapchat is moving on from chatting. It’s not abolishing private photo sharing — the image screen is still the first thing you see when you open it — but it’s now parlaying people’s engagement with the app into more revenue-friendly features. It’s far easier to stick an ad in front of a Food Network clip than it is to stick one in front of personal messages from a friend.

Left: Snapchat's Discover section; Middle: Kik's chat option with Funny or Die; Right: WeChat's chat option with Louis Vuitton

Left: Snapchat’s Discover section; Middle: Kik’s chat option with Funny or Die; Right: WeChat’s chat option with Louis Vuitton

Unlike Snapchat’s messaging competitors like China’s WeChat or Canada’s Kik, the brand content in the Discover tab doesn’t come in the form of messaging at all. Instead, it’s a self-serve broadcast format. It’s staunchly a media product, not a communication one.

Brands can still chat with users in the messaging part of the app, but it’s not a cornerstone of the Discover ad cash cow.

Since Snapchat is the leader in messaging in the U.S., its shift in business priorities could also indicate a larger change in the industry itself. Is the future of messaging in the U.S. not actually messaging at all?

The messaging industry is stagnating

The Discover tab has been in the works for a long time, but it’s launching at the perfect time as Snapchat’s growth appears to have flatlined. Comscore numbers can be inaccurate on a point-by-point basis (most media organizations report bigger traffic numbers than Comscore has for them), but in terms of more macro growth trends they’re more reliable. The analytics company found that messaging apps across the board, from Kik to WeChat to Snapchat, have stagnated.

Comscore's Mobile Media Matrix 2015

Comscore’s Mobile Media Matrix 2015

It was looking only at the 18+ crowd, and messaging users skew decidedly younger. But given the fact that Snapchat in particular has saturated the youth audience, its growth should be coming from the 18+ set.

It’s fitting timing, then, for Snapchat to branch out like this. The app seemed to be distancing itself from its former core product in its Discover intro text for users.

One Snapchat explanation screen said, “This is not social media. Discover isn’t about what’s most popular. We count on editors and artists, not clicks and shares, to determine what’s important.” In other words, this isn’t about messaging or virality. It’s not about newsfeeds or friends. It’s about something rather old-fashioned: Editorial judgment.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”910224″]Is the future of messaging in the U.S. not actually messaging at all?[/pullquote]

Furthermore, the brands in the Discover section aren’t all young and hip. Sure, there’s the Vice and Cosmo of the lot. But there’s also CNN and Yahoo News. These traditional organizations lend a mature air to what is otherwise a very fresh, youthful experience. Perhaps Snapchat is hoping to give its older users something more to look at.

snapchat-discover

Left: A screen from Discover’s People section; Middle: From Discover’s Food Network section; Right: From the Daily Mail.

Snapchat wants to make money with media, not messaging

It’s no surprise that Snapchat thinks it will make more money off media than it could off messaging. Facebook discovered the same thing after a few years of running its newsfeed product. People stuck around and spent more time on the site when they had more content to look at than just baby pictures and wedding albums. That in turn made advertisers willing to pay more for the eyeballs.

Snapchat wants media content to have the same effect on its audience, but it’s taking a very different approach. As it emphasized in its intro text mentioned above, this isn’t about “most popular” it’s about “what’s important.” The unwashed masses will not decide that ice bucket challenges will rise to the top. Media editors and Snapchat employees will.

Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest have a new, very different sort of competitor in the media-carrot-to-engage-users game.

Snapchat’s initial partners were thrilled to tell the world they were picked first for the Discover tab. I received multiple pitches this morning from companies like CNN and Fusion heralding exactly that. Fusion wasn’t included in the initial launch of the 11, so it’s a sign that more media brands (like MTV) may be coming. Aside from tapping Snapchat’s huge base of users and turning them into viewers, it also gives them the caché of being on the cutting edge.

But as always, media companies walk a dangerous tightrope in partnering with a tech application. As Mathew Ingram has written about many times, tech platforms’ interests haven’t aligned with media companies in the past. Although Facebook might have given big traffic boosts to organizations like Upworthy or Buzzfeed, it’s a tenuous agreement in the long term. The traffic a tech company giveth, it can easily taketh away with a tweak of an algorithm.

Snapchat is making its own risky bet. It’s hoping it can become a money-making platform by becoming a media source, even if that means making messaging less of a priority.

It’s a big shift for the company’s brand, image and functionality. Let’s see if it works.

WhatSim sells a WhatsApp-only mobile plan on the cheap

WhatsApp is now capturing a good deal of the world’s texting traffic, so an Italian company figured it was time to create a WhatsApp data plan for the world. The people behind Italy’s Zeromobile have launched a new venture called WhatSim that sells a €10 ($11.60) SIM card that lets you chat on WhatsApp for free in 150 countries for a year.

When it comes to text messaging alternatives, Facebook-owned WhatsApp is already a bargain. It’s a free download, and after the first year you pay only 99 cents a year. That, however, does not include the cost of mobile data, which can be exceptional high if you’re trotting the world outside of your home network. So WhatSim has created plan that levels the playing field across the globe. You buy the SIM card for €10 and aren’t charged any data fees as long as you use WhatsApp’s basic text messaging features. After a year, you can continue the service for another €10.

