Katango is a simple mobile group messaging app built on technology with huge potential. The first Kleiner Perkins sFund investment, Katango’s debut is an eponymous iPhone app that lets users send email, private Facebook wall posts and in-app messages to lists of friend that it automatically that it automatically assembles. It’s this last part that’s so important.
Based on data about a user’s interconnectedness with their friends, Katango instantly and accurately builds what Facebook calls friend lists and Google+ calls Circles. When the company showed me a prototype web interface in early June, it allowed users to export these groups as Facebook friend lists.
Without the ability to send SMS to message recipients that haven’t download the app, it will be hard to compete in mobile messaging with GroupMe and Beluga. However, the algorithm that automatically create friend lists could be be a deciding factor in the battle between Facebook, Google and others for social network supremacy.
Kleiner Perkins invested $5 million of its $250 million social fund into Katango when it was still called Cafebots. The team includes two Stanford PhD graudates who studied artificial intelligence, a Stanford computer science professor, and Yee Lee, who worked on product for PayPal and Slide. After more than six months of work, the team produced the friend sorting algorithm, and is now releasing its first product.
When users first open the app, they’re required to login with Facebook. The app then takes a little time crunching their friendship data before revealing their freshly minted friend groups that cluster together sets of friends such as closest friends, graduating high school class, family, and coworkers. I was amazed by how accurate it was. It picked out 18 of my different friend groups including a set from my time studying a different college, and the people met on a recent trip abroad. The groups rarely had more than a few omissions or wrongful admissions.
Each group displays a facepile of its members, and is titled with the first names of members. Unfortunately the app doesn’t show groups of people you frequently interact with at the top, or move those you actually message to the top either.
Users can go into a group and name it whatever they want and refine it by adding additional friends from Facebook or their phone’s contacts and removing any that were mistakenly included. They can then send messages and photos which friends will receive via email, in-app message, or Facebook wall post that is only visible to those in the conversation.
The app would only really be useful if you spent a lot of time wall posting and emailing content to multiple friends from your mobile device, which few do. Luckily, the company tells me it is planning to build a platform for integrating its technology into third-party products. The question is whether that includes Facebook and Google. If users of those networks could use Katango’s algorithm to build then export their friend groups, they wouldn’t necessarily need to come back.
Katango holds the key to Google+’s big problem of getting its users to categorize their friends into Circle before being able to share with them. With its new competitor focusing on selective sharing, friend lists are becoming a much bigger issue for Facebook as well. Right now only 5% of users create friend lists, and the rest of Facebook 712 million users could certainly benefit from having them. If Facebook could create friend lists accurately and automatically, it could get users to share more frequently, and control their privacy settings more easily.
Facebook should be looking to release an improvement to friend lists before Google+ shows its potential. If it had technology like Katango’s now, it might be able to stop Google+ in its tracks. Build, partner, or acquire — Facebook will need to do one because while Katango is just a mobile group messaging app today, automated friend list creation is vital to the social network’s future.