The Future of Real-time Chat and Beluga

Chat has been a space that’s gone unchanged in the past decade, but that hasn’t stopped two new startups from taking a shot at it.

With Beluga, which has been out in market for a few months now, and Convore, a new web app released just this week, we may have a chance now of seeing something other than Facebook or BBM shift the way we communicate in real-time.

I’m actually going to only talk briefly about Beluga. I think everyone should know and be aware of Convore, but I tried logging into it the other day… I had no freaking clue what was going on. It’s not entirely Convore’s fault though. While Beluga, as I’ll go into in a moment, works in a familiar way like IM or MMS, Convore is built almost like IRC with chatrooms that are public, and that exist for different subjects.

… On to Beluga.

Beluga is a mobile app for android and iPhone that makes chatting with friends on the go easy. There’s also a web client to use with your mobile or desktop browser. Started by some ex-Googlers, it’s real-time chat app with a focus on mobile.

Beluga organizes all of your conversations in different pods that act the same as persistent chat rooms. The chat rooms, called Pods, can be between just two people, you and a friend, or you can have a pod with many people in it. When you write a message in one of your Beluga Pods, all the members of that Pod will get a push notification updating them.

The pods make creating custom groups of people really simple. The problem with group chat traditionally was that you’d always have to wait until everyone on your IM client was online, then create the group each time you wanted to chat with them. With Beluga you add people via their email address to the group once and you’re ready to chat.

Beluga makes it easy to start a lot of different Pods for different groups. It gives the user a lot of flexibility and makes it easy for the user to group people together by topic. For example, on Beluga I have different Pods set up these different topics:

  • I have a #JunctionTO pod for people I know in my community
  • A pod for talking solely about the iPad and tablets
  • A pod for my close friends
  • A pod for talking about video games with those I play with on Xbox Live

As more friends of mine start joining the service I’m already thinking of more pods I’d like to start:

  • A pod for my friends and I share startup thoughts and ideas.
  • A pod for chatting with family
  • A pod for chatting with work colleagues
  • A pod solely for sharing interesting links
  • Pods on different subjects like mobile, design, startups

The funny thing about Beluga is the more I use it and the more I’m able to use it with friends around these different contexts, the more it feels like the best way to communicate.

The more I think about it, the more and more natural this way of communicating feels, especially on a mobile device. It’s not as public and without context like Twitter, and at the same time it’s more flexible and asynchronous than Skype or IM.

I’m not completely sure if this next idea means anything, but I like the fact that what I’m using was designed as a mobile app. It’s not just an interface to communicate with people who are on their computers at home. The people I’m talking to using beluga are also on their mobile. That’s evident thanks to being able to share location with you post an update with the people you talk. You can even see in a map view where everyone in a group is when they posted their last update.

Since Beluga is mobile it doesn’t rely on presence. In every desktop IM application, presence was always a layer I never liked. Either friends were offline and you didn’t feel like writing a new email, or friends might be one of: Online, Away, Busy, Do Not Disturb, or Invisible, etc… These status indicators rarely actually represented the status of the person on the other side. Often, custom statuses were used for jokes. A very early Twitter if you will.

The biggest advantage of Beluga not having presence is that the people you talk to will always receive the message, and unlike the desktop where message windows will pop up and interrupt the work you are in the middle of, with mobile you have more options. Your phone can be on silent mode, airplane mode, and with Beluga you can even turn off push notifications for individual pods.

The more use cases I go through, the more I’m realizing that Beluga serves a lot of situations, very very well.

The only problem is that not everyone has Beluga.

OH right, but even if someone doesn’t have Beluga you can still add them to a pod and they’ll be able to use the group messaging functionality through SMS.

See, it does everything.

Beluga

Convore

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