Path spins out dedicated messaging app that'll let you text businesses too

Today, Path has joined the likes of Facebook by splintering off one of its most popular features -- messaging -- into its own app. Simply called Path Talk, the standalone messenger comes just a year after the introduction of private messaging to the social network. But that's not all. In concert with Path Talk's launch, the company has also announced the acquisition of TalkTo, a service that lets you text any local business like you would a person and get a response. And, you guessed it, one of the standout new features of Path Talk will include the ability to do exactly that.

But before we delve into that, let's begin by explaining what Path Talk brings to the table. When Path started in 2010, its aim was to be a social network that focused on close personal friends instead of just random acquaintances or high school classmates you hardly remember. It's why the app initially restricted the friends list to just 50 people, to force you to be selective in what and to whom you share. Since then, the niche network has evolved, loosening that restriction to 150 and, most recently, it's removed that limit entirely. Now you can have as many friends on Path as you want, and it's reporting as many as 4 million daily active users. It seems as good a time as any to seek out new ways to expand the business.

"We feel that breaking out messaging into its own app was by far the best way to go about delivering it to users," Dave Morin, CEO and co-founder of Path, tells us. Additionally, Path Talk is just the first of many apps the outfit plans on breaking out from its main offering. "We want to break Path up into multiple applications ... Our vision really is to be an application company." Indeed, that's why Path Talk and Path can be used independently. If you don't want to use the Path app, but want to use Talk, you can do that.

When you first download Path Talk, you're prompted to log in with your Path credentials. "Path is this umbrella, and you have these two apps under that," explains Cynthia Samanian, a Path product manager. Indeed, Path Talk looks and feels a lot like the main Path app, and maintains a similar design language throughout.

If you're already a Path user, the people list will have all your friends already on it. You can also give the app access to your address book, which will tell the app who among your contacts has a Path account, and those people will also be added. If your friends aren't on Path, you're able to add them by sending an SMS invite to download the app.

Just like Snapchat and Slingshot, Path Talk messages are ephemeral -- they expire after 24 hours. "Most conversations aren't recorded and saved forever," explains Samanian. Morin adds: "We've all opened up message threads only to find a conversation that happened two weeks ago and gotten confused ... Thinking about context is really important -- we want you to have the best possible conversation you can have as soon as you enter a messaging thread with somebody."

To that end, one of the key features of Path Talk is something called ambient status. It essentially lets your friends know a little something about you based on the data it gleans from your phone. When enabled, ambient status can display your location (along with weather, if applicable), whether you're nearby, the name of the song you're listening to, if you're low on battery, if you're working out or even if you're in transit, say in a car or a bus. There's a special ambient status tab that lists them all, or you can simply figure it out based on the icon or colored dot on the Friends or Messages tab.

"Most people start a messaging app thinking they need to start a conversation with someone for a reason," says Samanian. "What this ambient status thing does is give some information about him or her beforehand, to act as kind of a conversation starter." Morin says, for example, that different status types can lead to different interactions. If you see some friends are nearby, you can text them to meet up. A low battery status would indicate the person you're texting is likely about to drop out. "How many times are you just about to tell someone you love them and then their phone dies?" asks Morin. "This makes sure that's never a problem."

Music sharing has always been a key feature of Path's core app, and it's the same with Talk. If you see a friend is listening to a song, you're able to tap the music icon to see what he or she is playing and get a short preview of the tune. The app will display the song that's playing in the default Music app if you're using iOS, but if you're on Android, songs played on any app -- say Rdio or Spotify -- will show up. However, Morin says that might change with the arrival of iOS 8 in the next few months.

If you happen to have all of these ambient status options turned on, Path Talk has a prioritization system that figures out which status to best display. For instance, a low battery status is probably more important than where you are or what music you're rocking out to, so that'll show up next to your name over all the other options.

As for actual messaging, it works much the same way it did on the Path app. With Talk, you'll just have to tap the top to open a new conversation tab with either one or more people. Just as before, you're able to incorporate stickers, photos, song embeds, voice messages and location pins mid-conversation. If you're short on time, you can also choose to drop in a green check as a quick "Yes" response. If you hold down on the check, you'll see three other options: an X to indicate "No," a question mark as a sort of ping and a phone icon. When that last one is selected, it'll drop a "Call me" link that opens up the phone dialer, complete with the sender's phone number.

Now, back to the acquisition of TalkTo. A three-and-a-half-year-old service, it essentially lets you send a text to a phone number of a place instead of having to call it. So rather than ringing up a restaurant to see if it has reservations or phoning Best Buy to find out if it has a particular item, you can just send a text message to the phone number via TalkTo. Acting as a broker, TalkTo will then figure out the best way to get that request across, either by email or sending an actual text to someone's cellphone. If a place isn't yet responding on their own, well, TalkTo actually has a call center with agents to make an actual phone call on your behalf.

"In every case that you're asking the question, in the same way you text a friend, you'll get a response," says Stuart Levinson, CEO and co-founder of TalkTo. "This is the service -- you'll never have to worry about if it'll work for this store or that. It'll be ubiquitous." This very feature will be added to Path later this summer, and it'll be called Place Messaging.

"We really envision messaging as a hub for your life," says Morin. "Not just friends and groups, but also businesses ... Having all of it in one central messaging hub is a very powerful idea."

Aside from Path Talk, the company is also making a few interface changes to its main app. Obviously, the messaging function is now gone from Path -- tapping on a message bubble will simply kick you over to Talk instead. The UI has improved as well, with a new tabbed navigation bar for quicker access to various sections and a new chooser that's more intuitive.

With Path Talk, it's clear that Path is looking for new ways to grow. Let's face it, Path doesn't have quite the mindshare of Facebook or Twitter, and a small app-based social network can only survive for so long. It seems pretty smart to split Path into smaller apps, if only to find the right one that'll stick. And this idea of a messaging hub for both people and places just might be it.

Path Talk is available for Android and iOS, and should be ready to download from both app stores starting today.