In our PandoWeekly interview the other day, Kik founder Ted Livingston said that he believes messaging is the killer app on mobile. Indeed, messaging apps are taking over the world, so much so that Facebook felt compelled to create a “apperating system,” Home, that put messaging front and center. Just look at the numbers: China’s WeChat claims 400 million users; WhatsApp has 250 million; Line has topped 150 million; Nimbuzz has more than 150 million; KakaoTalk has 90 million; and Kik has 60 million. And that’s to say nothing of Tango, Just.me, MessageMe, Viber, Pinger, Hike, and probably several hundred others that launched in the last 20 minutes.
An Israeli startup that has come out of the Silicon Valley-based UpWest Labs, an accelerator dedicated to supporting Israeli entrepreneurs, has a different approach than those “over the top” messaging heavyweights, which seek to replace SMS and become a central communications hub for mobile. Instead of building a de facto social network (like WeChat and KakaoTalk) or an apps platform (like Line and Kik), Invi has set out simply to make the SMS experience richer and better. Today, it has taken a big step to being able to realize that vision, announcing $3 million in new funding and adding the ability to take over all the native functions of Android’s default SMS app. (Here’s the app in Google Play.)
As of today, Invi lets you send and receive text messages from the app as if you were communicating directly from the default Android SMS app. (Because of its concerns about protecting iMessage, Apple’s iOS is so far a no-go for Invi.) That means you can benefit from Invi’s rich media experience even when receiving text messages from people who don’t use Invi. The app’s most compelling feature is that it converts video, image, audio, and animation links within messages into embedded rich content. So, if someone sends you a link to a YouTube video of sumo-wrestling cats, that video will display in-stream in Invi, so you can play it right within the message. Invi’s co-founder and CEO Iddo Tal compares the ability to the transition from DOS to graphical user interfaces, which might be overstating things a bit, but you get the picture. Invi also lets uers upload banner photos that turn SMS into a more visual mode.
So far, Invi has just a few hundred thousands downloads, which makes it miniscule compared to the likes of WhatsApp and Kik, but it does have the advantage of some high-profile supporters. Notable among them is Ashton Kutcher, whose A-Grade Investments has jointed the party in this new funding round. Li Ka-shing’s Horizons Ventures, an existing investor notable for a win with Waze, has also re-upped its commitment to Invi. Other investors include angels from Google, Nokia, Yahoo, Groupon, Spotify, and SRI, among others.
Invi’s new round comes on the back of seed funding of $750,000, closed in November last year. It’s going to use the cash to build up its development team, increasing its headcount to 10 people from the current six. New features are also in the works. The service won’t carry ads, but Tal says a rich-media store “that allows you to communicate” better is in the works. Virtual goods will be part of that monetization effort, but they won’t be the major thing for sale, he says.
For now, Invi is probably smart to press on with its “do one thing well” approach, but it’s difficult to see it gaining the momentum needed to catch up to the OTT giants, such as WhatsApp and Line. The rich media play, however, is nice enough to suggest that it could ultimately be acquired by a larger player that wants to improve its SMS experience. Who knows – with Yahoo snatching up the likes of Summly and GhostBird Software, Invi could well find itself on Sunnyvale’s shopping list. Or perhaps there’ll be some interest from Cupertino, which might be about the only hope for Invi to be part of a meaningful SMS experience on iOS.
Without a deep-pocketed suitor, however, Invi risks becoming just another messaging app into an ever-growing onslaught of late arrivals.