Google Goes All in for Messaging, Invests in Symphony

October 13, 2015

Something is brewing at Google.

Last week it was announced that Symphony just raised another $100M lead by Google. Not Google Ventures mind you – Google Inc.

Symphony

Who is Symphony?

  • High profile Silicon Valley startup (obviously), soon to become a unicorn, if it isn’t already
  • Well known founder from the Unified Communications industry – David Gurle
  • Have been around for only a year
  • Already has over 100 employees, most of them engineers
  • Focused on enterprise messaging, and targeting highly regulated and security sensitive industries

The Symphony Service

The service itself is targeted at the enterprise, but a free variant of it is available. I tried logging into it, to see what is all about. It is a variant of the usual messaging app on the desktop, with bits and pieces of Facebook and Slack.

On face value, not much different than many other services.

Symphony Foundation

Symphony decided to build its service on top of an open source platform of its own, which it calls Symphony Foundation. It includes all the relevant washed-out words required in a good marketing brochure, but little else for now: a mission statement, some set of values. That’s about it.

It will be open source, when the time comes. It will be licensed under the Apache license (permissive enough). And you can leave an inquiry on the site. In the name of openness… that’s as open as Apple’s FaceTime protocol is/was supposed to be. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Why Invest in Symphony?

This is the bigger question here. Both for why Google put money in it, as well as others.

With a total of $166M of investment in two rounds and over 100 employees recruited in its first year of existence, there seems to be a gold rush happening. One that is hard to explain.

As a glaring reminder – Whatsapp on acquisition day had 32 developers and around 50 employees. Symphony has twice that already, but no active user base to back it up.

It might be because of its high profile. After all, this is David Gurle we’re talking about. But then again, Talko has Ray Ozzie. But they only raised $4M in the past 3 years, and have less than 10 employees (if you believe LinkedIn).

The only other reason I can see is the niche they went for.

The financial industry deals with money, so it has money. It also has regulations and laws, making it a hard nut to crack. While most other players are focused on bringing consumer technology to the SMB, Symphony is trying to start from the top and trickle to the bottom with a solution.

The feature set they are putting in place, based on their website, include:

  • Connectivity across organizations, while maintaining “organizational compliance”
  • Security and privacy
  • Policy control on the enterprise level
  • Oh… and it’s a platform – with APIs – and developers and partners

The challenge will be keeping a simple interface while maintaining the complex feature set regulated industries need (especially ones that love customization and believe they are somehow special in how they work and communicate).

On Messaging and Regulation

The smartphone is now 8 years old, if you count it from the launch of the iPhone.

Much has changed in 8 years, and most of it is left unregulated still.

Messaging has moved from SMS to IP based messaging services like Whatsapp in many countries of the world. Businesses are trying to kill email with tools like Slack. We now face BYOD phenomena, where employees use whatever device and tools they see fit to get their work done – and enterprises find it hard to force them to use specific tools.

If Hillary Clinton can use her own private email server during the course of her workday, what should others say or do?

While regulation is slow to catch up, I think some believe the time is ripe for that to happen. And having a messaging system that is fit for duty in those industries that are sensitive today means being able to support future regulation in other/all industries later.

This trend might raise the urgency or the reason for the capital that Symphony has been able to attract.

Google

Why did Google invest here? Why not Google Ventures? It doesn’t look like an Alphabet investment but rather a Google one. And why invest and not acquire?

Google’s assets in messaging include today:

Jibe/RCS is about consumer and an SMS replacement in the long run. It may be targeted at Apple. Or Facebook. Or Skype. Or all of them.

None of its current assets is making a huge impact. They aren’t dominant in their markets.

And messaging may be big in the consumer, but the money is in the enterprise – it can be connectivity to enterprises, ecommerce or pure service. Google is finding it difficult there as well.

Symphony is a different approach to the same problem. Targets the enterprise directly. Focusing on highly regulated customers. Putting money into it as an investment is a no-brainer, especially if it includes down the road rights of first refusal on an acquisition proposal for example. So Google sits and waits, sees what happens with this market, and decides how to continue.

Is this a part of a bigger picture? A bigger move of Google in the messaging space? Who knows? I still can’t figure out the motivation behind this one…

Messaging and me

I’ve been writing on general messaging topics on and off throughout the years on this blog.

It seems this space is becoming a lot more active recently.

Expect more articles here about this topic of messaging from various angles in the near future.


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    1. Thanks Dean.

      This definitely isn’t about going after Slack – the UI and feature set isn’t built for that. The paradigm used to build the tool though, does lend a lot from Slack – as we see from other tools, such as Asana that redesigned their UI and it now looks Slack-like (though isn’t about being Slack either).

      This is about messaging in highly regulated environments, where the first target is most probably Bloomberg.

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