Mar 122011
 
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For all the clever things smartphones can do these days — like stream movies and play 3-D games — the latest mobile craze centers on revamping one of the earliest phone applications, the text message.

Apps from a wave of new start-ups allow multiple people to participate in the same conversation on a mobile phone, like a group chat room or conference call held by way of text message. The new applications, most of which are free, include GroupMeFastSocietyBelugaKik,TextPlusPingChatHurricaneParty and Yobongo.

Several of these services have made their debuts just this week, right before the opening on Friday of South by Southwest, the technology and music festival in Austin, Tex. They hope to gain some attention at the festival, which attracts scores of technology enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists interested in seeing the latest innovative ideas.

Caleb Elston, one of the founders of Yobongo, which is based in San Francisco, said the timing of the app’s release, a week before South by Southwest, was “no accident.”

“It is the perfect storm of developers, designers and business people in a sphere where there is a natural social dynamic for networking,” he said. “Lots of services already help you connect with your friends, but the point of South by Southwest is to meet with new people that have your interests.”

The stakes can be high. The weeklong event has helped propel several companies, including Twitterand Foursquare, above the noise of the thousands of other companies vying for attention as start-ups.

And the group messaging start-ups face challenges even at this stage. Mostly, they must stay ahead of the curve of big companies like Facebook and cellphone makers, said James E. Katz, a professor at Rutgers University, who studies communications. The big companies, he said, might be looking to tweak their own services in ways that could eliminate the need for the upstarts.

“Those companies have shown themselves to be incredibly nimble and innovative when it comes to spotting new trends and jumping aboard,” he said.

Indeed, in early March, Facebook announced that it had acquired Beluga, leading many in the technology world to wonder if the flurry of interest around mobile group messaging services was over before it truly began.

At the same time, there is speculation that Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, will bring its popular instant messaging service, BlackBerry Messenger, to Apple and Google smartphones. R.I.M. declined to comment on its future plans.

The desire for the new group messaging services, their creators say, stems in part from the popularity of Facebook and Twitter. As those sites have evolved and grown, the start-ups say it has become harder to cut through the clutter to have a meaningful conversation.

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