Group messaging service GroupMe launched a big upgrade last week, timed to occur right before the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, the biggest event of the year for digital start-ups looking to make it big. But that wasn't enough: GroupMe today launched what co-founders Steve Martocci and Jared Hecht call "version 2.1-more-thing" in a nod to the famed Steve Jobs line.
What's new this time? Instead of making groups invite-only, groups can now be "joinable" through solicitations on Facebook and Twitter. There are also some smaller tweaks, including avatars alongside messages in the app and the ability to click on other users to see which other groups they share in common with you. And, perhaps most importantly for SXSWi attendees: "We now detect when you have a bad data connection, and present the option to drop down to SMS," a GroupMe release explains. "It's perfect for areas with a poor connection...like, say, a crowded Austin Convention Center.
Last week, the bigger GroupMe revamp brought photo- and location-sharing to the iPhone and Android apps for the first time, as well as in-app chat to supplement the text messaging that it has already been offering to users.
The onslaught of new features comes at a time when group messaging is slated to make a big splash at SXSWi, but there are several companies looking to dominate. GroupMe, which proudly announced in February that it's sending a million text messages a day, appears to be the leader of the pack--as well as one of the best-funded and most well-connected in the tech industry. But competitors are not to be shrugged off: An instant-messaging app called Kik announced group messaging features this week along with a very comfortable Series A funding round. Another app, Fast Society, has been positioning itself as a party-friendly anti-GroupMe, occasionally with some fighting words. The fate of a third rival, Beluga, is unclear now that it's been acquired by Facebook, but the app itself has not stopped development and the acquisition may (or may not) hint that Facebook has group-messaging plans in the pipeline.
There may well be no clear winner, but companies in the space aren't cutting any corners when it comes to a heavy SXSWi presence: GroupMe encourages users to create SXSWi-specific groups, promising that they "will show you its secret plans and where all the hottest parties (are)," and is throwing a party of its own on Monday in collaboration with fellow start-ups Hashable and DailyBooth.