Integra5 Wants to be MediaFriends With You
Woburn, MA-based Integra5 announced today that it has changed its name to MediaFriends, a move intended to underscore the startup’s focus on technology that lets people communicate across multiple devices, including phones, PCs, and televisions.
Under the Integra5 brand, the 10-year-old company was known mainly as a supplier of “converged services” software to cable, phone, and wireless operators—think cell-phone text messages that show up on PCs, or Caller ID information for incoming land-line calls that’s displayed on a TV or a cell phone. Its specialty was devising software that bridged the traditional gaps between the infrastructures that deliver data to land-line phones, cell phones, PCs, and TVs.
The new name, MediaFriends, reflects the company’s move toward technologies that allow two-way or multi-way commmunications alongside video content. It’s the same name the company has been using since August 2008 for its latest package of social media applications, including one that lets TV viewers see the SMS and instant-messaging conversations they are having with friends on the same TV screen with network programming.
“The name Integra5 was meant to refer to the integration of lots of services, or taking the flat plane and moving it to the fifth dimension, but to be honest with you it doesn’t properly reflect our focus around communities that are using multiple devices,” CEO Meredith Flynn-Ripley told me last week.
MediaFriends is pitching the TV chat technology as a way for cable, phone, and Internet companies to cater to the media habits of younger viewers, who—as any parent of teenagers will attest—are often using their cell phones or laptops to chat with their friends via SMS or instant message while they’re watching “Lost,” “American Idol,” or “The Simpsons.” The MediaFriends system, which Flynn-Ripley demonstrated for me at the company’s office in Woburn, puts a stream of messages on the same screen with a TV show, with the goal of making such conversations simpler to manage.
At a time when subscription-based video providers are worried about audiences migrating to free Internet video sources such as Hulu, adding the MediaFriends technology could be seen as a way to retain customers. In fact, the first paying customer for the MediaFriends TV chat technology is about to go live with the service, and a second company is installing it now, Flynn-Ripley says. (She said she couldn’t yet name the companies.)
“Communications is what drives technology adoption, and today people are fundamentally communicating differently, based on a generational divide,” says Flynn-Ripley, who joined the company in 2006. “SMS is a huge phenomenon that isn’t going away. If you are in the business of delivering communications services, you had better be aware of this, and meet the needs of this growing group of consumers.”
MediaFriends has engineering operations in Israel and is backed by Benchmark Capital, which has offices in both Menlo Park, CA, and Herzeliya, Israel. Gary Lauder, the founder of a Los Gatos, CA, interactive TV company called ICTV, is also an investor.
MediaFriends added cross-media chat capabilities to its existing platform when it saw how prevalent texting-while-watching was becoming among younger TV viewers, Flynn-Ripley says. She cites research by youth marketing company Ypulse showing that 78 percent of teens and “tweens” (8- to 12-year-olds) say they’re often using a computer while they’re in front of the television. About 66 percent say they’re sending SMS text messages while watching.
Media analysts argue over whether this form of multitasking is a good thing, and whether it poses a threat to traditional media revenue models. In an “ADD culture,” to use a term coined by Interbrand CEO Andy Batement, brand experiences are greatly attenuated, since people don’t pay as much attention to advertisements. Former Microsoft vice president Linda Stone (an Xconomist) has even warned that in large doses, “continuous partial attention,” as she calls the phenomenon, can lead to greater stress and “a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively.” But this may not be true for younger audiences—and Flynn-Ripley believes the social-media revolution presents video providers with a big new business opportunity.
“Interactive TV is something we’ve been talking about in this industry for a very long time, but the problem was the input device—no one wants another keyboard laying around their living room,” she says. “The mobile phone solves that. The switch to the MediaFriends name reflects the focus, in a much bigger way, on mobile and SMS, because that is creating new opportunities that are only possible now because you’ve got this SMS revolution going on.”
Clearly, many companies are experimenting with ways of tapping into the “social video” phenomenon. Last year, Google’s YouTube introduced a feature that allows users to add interactive speech bubbles to their uploaded videos. The Lycos Cinema platform, rolled out in 2008 Waltham, MA-based Lycos, lets groups of up to 10 people using different computers watch the same online rental movie and chat about it onscreen. And Facebook has partnered with CNN and MTV to allow Facebook users to post status updates while watching live TV streams—a service that has attracted hundreds of thousands of users during recent events such as President Obama’s inauguration and the Michael Jackson memorial service in Los Angeles.
But as Flynn-Ripley emphasizes, the MediaFriends TV chat system, which runs on software that operators download to consumers’ set-top boxes, is built around SMS text messaging rather than Web-based communication. While it makes a TV screen function much like a desktop or Web-based instant-messaging program, it leaves the Internet largely out of the loop.
MediaFriends users do have to go to a website first, where they set up buddy lists. But after that, they access the service from their TV using a standard remote control. They can send live-chat invitations to people on their buddy lists; if the invitees accept, their TVs are automatically tuned to the same channel (although this isn’t a requirement—Flynn-Ripley says one of the company’s “aha moments” came when engineers realized that teens like to chat even when they’re not watching the same program). The TV interface shows a phone number where users can send text messages, and every new message is displayed on the shared screen of every chat-room participant.
The system also allows users to watch on-demand or recorded videos together. Buddies who aren’t watching TV can participate in the conversations via instant messages from their PCs, although in that case won’t see the video.
“Basically,” says Flynn-Ripley, “we’re breaking down the barriers to messaging between mobile phones, PCs, and TV” —a new capability that may appeal most directly to so-called “triple-play” operators such as Comcast, Cox, or Verizon, who supply television, Internet, and voice services over the same data pipes. “From an operator standpoint, it’s a way to create a new level of stickiness, and differentiate your triple-play service,” she says. It also creates new revenue opportunities, as there’s space on the chat screens for advertisements.