Meet the Father of Group Messaging – Upoc

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Cynics say everything is derivative. The ignorant never know the difference.

But sometimes it’s worth looking back at what came before, if only to illuminate history for those who simply don’t know, but should.

Case in point: What’s hotter in tech than ‘group messaging’ in all it’s unvaried forms? (Forget group buying a minute.) Answer: not much. GroupMegroupflierBelugaFast SocietyKik, even Google. These are some of the players lately giving users the ability to communicate over their phones, via text, to many people in one shot. Another popular use is collecting your friends into groups, much like an email list – situational text communities if you will.

It’s a useful and fun activity, with many apps quickly popping up trying to outdo the one before it. But way back in 1999 a similar buzz was created around the very same activity. A little company called Upoc burst onto the scene with SMS-based groups for people to do just about exactly what the players today are doing. In some cases using the same technology (non-IP text messaging, billed by the carrier). Soon others tried jumping their train, including big guys like AOL with groups text circles.

I thought it would be interesting to catch up with one of Upoc’s founders, Gordon Gould (he now runsSmartyPants) who was running Rising Tide Studios publisher of Silicon Alley Reporter at the time. Upoc is still in existence and is run by Italian company Dada.

Rick Robinson: When was Upoc founded and by whom?
Gordon Gould: 1999 by Carlo Martino, Alex LeVine, Greg Clayman and me.

RR: What was the initial product idea and how / to what did it evolve during your tenure?
GG: The idea was always about many-to-many communications.  We thought it would mostly be friends talking to friends but it turned out interest groups (i.e. fans, locales, etc.) were the dominant form of group messaging.  We also found that there was a strong demand for one-to-many communications, both user-generated and branded.

RR: How many employees did Upoc have?
GG: Twenty-five. Not sure how many it has now but I would guess around the same number.

RR: Talk about the core challenges to getting a product like Upoc distributed.
GG: Back then, the core challenges were technical, social/cultural, and economic.  Technically, it was very difficult to integrate with carriers.  Alex Levine oversaw technology and did an excellent job of working through both bureaucratic nightmares of the carriers and the technical challenges of the day.  Upoc was the first 3rd party company to be fully cross-messaging compatible if I recall correctly.

Socially/culturally we were very early to market and the notion of blogging, much less micro-blogging, was not well understood by the average user.  Greg Clayman (now publisher of the The Daily) did a fantastic job of helping to position the company in a way that helped users understand what Upoc was and why they should use it.  Things like the whole idea of user-gen (now “social” celebrity spotting sprang, as far as I know, from Upoc groups like NYC-celeb-sightings.  We also were asked to go testify to a US Senate committee post 9/11 since Upoc was one of the only networks that kept running through the attack in NYC.

From a product standpoint, we had some serious challenges too, as both the handsets were evolving fast and were very primitive and most users were not familiar with Web services types of sites — which is what Upoc’s site was (i.e. your mobile dashboard).

Economically, there were challenges too as there really was not a business model in place we could plug into.  No easy to use SMS APIs, no rev sharing services with the carriers, etc.  Virtually everything was being custom built and the models were not clear at all as to who should get paid or pay.  It was challenging but fun to figure that stuff out.  Much less of a headache to do that sort of thing today.

RR: Was your audience largely in NY where you were based?
GG: I think we were pretty well spread across the country

RR: Talk a little about the mobile Internet “scene” in the city at the time.
GG: It barely existed.  We really had no other companies like Upoc in the U.S. though there were some things that were sort of like Upoc in Europe and Asia back then.  MEF awarded Upoc the distinction of being the world’s first mobile community/social network.  Greg and I went to Cannes to get our lucite block awards and feel very fancy.

RR: So no big competitors back then?
GG: Biggest competitor was really the rest of the Internet or unrelated activities because most people were not very familiar with texting, etc. in the U.S. back then.

RR: are you aware of the recent explosions in group messaging: GoupMe, Beluga, groupflier and others? if so, how can you account for what seems like an 8-year gap between Upoc’s prominence and today’s surge in group messaging?
GG: I think all this group and one-to-one messaging enthusiasm among investors funding these companies is really coming from Twitter and its success as a micro-blogging platform.  It is the greed side of the usual fear/greed dance investors love to do.  If I were doing Upoc again, I would be very focused on APIs, not destination sites or stand-alone apps.

RR: Where would you say the natural evolution is for these kinds of services?
GG: Upoc was originally an acronym for Universal Point of Contact and I would go back to that idea.  Today, I must have 25 different sites/apps/services that I use regularly and it is a massive hassle to deal with all the logins, etc.  Apple Keychain is helpful but something more portable and more Web services-oriented would be what I would do.  I would not probably focus on advertising as a business model because social media ecpms are usually pretty dismal and you need huge volume.

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