Path puts 'superpower' in your hands with app to text businesses

Alternative social network tries to stand out with a new mobile app that lets users message with friends, and businesses too.

What if instead of waiting on hold for that customer representative to pick up your call, you could just text the company and ask them to message you back the answer?

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TalkTo's app for the iPhone. Path is buying TalkTo and integrating it into a messaging app. TalkTo

That's the message around a new service from Path, a social network designed for mobile devices and headed up by former Facebook employee Dave Morin. The app, which launched in 2010, doesn't have advertising and encourages users to share connections with a relatively small circle of friends.

Now, Path is joining the large and growing list of companies offering a new separate messaging app for mobile devices. But it also wants to offer a different spin. In Path's case, users will be able to both communicate with one another and ask questions from businesses, such as whether they have particular items in stock or an open table for dinner. For the latter function, Path has purchased TalkTo, a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup that helps people communicate with local businesses via text messages.

"When you look at your messages, you're calling a lot of businesses, and yet texting a lot of friends and family -- why can't you text message businesses in your life?" Morin said in an interview at the company's headquarters in San Francisco.

The new messaging app, called Path Talk, will be released Friday, but the ability to communicate with businesses will not arrive until later in the summer, the company said.

The move is a logical extension of Path's efforts to entwine itself in users' personal lives, Morin said. "We started to have this vision of messaging not just being a messaging app, but also a hub for your life."

Path and TalkTo declined to discuss terms of the deal.

Path's efforts to shift its business comes amid a surge of interest in messaging services -- and as the company seeks to reposition itself after cutting staff last year. As smartphones with their always-on connections have become ubiquitous, customers have flocked to Internet-based messaging services. Industry executives say they're compelled by the promise of cheaper communication with friends in other countries, and the ability to send messages with photos, videos, and other items.

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Path's new Path Talk app. Path

Companies such as Line and Viber have become hubs of communications between people across the globe, and have drawn increasing valuations and attention from larger companies. Late last year, Facebook reportedly offered $3 billion to purchase Snapchat an ephemeral messaging service; a few months later, it purchased WhatsApp for $19 billion.

They're not alone. Microsoft purchased Skype, primarily known as a video messaging app, in 2011. That same year, Apple released its own messaging service. Google revamped its messaging system in 2013.

Stuart Levinson, head of TalkTo, said his company's technology will help Path stand out by offering access to its army of contractors who call businesses on behalf of customers. "Any place you can find in Google Places you can send a message to," he said. "The first time you get a response back from one, you feel like you have a superpower in your hands."

Path's decision to split its app, which serves as a social network and a digital journal of user's travels, photos, and missives, follows another trend sweeping through the industry. Companies like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Google have been steadily creating catalogs of apps to handle a variety of functions based off their respective websites and services.

Path's new messaging app will contain many features the company has been building for its primary app, including an amalgamation of "sticker" images that can be used as a reply instead of words. The app will also have new features, such as the ability to automatically share a user's location, whether they're in transit somewhere, or warn that their phone's battery is running low.

As for Path, Morin said the four-year-old company is hiring again after firing about a dozen workers in October. Path now has about 45 employees, up from 35 after its layoffs. TalkTo has seven employees in its ranks, not including contractors.

Path also claims usage on its service is rising. It currently counts 4 million daily active users on its network, up from 1.5 million in January. Last September, it said it had 20 million registered users, up from 10 million in April.

Morin won't say how sales are going. Path makes money through premium subscriptions to its social network service and by offering virtual goods, such as filters that let users change the look of photos. It also sells images, called "stickers," that can be used in communications with other users.

Path's virtual goods business is "growing nicely," Morin said. "We've looked at a lot of ways expand our business," he said. "We really like being a premium business."

Messaging will continue to be an opportunity for growth, Morin predicted, noting that Path's business is expanding the most in Asia and the Middle East.

"A lot of people are experiencing computers for the first time as a mobile device," he said, and messaging apps are among the most used. "There's a lot of activity because in the end humans communicate with each other."

About the author

Ian Sherr is a senior writer for CNET focused on social media and video game companies. He has previously written for The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the Agence France-Presse. He's a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, though he knows what real weather feels like too.

 

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