Barman’s GoGroups aims to replace IM

Touradj Barman SOM ’07 plans to kill the instant messenger. Or replace it, at least.

With these hopes, Barman is releasing GoGroups, a downloadable program that allows users to join, chat and share in public and private online groups. His program, which he began developing while a student at the School of Management, does all this with the help of his patented “live html.”

Barman is making GoGroups available to the Yale community today in the first step toward a wider distribution.

In GoGroups, each group of users has a set of “cards,” chat conversations encoded in HTML and updated immediately. Barman said this patented technology makes each card like “a Web browser without a refresh button.” The cards can contain text, HTML, pictures and even widgets like YouTube videos.

“You could take any window that’s out there on the Internet and put it in there,” he said.

Barman said he hopes these cards will be simultaneously as immediate as IM and as “persistent” as e-mail, allowing the user to archive and continue previous chats.

Among the archived cards already on GoGroups, there are numerous test messages between Barman and the other developers tracking the growth of GoGroups over the past four months. But the idea itself started long before that, when, in his first year at the SOM, Barman wanted to combine elements of instant messaging and e-mail. He shared the idea with his friend Jason Mallet SOM ’07, who encouraged him to raise money for the project.

“[Mallet] has knowledge of the finance world,” Barman said. “And he thought it was fundable, so that was really encouraging.”

Barman also got encouragement from the SOM, where he concentrated in marketing and in strategy. “It gave me the inspiration to make it real,” he said. “Going to the classes gave me a more strategic mind.”

Even with inspiration from his friends and faculty, raising the capital proved to be the biggest hurdle Barman’s idea faced.

“I tried to do that at school, and I didn’t have a lot of luck,” he said. “Less than three weeks after I graduated, I randomly met this real-estate agent from San Francisco, and he ended up giving me 250K.”

Barman hired developers, and now the program is almost ready for launch. But Barman is still trying to raise more money. “It’s always a challenge,” he admitted. He said he has also found it difficult to conceptualize a unique business model.

“I didn’t want to just put ads in people’s faces,” Barman said. “Facebook will take your information and use it to make money, but if you find a way to make money without invading people’s privacy, you’re going to be better off.”

“We’re focusing on unique ways to make money instead of selling data,” Barman added, citing such avenues as “feature packs” including financial add-ons for specific users and private networks for corporate clients.

Gabriel Tejada ART ’07, who helped Barman create the GoGroups identity and Web site, agrees that he is not the typical businessman.

“Most of the other students are more interested in getting into a corporate world, but he has the entrepreneurial thing in him,” she said.

Tejada said that pushing boundaries, while encouraged among students in the art school, seems less common among the stereotypically more conservative students from the business school.

“He’s not taking the safe way,” Tejada said.

“Even in conceptual phases, he could articulate very clearly what he wanted,” she recalled. At the time, she could see the passion he had for the idea, and how it was something different from Facebook or instant messaging.

To gradually attract its initial members, Barman is first opening up GoGroups to the Yale community alone. But it is still unclear how students here will receive it.

“It seems that it has the possibility to be really cool,” Drew Westphal ’09 said. “It could be a good idea or a good service, but it’s not quite ready.”

Westphal, a computer-science major, doesn’t see GoGroups becoming very popular.

“It seems like instant messaging was really cool in high school, and it’s declined in popularity since we got to college,” Westphal said. Except when one is in section, he added.

After seeing a YouTube introduction to GoGroups and the company’s Web site, Westphal prepared a list of criticisms of the program.

“It seems that their HTML is pared down,” he said, pointing to what he called the limited abilities of the cards’ live HTML as compared to that of standard Web browsers. HTML is not an ideal way to format text, Westphal said, although the ability to drag and drop links, like those from YouTube, makes sense.

Westphal wondered as well about the program’s social-networking abilities.

“How is this going to become easier and faster to use than Facebook?” he asked.

Barman’s own profile on GoGroups includes his contact information through services like AIM and MySpace.

But although GoGroups may not be great for socializing, it could be useful for organizing, Westphal said. The quality of the tag cloud — a list of the conversation cards, matching more popular cards with larger font sizes — will determine how easy it is for users to navigate between conversations.

“How good the tag cloud is will determine a lot about the programs usability,” he said.

Additionally, Westphal sees great potential for filesharing in GoGroups’ secure 256-bit encryption.

“It’s encrypted so you can share files, not just for piracy, but for business purposes, too,” he said.

For those who never let the law keep them from a free movie, GoGroups provides one gigabyte of storage and a server with, as Westphal says, “a whole lot of bandwidth.”

“A gig is still pretty large,” Westphal explained. “You could share one program, or one or two feature-length films or three or four episodes of a TV show.”

GoGroups may have a stopgap to prevent illegal filesharing, Westphal said, but it will essentially come down to the company’s stance on censorship.

“If they don’t care who’s using it, and just want a lot of people using it, then they should not check,” Westphal said. “People will join, possibly for illicit purposes.”

But Barman is continually finding ways to improve GoGroups.

“He’s dedicated himself to it,” Tejada said. “He’s made it this far because of his own effort.”

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