Katherine Boehret

Group Messaging for the Rest of Us

It’s rare to hear BlackBerry users brag about having better smartphone features than their iPhone and Android-phone brethren. Yet when it comes to group messaging, BlackBerry has led the way for years with its BBM, or BlackBerry Messenger.

BBM’s features include individual or group messaging, as well as the ability to tell when another user is idle or typing. And it’s not limited to 160 characters, like text messages. This fall, Apple will launch its own similar messaging program called iMessage, which will work on iPhones, iPads and iPod touches. Yet, as BlackBerry maker Research in Motion has faltered and iPhones and Androids have soared ahead of BlackBerrys, BBM buddies are harder to come by.

This week, I tested a new service, called GroupMe, which enables group messaging on any phone that can text—regardless of who makes it or what operating system it runs.

Starting today, GroupMe’s newest Android app is available to download. I got a sneak peek at the app to see how well it worked, using GroupMe to create chat groups with friends who use a range of devices including basic cellphones, BlackBerrys and iPhones.

DSOLUTION

GroupMe messages aren’t limited to 160 characters, like text messages.

The new GroupMe app replaces an existing, less sophisticated version. A new iPhone app is expected soon, and GroupMe apps for BlackBerry and Windows Phone will be updated this fall, according to a spokeswoman for GroupMe.

There are three notable features in the new GroupMe app for Android: It’s programmable and usable through GroupMe’s website, so groups can be set up there and group conversations can be continued there; it lets users directly message just one person in a group for more private messaging; and its app for smartphones now works around the world in 90 countries with 900 carriers. GroupMe still offers smart features that were available in its previous release, like the simple way anyone can instantly remove himself or herself from a group by typing #exit in response to a group text as well as sponsored groups for building buzz around an event or TV show.

But the downside to group chats is that not everyone in the group will want to share everything they say with everyone else. Another trouble spot I found was that the groups I created included people who used texting differently. Some could text while at work, some couldn’t. Some had unlimited texting, some didn’t, and asked to be removed from the group. Some people just don’t text as much as others, but still receive all of the group’s messages, by default.

GroupMe falls into the same trap as Facebook Groups and Google Circles, which operate on the notion that everyone wants to be added to a group or circle and they can later opt out if they so choose. People who are added to a GroupMe group receive an initial text message saying they’ve been added to a group, not invited to a group if they choose to join. If it’s a person’s first time using GroupMe, he or she receives another text that explains GroupMe and how to opt out.

The secret behind GroupMe is that it assigns one phone number to a group, so the most basic cellphones will be able to send text messages to this number, like it’s one person’s phone when it really represents several users. People can also call this single number to initiate a conference call. Considering what a pain it is to set up normal conference calls, people might use GroupMe just for this feature.

My GroupMe friends chatted a bit in groups, but something about the multi-person forum seemed to shut up even the most gabby group members. I found myself creating more groups of two people than large groups of friends. In certain situations, like on a family trip or during a wedding weekend, the idea of chatting with several people at once could be a serious help. But I found that most of my friends were inclined to prefer one-to-one conversations.

Unlike BBM, GroupMe can’t show you when another user is typing, though like BBM, files such as photos can be sent from one person to the whole group.

Clever codes can program the group to behave how you want them to behave. For example, if you’re going into a meeting, you can type #mute to the group and this will mute the conversation so you don’t continue receiving text messages. Typing #unmute after the meeting will turn on your group chat notifications again. The #topic command lets people change the overall group name, and #list automatically sends you a full list of people in the group.

One of the ways GroupMe is trying to market itself is by associating with live events or popular shows; in other words, things that give people reasons to digitally congregate. Some examples include music festivals like South by Southwest and the upcoming Lollapalooza, as well as TV shows like Showtime’s “Dexter” and music artists like one of my high school favorites, the Dave Matthews Band. People who create groups related to these sponsors could get special offers or possibly the chance for celebrities from a show to chat with the group.

If you have a solid group of people who feel comfortable with one another, you’ll probably make good use of GroupMe. And its biggest plus is that it works without alienating one person because he or she doesn’t own a certain smartphone. But the familiar habit of one-to-one text messaging could be hard for GroupMe to change.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katherine.boehret@wsj.com


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