If you want to use more advanced features like sending pictures or video, recording voice messages or sharing your location or contacts, then you have to pay more. You buy “recharges” that give you different allotments of pictures or videos — the charges vary based on what country you’re in — based on a credit system.

It’s an interesting concept because it essentially allows anyone to maintain a lifeline communications service anywhere in the world for very little investment (WhatsApp itself is trying to tackle the same issue by providing a web client for Android users). When you travel outside of your home country, you merely replace your carrier’s regular SIM card in your GSM phone with the WhatSim. I still have plenty of questions for WhatSim like whether it will be sold in the U.S. and what happens when you try to access another app besides WhatsApp. I’ll provide updates once the company gets back to me.

 

 

WhatsApp cracks down on people using unofficial clients

WhatsApp is banning users from its service for 24 hours because they were caught sending and receiving messages on an unofficial client that wasn’t made by WhatsApp.

Many users afflicted an were using Whatsapp+, one of the most popular third-party WhatsApp clients for Android phones. Android Police noted that people using another WhatsApp alternative, WhatsappMD, are also reporting being banned.

Last weekend, as BGR India pointed out, several tech-focused websites in India erroneously reported that WhatsApp+ was actually going to be the new WhatsApp app, for some reason — perhaps because its support for themes and emoji can be seen as improvements over the standard client. In a statement posted to its FAQ page, WhatsApp explained why it banned certain Whatsapp+ users, and it’s not because it feels threatened by an app with skins:

WhatsApp Plus is an application that was not developed by WhatsApp, nor is it authorized by WhatsApp. The developers of WhatsApp Plus have no relationship to WhatsApp, and we do not support WhatsApp Plus. Please be aware that WhatsApp Plus contains source code which WhatsApp cannot guarantee as safe and that your private information is potentially being passed to 3rd parties without your knowledge or authorization.

Another reason why WhatsApp might want to control the clients its users can access is to make upgrades and updates easier to deploy. For instance, WhatsApp recently added an encryption system to its Android app, and is currently working to bring it to other platforms, like iOS. Having a bunch of amateur-level unofficial clients floating around could make the development process more complicated. WhatsApp is rumored to be launching a browser-based version of the service soon, which would lessen cross-platform issues.

In the early days of WhatsApp, there were devices that the messaging service didn’t support, like those running WebOS or Sailfish or certain Nokia feature phones. Plus, third-party clients were able to pull of nifty tricks the main app would never attempt, like merging your SMS messages and WhatsApp messages. But WhatsApp is available for every major mobile operating system — including iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone. Considering that [company]Facebook[/company] paid $18 billion for WhatsApp, it’s safe to assume that the official clients have had more resources devoted to them than lesser-known apps on Google Play.

Unlike Twitter, which has had its own long-running saga with third-party clients, WhatsApp never invited other developers to produce third-party clients and the official API does not allow it. Several unofficial APIs exist for interested developers to produce a WhatsApp client, but the company has tried to exterminate those as well. In 2014, WhatsApp used DCMA takedowns to remove several unofficial APIs from GitHub.

Unfortunately for apps like WhatsApp+, whose developer bragged his app works again, the fix for users is simple: delete non-approved WhatsApp apps and install the official one.

Has Snapchat peaked? Comscore numbers suggest flat growth in 2014

Snapchat’s user growth seems to have stalled toward the end of 2014, according to new Comscore numbers I obtained on Friday. As you can see from the below graph, Snapchat hit a peak around March 2014 and has slowly declined in unique visitors since then. I’ve reached out to Snapchat for comment and will update this if I hear back.

One caveat: Comscore only reports numbers from the 18 and over user group for legal reasons. Companies like Snapchat and Kik have big teen bases, so the Comscore numbers aren’t 100 percent representative. At the same time, given that Snapchat has saturated the teen audience at this point, the slow growth from the 18+ demographic is troubling.

The trend graph comes from a Comscore Mobile Metrix report that charts the number of monthly active users aged 18 and over in the United States. It looked at five messaging applications from October 2013 to October 2014 — Snapchat, Kik, WhatsApp, Line, and WeChat. It tracked “total unique app visitors,” but Comscore confirmed to me that’s the same as MAUs.

Comscore’s numbers are notoriously fickle and publishers frequently report more traffic than Comscore says they have, but in terms of overall growth trends the company is usually pretty accurate.

Comscore's Mobile Media Matrix 2015

Comscore’s Mobile Media Matrix (shows growth 2013-2014)

It’s not just Snapchat that has flatlined. Other messaging apps are seeing similar stagnation, with Kik hovering near the 15 to 16 million mark since April, WhatsApp at 7 million since March, and Line around 4 million since August. WeChat has been below 1 million since January.

So have we hit peak messaging app overload?

The Comscore graph also shows us where the most popular apps stack up against each other in the U.S. market. Snapchat is in the clear lead, despite flatlining. Kik is a not too distant second, which might surprise some. We also get a sense of WhatsApp’s American user base. The company hasn’t shared its U.S. metrics before, which led many to believe they were low.

But the fact that WhatsApp’s US monthly active users are this low — near Japanese-based Line — is new information.

 

This story has been updated since publishing to highlight the 18+ caveat higher in the post.