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Group-texting market shaken up with Facebook buy

Facebook has acquired Beluga, one of the smaller players in a tight market. What Facebook will do with it is uncertain; so is how bigger rival GroupMe will now fare.

A barely launched start-up called Beluga, one of several looking to dominate the suddenly hot again group messaging market, announced today that it had been acquired by Facebook.

The company, which had drummed up a moderate amount of hype, was unlikely to sell so early. But it's not that much of a shock that Facebook swooped in to snap it up: Beluga's three co-founders are former Google employees, and were likely appealing to Facebook as the company looks over and over again to fill its product and engineering teams with entrepreneurially minded people by buying their start-ups. What is unusual is that Facebook does not plan to shut down Beluga, as it typically does when it buys tiny start-ups. This is a sign that its technology may live on as part of something within Facebook--perhaps a group-messaging service of the social network's own. Messaging and mobile offerings are two things that we know Facebook is continuing to update and improve.

And this--to use a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad Silicon Valley cliche--changes the game. Next week begins the annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi) in Austin, Tex., which has become an industry Colosseum of sorts for pitting rival social-media start-ups against one another throughout the confab's raging party scene and seeing which one prevails. Last year, everyone wanted to know which of a handful of location-based "check-in" services would come out of SXSWi victorious; in hindsight, this was when Foursquare pulled ahead of its rivals, at least in perception.

This year at SXSWi, many are expecting that group-messaging services will be in the spotlight as festival attendees attempt to figure out where exactly to go ("Guys! Ashton Kutcher is @ Six Lounge! Everybody show up!") and though it's a little less exciting than a horse race, there's certainly a clear rivalry with no real winner. It could be GroupMe, with nearly $11 million of venture funding raised from top-notch investors, or it could be the rowdier, marketing-heavy Fast Society, determined to take Austin by storm with intensely calculated party antics. Or it could be Beluga, which was paling in comparison to GroupMe based on the fact that it lacked the bigger start-up's connections or user uptake.

In a deliberate pre-SXSWi move, GroupMe launched a revamped version of its iPhone and Android apps on Tuesday, featuring an improved interface, photo sharing within groups, and location sharing. It's also launched a pre-SXSWi promotional page, promising "lots of features that will make Austin a lot more fun."

But the fact that Beluga is now part of Facebook could change everything--and since nothing more will have changed yet by the time SXSWi rolls around, that hotly anticipated SXSWi battle royale may turn out to mean nothing. We'll have to wait until later to see how the true effects of Facebook's muscle set in.

This post was updated at 3:23 p.m. PT with details about GroupMe's update.