Facebook, fresh from its partial privacy revamp, is straight back to business as usual—which means expansion. It's just bought a small startup called ShareGrove, a group chatting client. Is Facebook planning to break into the IM market?
ShareGrove made the announcement on its Facebook page, appropriately enough, and notes that it's shutting down operations on June 1st. This gives users who have data stored in its system time to make a backup—after June 1, all user data will be deleted, which is a nice privacy step that Facebook should take note of.
And what exactly does ShareGrove offer Facebook? It styles itself as a service for making social networking "personal" (isn't this is the very essence of social networking?). Specifically it allows users to set up "private conversations with groups you choose" for text-based chatting, and sharing of links, pictures, video and so on, with everything on view to everyone. Essentially it's like a small, ad-hoc version of the much-used Campfire service from 37Signals, with a Facebook Connect login so it could act as a break-out instant chat room for people who wanted to converse as a group on Facebook—something Facebook chat can't currently do.
This is why Facebook's made the acquisition: To seriously expand the powers of its Chat program. The current chat client on Facebook, which many people use as a quick-and-dirty (and sometimes more convenient) chat alternative to other, bigger IM clients, is neat but incredibly limited in scope. It feels like a badly coded extra that's just been tacked-on to Facebook's more complex systems. But add the social chatting and sharing powers from ShareGrove, and Facebook Chat could become a very useful tool—or at least a tool for uselessness.
Remember that Facebook now has over 500 million members. Given some coding love, Facebook Chat could rapidly rival Yahoo's Messenger (over 248 million Yahoo users in total in 2008), AOL (53 million active users in September 2006) or MSN (330 million active users, as of June 2009), because who would want to click into another window to chat to someone or a group, and share links and so on, when you're probably already logged in to Facebook?
Update: We've just been speaking to Adam Wolff, one of the founders of ShareGrove, and he's given us a little more insight (as much as he can without revealing the private business dealing that's been going on). ShareGrove was originally conceived as a result of thinking differently about the way users publish information on the Wall—this is a great forum for sharing all sorts of content, making it a way of connecting to friends that Adam thought was both "useful and interesting". But he perceived that there was scope for a different kind of conversation like this on Facebook that involved "private sharing," beyond the public forum the Wall offers. Hence the creation of ShareGrove, which ended up having a pretty Facebook-like interface.
There's a little discussion on the Net today about which area of Facebook Wolff and his colleagues will be slotted into, but he hinted that this hadn't quite been finalized yet: Now they're inside the company it's simply a case of doing "an orientation" and "being assigned to a feature team."
Though ShareGrove worked to let Facebook folks converse in private, Wolff was careful to highlight that this is a privacy matter that's "orthogonal" to the privacy fiasco currently swirling around Faceboo. ShareGrove was merely a different way of letting people chat as a more clearly-defined private group than on a public wall space. He couldn't comment on exactly how Facebook would use ShareGrove's tech, but did note that he hopes to see its influence in Facebook areas like Groups, the Inbox and Chat.