Friday, October 23, 2015

Group text on iOS: native functionality and the alternative (and GroupMe)

Our school mountain biking team has been doing group texting for coaches. Works well on rides — especially when coordinating riders of different skills. 

Yeah, I know the larvae do this. They use dedicated chat apps though, like WhatsApp Group Chat or Facebook Messenger or, much less often, named iMessage groups. We are old and set in our ways, so we need something that works with SMS. (Google Hangouts is said to support Group SMS, with Hangout 4.0, but I couldn’t verify this. Too complex anyway.)

The simplest approach to to send one message to a group, then dig up the thread when desired. You can even name the thread — but only if everybody is using iMessage (never happens). In practice many of us lose the thread.

There’s another approach sort of built into iOS. In OS X or iCloud you can define “Groups” of your Contacts. Bizarrely, you can see Groups using iOS, but you can’t edit Group membership in the standard iOS [1]. You can buy for $2 and it will do lots of things that should do including editing Groups — and it works with the Contacts database. Or you can use iCloud or OS X to edit Groups and sync.

However you do it, once you define a group you can use it in iMessage as though it were someone’s name. There’s a limit of 10 SMS members however. Worse, a single person can have multiple phone numbers — and every number is used.So this looks appealing but it doesn’t actually work very well. What might work natively, at least for 10 or less SMS names, would be to create a Group composed of 1-n people each with 6-7 numbers each. Say the group is BIKE, and there are five people in it - Mike, John, Bob, Alice, Jim. Define the group BIKE, then create a contact MIkeJohnBob and a contact AliceJim with appropriate numbers. You’ll probably still hit the limit of 10 SMS numbers though.

But it’s not hopeless. It turns out is pretty smart about this. When I chose my group in, and select all the members (one tap) then tap SMS, it asks me to adjust the phone numbers for each recipient — and it does intelligent number selection. I was able to create a message for the BIKE group with 11 members, presumably because several used iMessage instead of plain old SMS.

i was able to create it … but not to send it. The message failed; I assume can’t get around the 10 SMS limit (maybe is US specific?).

We should really use a group chat app that works on Android and iOS, like WhatsApp...

[1] A function we’ve been asking for since iOS 2. I don’t think we’ll every see it.

Update: Richard (in comments) suggested I look at GroupMe, a product launched in 2010 and acquired by Microsoft’s Skype in 2011. He says GroupMe will incorporate SMS users into a group, no app required. That wasn’t obvious from the main page, but in the About page … "Best of all, it works on nearly every phone, via push or SMS” and in support: "You don't need to have our app to use GroupMe. Add anyone from your phone book and they will immediately be able to chat with the group. You can chat with your groups directly over SMS.” SMS costs money, so I wonder if the web site has been revised to downplay the SMS integration. No business model needed since this is Microsoft.

It feels like the echo of another era, back when some phones walked on 2 legs and others slithered. You can do most things just with SMS (I have vague memories of Twitter and perhaps Facebook doing SMS things), and your correspondents don’t have to register or sign up for the app (yeah, you can spam anyone). A 2011 Business Insider article mentioned it alongside Kik; apparently GroupMe was hot once.

Every member of a GroupMe Group sees messages coming from a unique phone number. Which is a clever workaround for the limitations of SMS chat — the phone number you see is a unique identifier (key) for a combination of a Group ID and a member’s cellphone number. When you send a message to that number GroupMe confirms the sending phone (callerid) matches the database record, then GroupMe sends it out to all the other cell number that are a part of the group.

It’s clever, albeit a bit obsolete now, but it’s also quite an expensive approach. GroupMe must have ways to reclaim numbers for reuse ...


Richard said...

Have you ever looked into GroupMe? It's a group chat that fails over to SMS for those who don't want or have the ability to use an app.

JGF said...

Thanks Richard, I took a look at that's a great tip. I updated the blog post.