Path, the gorgeously designed mobile social network that’s never quite taken off with a mega userbase (it claims about 4 million active users), is spinning off its messaging app as Path Talk, available on iOS and Android today.
Like any other messaging app, Path Talk allows you to send texts and photos to friends. But two things make Path Talk vastly different. The first is your list of contacts. Not only do you see who is online, an icon by their name tells you what they’re up to–which is extrapolated automatically from information inside their phone (like your accelerometer and GPS). You can see if some is nearby, or if they’re listening to music, or what the weather is like where they are. You can even see if they’re in transit (specifically on a train, or bus, or car), or exercising (specifically running or biking).
One of the key parts of conversations in the real world is context. It might be outdoors or indoors, you might have just come from somewhere. “You might both be in a location that’s interesting,” Morin tells Co.Design. “What we wanted to do with status was really make it something that could add to conversation in ways people hadn’t seen before.”
Invasive? To some, it will be (and they can opt out of sharing each of these things). But it’s also smart, human-centric design. Have you ever been texting someone, frantically trying to tell them some key piece of information, before your battery dies? When Path Talk automatically shows your friends that you have a low battery, they just get it. They know you might disappear for reasons other than rudeness. By the same token, when they go to message you and see you’re driving in the car, they might wait to bug you, rather than distracting you with a text message.
The second great feature will arrive later this year, via the Path-acquired company TalkTo. Path acquired the company TalkTo. And what that technology will allow is for users to text businesses–literally any business in the U.S.–requests to know store hours, or make reservations, or anything else one could imagine. On the backend, the business can either be set up to respond to these requests themselves, or TalkTo attempts to answer these questions by crawling the web like Google might. But in the instances where neither of these options is possible, real humans will just call the company for you and text you a response (which we’re told generally takes about five minutes).
“We wanted to approach messaging as this idea of being a communication hub . . . not just between the people in your life, but the places in your life,” Morin says.
At first glance, texting businesses may seem like a gimmick–a capitalist ploy that sucks our soul 140 characters at a time. But for the end user who prefers texting to calling–and a lot of us do–Path Talk very importantly allows you to stay in one mode of interaction. You can just text to do whatever you’d like. And in a prerelease demo screen Morin shared with us, we noticed another neat interaction that could come to be when TalkTo tech is incorporated. When messaging a friend, you see their location on a map. Nearby their marker, you might see a restaurant, too. Tap on that restaurant, and you can text them if they have any open tables. Everything is streamlined–no hopping to Google Maps or the Yelp app or your web browser, no making calls when all you want to do is type.
Now, location-based social networking has never really woo’d users before (even Google tried it with Buzz, which flopped). But what may be different for Path Talk–and again, we didn’t see final designs–is that all of these location-based interactions are tied back to text messaging. You tap somewhere to text it. In a sense, Path is testing the metal of SMS itself, if it has the lure to convince us that seeing one another on a real map, in real time, can be a feasible mode of interaction. Whether or not Path can sell us on this idea remains to be seen. But we can’t help but think, if Path Talk texting tech was built into Google Maps, we’d be texting businesses all the time.
More and more, we’re seeing apps spin off their core functions into separate apps. Dropbox has their Carousel photo app. Facebook has Paper, Messenger, and Slingshot (to name a few). And now, Path has Path Talk.
When as asked Morin why so many companies were going the multi-app direction (when in fact, it seems like Apple may be shaping a different future), he said that his users had spoken, and that the messaging app was in response to demand. But beyond that, he believes that there are very fundamental realities driving the popularity of smaller apps.
“It has to do with the constraints of mobile. You have a very small screen and a container that’s an app. And users expect [the app] to do one thing,” he says. “On the web it was possible to pack a lot of functionality because you had a lot of screen space….using mobiles through [a smaller] lens makes it easier to build for mobile. It’s made our design team and engineering team much happier, there’s less debate into how to fit things into a single app.”