Group messaging, not surprisingly, is the specialty of two popular, competing apps, GroupMe and Beluga.  These apps each ask you to define a small circle of friends whose phone numbers, email addresses, and/or Twitter handles you already know, and provides a quick, seamless method for sending each of the group members a short message.  Each message fits in a single text or tweet, since both formats are based on about 140 characters (Twitter allows 20 chars less than SMS texting, because it contains more "header" information).  The idea is simple and intuitive, and in fact, if you already have an iPhone and your contacts' phone numbers, you can do this already, since the albility to text multiple people is natively built in.

But the subtle differences between this kind of mass SMS texting and true group messaging make these specific services potentially very useful to all kinds of organizations with team members who need to stay in contact – especially in crisis situatoins – on a variety of different media.  One way we've been considering using GroupMe is to form an "emergency notification" system for last-minute call outs before big events, including the administrators, student staff, and relevant faculty.  There are a few minor differences (which for some might make the difference between one and the other): Beluga has great functionality for tracking events, with the ability to set time and location data when sending a message, while GroupMe has much better integration with drawing your contacts from Facebook and Twitter. The difference between them essentially comes down to a matter of preference for these small features, and for their User Interface.  Take a look below; which one do you like better? (GroupMe on the left, Beluga on the right)


What's interesting to note, from the way adoption of these apps spread, and the fallout from last year's "checkin wars," is that our culture actually seems to realy enjoy competition, with niche spaces like this successfully supporting two equally-geared rivals.  Just like with FourSquare and Gowalla last year, this year was very much a "which one are you using?" debate – but we still saw both Gowalla and FourSquare with huge, viable contingents throughout the festival!  Some even said Gowalla too Austin's checkin lunch this year, because they rolled out a series of excellent promotions, routes, and tips for their users.  (However, FourSquare had a "Play FourSquare with FourSquare!" marketing push that was very, very popular.)

Check back for part 2: Social gaming and "The Game Layer"!