Facebook’s recent purchase of mobile messaging start-up Beluga may put it in position to legitimately compete with Twitter due to its closed group messaging functionality, going against the grain of the public information access so inherent to Twitter’s model.
Ironically, at a time when Facebook is coming under fire for privacy concerns yet again, Beluga’s invitation only “pods” allow members to share posts within a pre-defined group and aren’t searchable by the public. There’s been debate in the past about Twitter’s lack of such sharing controls and there are clearly no publicized plans to crack down on public access to tweets, so Beluga and Twitter seem to be targeting two different groups. It makes sense that Facebook acquired the service that functions most similarly to itself, where networks of friends and aquaintances see updates among themselves but can be properly protected from anonymous, public viewing.
Beluga claims to work on any phone and is currently free to anyone in the app store or Android market. The sign-up process on their website takes seconds and creating your own pods is a simple process, assuming you know people’s email addresses.
The differentiating point between Beluga and Twitter boils down to this: I can share updates and photos with certain people based on the pods I’ve established, and only those people will ever see them. It’s an excellent push functionality that Facebook will surely take full advantage of as the race to dominate mobile messaging gains momentum – with location-based tagging and a sleek interface, the service developed by three former Google employees was ripe for acquisition.
Beluga is one of those cool services, like FourSquare, that is exponentially more useful and entertaining when the more people you know are using it. By automatically searching your phone’s contact book for people already using Beluga, the ramp-up time to start using it is significantly shorter than using Blackberry Messenger which requires you to know someone’s pin. Beluga’s main challenge has apparently been word of mouth – its user base is presumably pretty small (especially since we’re betting most of you haven’t heard of it before today). Once more and more of your friends jump on the bandwagon, you’ll be in group chat heaven.
It will be interesting to see what Facebook does with Beluga now that it’s a part of the family. As Twitter becomes larger and larger with each passing month, it’s not hard to imagine that many of the more casual users would prefer to instead use a closed group type of service, especially from their mobile phones.