Group Chat, the Mobile Motivator

It’s interesting to watch the tides of public opinion around mobile devices ebb and flow. What has Apple done right, was has RIM done wrong, what is Google going to do with Android, and – the great unknown at this point – where does Windows Phone fit in? I don’t have any answers, just some observations…

I have two young daughters, not quite yet teenagers, and they both own iPods (purchased themselves by saving up). I asked my youngest daughter how many of her peers own an iPod? About 75%. That’s a pretty huge number, and these youngsters are growing up knowing only iPods. iPods replace their Nintendo DS and after that they are downloading free apps like crazy, instead of heading to Best Buy and laying down $15 each for games that they need to haul around in a separate case.

Games, however, are not the biggest reason my daughters love their iPods. To them, staying in touch with their friends is crucial, and they use iMessage exclusively. Since none of their friends own anything other than iPods, messaging (they call it “texting” even though it isn’t SMS) between friends is uncomplicated; there is no platform fragmentation. Group messaging is very easy within iMessage. And yes, they can and do keep in touch with Mom and Dad through iMessage as well.

Video chat (FaceTime) has replaced picking up the phone for my oldest daughter and her friends. This is kind of nice for us parents, too – it means that the kids aren’t tying up the phone line. I remember my Dad chastising me for this when I was their age. Video chat with iMessage is also so easy to use that even Grandma can use it without a problem. And last night, my daughter and her project partner were collaborating on their homework over video chat. What a great thing.

I used to use a Blackberry curve, and I would use BBM to chat with my sister. What a royal pain it was to set up with the exchange of PINs and such. However, one day last year I wasn’t able to reach her on BBM so I sent her a text, and she replied, “oh sorry, I switched to iPhone!” So I called her and talked about it, and she said much the same peer pressure had happened to her (in her late 30s) as had happened to these elementary school kids: most of her friends had switched to iPhones and iMessage, so when her contract came due she switched.

If Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype means that they will be bringing an easy-to-use messaging and video chat application to Windows Phone, I think they will be in great shape to take over a some portion of market share. Once a few people in any social circle get onto Windows Phone then they can exert that pressure on their friends to switch. And if the Windows Phone app does SMS as well as non-SMS messaging from within the same app, making it painless and seamless like iMessage does, then the switchover is relatively easy.

Perhaps some people will resist the urge to stay tied to platform-specific messaging and switch to Text Plus, Kik or WhatsApp. I don’t see many taking the multi-platform route, though. Back when I was using my Blackberry I was running a multi-protocol chat app called Trillian. I used it to chat on ICQ, MSN and Jabber; I was able to chat with any and all of my friends, regardless of what device they were using. However – and this is a HUGE however – I couldn’t do any group chat between protocols. So then I tried to get my friends to switch to Trillian, but none of them would. Getting people to learn to use a new chat app was a pain they just didn’t feel like enduring.

Regardless, these teens and younger don’t actually have a platform issue, since they’re all already on iPods. The real test will come later when they start to have their own cell phones: will they all choose iPhone? If not, how will group chat be handled? There is a possibility that some closed social circles will agree and migrate to one of the multi-platform apps, however I think it’s more likely that they would as a group simply all migrate to the same phone type instead – one that delivered on easy to use group chat and video chat. Windows Phone could be ready and waiting for them.

Fancy features and camera specs may lure some people to new phones, but I think that group chat is a very strong social motivator, and will continue to coalesce groups of people onto specific platforms much more strongly than processor speeds or camera megapixels ever could. The possible side-effect of an awesome Facebook mobile presence could upset this, but that’s a whole new discussion.