By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, July 12, 2011 at 9:46 am
When Google+ arrived at the end of June, it made a splash in part based on its defining notion: you have different kinds of friends and don’t want to share everything with all of them all of the time. This week a new iPhone group-messaging app called Katangoo is debuting. And its defining feature–which it came up with a long time before Google+ went public–is that people have different kinds of friends and dont want to share everything with all of them all of the time.
Katango’s distinctive feature is that it uses artificial intelligence to analyze all your Facebook friends, identify common attributes, and then automatically sort them into groups of people with something in common. The more friends you have, the more time this approach might save compared to you trying to organize them by hand.
How well does Katango do at grouping friends–or, at least, my friends? It had a fair amount of success, but it wasn’t a miracle worker. One of its groups was mostly made up mostly of my family members; another consisted largely of coworkers from my last job; one included high-school classmates; and one was full of pals who, like me, are interested in comics and cartoons. But none of the lists were flawless-they all had at least a few folks (usually towards the bottom) who were there for reasons I couldn’t discern. You can edit the lists to add and delete people, and that’s crucial–since the whole point of Katango is to send messages to groups of connected people, it would be nutty to use a list of high-school buddies which also included a few random imposters.
Once you’ve set up your groups, Katango feels a bit like existing group-messaging app ssuch as GroupMe. You can send messages and photos to everyone in a group: if they’re Katango users, they see incoming items inside the app, and if they’re not, they can get them on the Web, and in either case they can reply. Everything is visible only to the people in the group(s) you selected. (Katango tries to make this point in this kinda off-putting video…although I found the video befuddling even after having Katango explained to me by its cofounders.)
Katango doesn’t group your Facebook friends inside of Facebook–it’s an iPhone app that lets you communicate with those individuals, but only outside of the Facebook world. That seems a bit disjointed. If the grouping is useful–and it is–wouldn’t you want to have access to it within Facebook? Or if sorting Facebook friends isn’t the primary purpose of the app, wouldn’t it make sense for it to let you group and group-message other people, such as Twitter followers or LinkedIn acquaintances?
The Katango folks say that they plan to upgrade the service to add more sources of contacts, and will add a more powerful Web-based interface and other features. That would be cool. It’ll be more compelling if it’s a more comprehensive way to manage online friendships–and it’s only going to take off if large numbers of people find it interesting enough to install it and use it. Right now, it’s a rather thin expression of an intriguing idea.