For any new smartphone messaging app, the biggest hurdle is getting people to switch over from the ones they already use, such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and even plain old SMS. To win their hearts and minds, new messaging apps have to walk a tightrope between introducing new features and aping the de facto standard interface that users know and love. The startup Cola’s new app, launched on Wednesday, toes that line while offering additional chat functions to keep your conversations short and productive—so you can get on with the rest of your day.
"Our objective is not to keep you in our app all day long—it’s to make decisions quickly and move along," says Cola founder and CEO David Temkin. "At least 30% of text message traffic is playing coordination, scheduling, did-you-do-this-or-do-that, where do you want to go, etc. These are the things that Cola is meant to streamline. The more you get done in our app with the least amount of work, the better we feel."
Cola's visual simplicity makes it intuitive to pick up and use. Where most chat apps have the "add a photo" button, Cola has a pop-up list of six functions (termed "Cola bubbles"), including "Share My Location," "Take a Poll," and "When Can We Meet?" Obviously, these functions have existed in B2B chat apps for a while, but Cola is aimed at regular consumers to replace their normal flow of pogo-sticking between apps. For instance, when another Cola user allows you to track them, you just scroll back up to that bubble to check their location, with no app-switching necessary. There’s even a bubble bar floating on top of the conversation for users to jump to active bubbles instead of having to scroll back and forth.
But Cola’s standout feature is that your friends don’t need to download it. Baked into the app background is the ability to send any Cola "bubble" over SMS as a link, which your friend clicks to interact with via the Internet browser window. Though location sharing only works while that friend has their browser window open, almost all of the functionality of the app is preserved. And it’s quick, too. Despite plugging in information over a browser instead of app-to-app, the information (poll answers, map locations) updates fractionally slower.
That’s due to the heavy back-end work the Cola team has done since announcing the opening of Cola’s open beta last November—and the extensive experience of its team. Bucking the stereotype of a young hipster workforce, Cola’s youngest team member is 38. Temkin, who started at Apple working on the Newton and moved on to AOL, says this experience pool reflects decades of getting projects done.
"There are a lot of things going on in this product that a first-time team might not have thought through. People on the team have stubbed their toes before and learned what works and what doesn’t," says Temkin. "This is a team that is able to ship products to reach millions of people, both from a technical and a product design standpoint."
Each of the "bubbles" are mini-apps of a sort, explains Temkin, and a lot of work went into making them open and close as users scroll through their chat history. But making the bubble architecture easy to handle and efficient is also a shrewd move by Cola to lay the groundwork for the app as a platform. Bubbles take 1/10th to 1/100th the effort to build as entirely new apps, says Temkin.
It’s too early for Temkin to speculate on a potential "bubble marketplace" in which users might pick and choose different bubbles—after all, the Cola team focused on six of them at launch for simplicity's sake, and overloading the bubble list would clash with the ease of use that Cola is touting. But there are a few other bubbles that might be released in the near future, such as a restaurant picker, a flight tracker, and a conference call bubble. In the meantime, Temkin wants developers to think of this feature as a new type of modular software, especially to build company-specific bubbles for B2B applications.
"We designed Cola to be a platform in a system. Each bubble adheres to the same laws of physics that make it easier to understand as a user, and each new bubble is not like learning a new quasi-app," says Temkin. "It also makes it something that can quickly turn into an ecosystem."
Cola launched Wednesday on iOS, with an Android release planned in the next few months. After that, they plan to announce a software development kit for bubbles. Down the road, Cola may offer a more sophisticated professional version for B2B customers to improve productivity in the workplace, but Temkin anticipates that third parties will likely build bubbles specific to their enterprise workflow before then.