Ban.jo, the social discovery app that lets users search for friends nearby, is launching a brand new version of its iOS app today with a complete backend overhaul. The redesign is intended in part to help Ban.jo scale — it’s now adding new users at a rate of 100,000 per month, founder and CEO Damien Patton told us, having reached 600,000 total by the end of January after an public launch in late June 2011. The consumer traction is impressive, but it’s the long-term vision behind Ban.jo and its tech that truly make the app noteworthy.
“Version 2.0 of Ban.jo is a complete UX as well as engineering change,” Patton said. “We left no code untouched within the client, and on the server side there’s almost nothing left as well. The reason is we grew so much faster than we thought.” Patton said the update is intended to help the company continue to innovate while also serving its growing customer base.
Ban.jo appears to have struck a chord with users by allowing them to be notified when a friend in one of their social networks is nearby (Ban.jo originally tied to Facebook and Twitter, but adds Instagram, Foursquare and Gmail sign-ins in this update). It was originally designed to connect people who know each other and both happen to be at the same place at the same time, like in an airport for instance. But it also offers users the ability to search for anyone sharing public content on social networks in their immediate vicinity, not just friends. Similar apps like Sonar are focusing on social discovery, but with an emphasis on events and networking.
Ban.jo hits the social, local and mobile notes which are driving a lot of industry innovation recently, especially in mobile marketing, and Patton’s ultimate goal is to develop the tech to such a stage that it becomes desirable to other companies. “The core of Ban.jo is a technology. We’re not an app.” Patton said. “We use an app as a medium to get the technology out, but what we’re really building is tech that other people will rely on in the location and social space.” He pointed out that the company is an engineering-first team, with a strong focus on iterating the product as quickly and effectively as possible.
Even with Ban.jo’s emphasis on local friend discovery through its Friend Alerts feature, Patton says the company is already seeing hints at where it might make bigger splashes in other usage situations. For example, since you don’t actually have to be in a location to check what people are sharing on social networks in that area using Ban.jo, it acts as a tool for getting crowd-sourced eyewitness reports of far-flung or hard to reach news events. “I’ve seen news reporters in Philadelphia, Dallas and other places use the app to report on events,” he said. “Fox used it to report on a major flood that they couldn’t get people to.”
Patton also revealed that his company plans to release an API in the future to help media organizations use Ban.jo in combination with branded solutions, but again he reiterated that the future of the tech behind the app goes beyond even that. “It’s the underlying technology that we’d want to help media companies use to then visualize the data any way that they wanted,” he said. “In the larger scheme of things for Ban.jo as a company, the API will allow not just media organizations, but any app builder, any social networking company, anybody who wants to harness this technology, be it friend alerts, the ability to be in two places at once, to search across your social graph in real time, to build on top of [Ban.jo's] technology.”
The long-term impact of the tech that powers Ban.jo and its potential applications across a variety of industries are the bigger story behind the consumer-focused changes of version 2.0. The use cases that have emerged, often unexpectedly like how reporters are using Ban.jo to get eyewitness accounts in foreign locales, show that users are sourcing new and different uses for the technology.