Odds are, you probably don't communicate with friends and family the same way you did a decade ago. The rise of the text message and the fall of the phone call as ways to stay in touch has been precipitous, even if the centrality of email has been unquestioned for far longer than 10 years.
What’s more, with the rise of buzzwords like BYOD and consumerization, the way you communicate with co-workers has probably changed significantly, as well. Text messages, BlackBerry Messenger, Gchat, and a host of other ways to ask about TPS reports have all made their way from your personal life to your professional life.
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But it’s been a messy transition – surveys show significant levels of frustration among the IT crowd at the impact of BYOD on the business. An iPass/MobileIron survey from last year found that the vast majority of companies had BYOD policies in place, but that little more than one in three said that the policy was an effective one. Spending on mobile device security software rocketed past the billion-dollar mark in 2013, according to Infonetics, propelled by major security concerns in the enterprise.
Given that, it’s perhaps less than surprising that a small but growing number of companies have begun attempting to address the issue from the messaging side – combining the immediacy and ease of use of consumer technology with the security and centralization of a business-centric system.
Messaging needs to be multi-platform. It needs to be more mobile-first…
— Meredith Flynn-Ripley, CEO, HeyWire
That said, the market’s far from mature – and some analysts believe that the budding startups of the enterprise messaging world face serious challenges in carving out a permanent niche.
One of the best-known names in the marketplace is CoTap, a startup founded by ex-Yammer executive Jim Patterson. CoTap offers an enterprise-focused instant messaging platform for mobile devices, and announced that it had received $10 million in venture capital funding earlier this year. That takes the company to $15.5 million in total, when the proceeds of a series A round in May 2013 are added.
Patterson says that he left Yammer a year after its acquisition by Microsoft, largely because he saw the rise of the smartphone as an opportunity.
“I honestly believe it’s a once-in-a-decade, once-in-a-generation-type opportunity, where essentially it throws everything up into the air,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for upstarts to unseat incumbents.”
Even so, Patterson noted, the idea isn’t to replace other methods of communication.
“There’s some communication happening today in email and desktop IM that will migrate over to mobile messaging, but I do see mobile messaging as a new way to communicate. And with new forms of communication, what you end up getting is more communication – it’s not always zero-sum,” he says.
One of CoTap’s customers, content marketing startup InPowered, has found that to be the truth. InPowered employs 50 people in two offices, situated in San Francisco and New York. It has been using Cotap as a supplement – not a replacement – for email as a method of internal communications for four months.
The company’s head of communications, Robb Henshaw, says that, in addition to the basics, like companywide announcements and lunch orders, Cotap is the main platform for brief but important interactions – time-sensitive yes-or-no questions, for example.
“All of our functional teams use it to eliminate a lot of the stuff that just doesn’t need to happen over email,” Henshaw says. “We’re not trying to replace email – I don’t think email’s going anywhere – I do think there’s a lot of communication that happens in the long-form medium of email that absolutely doesn’t belong there.”
A lot of communication was done by text before InPowered went with Cotap, he added.
“Which was fine, you get quicker responses that way, so that’s great,” says Henshaw. “But there’s things we couldn’t really talk about because we knew that texting is inherently just not that secure, and we don’t want to be talking company-sensitive stuff over text.”
I honestly believe [mobile messaging is] a once-in-a-decade, once-in-a-generation-type opportunity.
— Jim Patterson, CEO, Cotap
Cotap’s higher degree of security made that less of an issue.
It’s convenience, however, not security, that brought Legacy IT founder Jamison Russell to the enterprise messaging marketplace. His company, a two-person IT consultancy in central Texas, began using a product called HeyWire Business two months ago.
Coordinating visits and service appointments with the young company’s stable of clients was a headache without HeyWire’s service.
“There were a bunch of customers that had my phone number, and then a bunch of customers that had my partner’s phone number,” Russell says.
HeyWire’s cross-platform capabilities – the service can be reached both from a mobile app and from a desktop PC – lent additional flexibility, he added.
“We usually keep a guy in our shop, so we can just pull it up on the browser,” Russell says.
HeyWire’s founder and CEO, Meredith Flynn-Ripley, says that the multi-platform nature of the service is a key part of its appeal.
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Flynn-Ripley started HeyWire in Cambridge, Mass., in 2009, but its business-focused service has been on the market for less than a year. The experience of using traditional messaging systems, according to Flynn-Ripley, imposes limitations on businesses.
“Messaging needs to be multi-platform. It needs to be more mobile-first, frankly, and so traditionally, business messaging has been very IM-, desktop-centric,” says Flynn-Ripley, whose company has raised $13 million in venture funding.
That’s all well and good, but IDC research manager Vanessa Thompson is skeptical of the prospects of many of this generation of enterprise messaging apps. One critical issue could be bigger companies building similar capabilities into line-of-business products that customers are already using – making dedicated solutions redundant.
“[Messaging] needs to be connected to some other critical business service or process,” she says. “So it’s a salesperson that needs to be connected to the opportunities or leads or contacts or some kind of consolidated contact list.”
Absent some other important selling point, Thompson sees danger ahead for the specialist messaging providers.
“My thought, just in general, for this market is that these are point solutions that are trying to capture some mind/market share right now because of the way people are interacting,” she says. “But over time, that functionality is going to be included in other things.”
Rajeev Chand, managing director and head of research at Rutberg and Company, concurred, though for different reasons. The central issue for him is that these products are hammers in search of nails.
“Getting a solution to take off in an environment where there isn’t a super-clear problem is the issue. If you look at WhatsApp, one of the reasons that WhatsApp took off is that text messaging, even domestically, is very expensive in certain countries outside of the U.S,” he says. “But for a business user, the price is not a factor.”
“It’s hard to say what will happen in the future, but if you’re just going to project from today, I think you’re going to see a death field of startups,” Chand says. “I think the dynamic is that email works real well.”
Even so, however, he noted that the basic idea behind dedicated enterprise messaging offerings is generally sound.
“The thesis is that enterprise messaging has not seen innovation since the advent of email,” he says. “I think that [it] makes a lot of sense.”
Email Jon Gold at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.