[Translation] Why do we need so many messengers?

[Translation] Why do we need so many messengers?


Slack, Signal, Hangouts, Wire, iMessage, Telegram, Facebook Messenger ... Why do we need so many applications to perform one task?


Decades ago, science fiction writers imagined flying machines, automatically preparing food for the kitchen and the opportunity to call anyone on the entire planet. But they did not realize that we would end up in the hell of instant messengers, having an endless number of applications designed to simply send text to a friend.

Sending text has turned into mental gymnastics: this friend does not use iMessage, but will respond if I send a message via WhatsApp. The other one has WhatsApp, but he doesn’t answer there, you have to use Telegram. Others can be found via Signal, SMS and Facebook Messenger.

How did we get into this mess of messengers, if before everything was so simple? Why do we need a catalog of applications for sending messages that are needed only to communicate with friends?


SMS: first communication app


In 2005, I was a teenager in New Zealand, stupid phones became popular with us, and there was only one way to send messages to the phone: SMS.

Operators in the country offered a rate of $ 10 for an unlimited number of messages, but soon they limited them to 10,000, finding that teenagers would send as many messages as they would allow. We counted our balance of messages, sent thousands of messages a day, and tried not to waste them all. When you reached zero, you were cut off from the world, or you had to pay $ 0.2 per message before the beginning of the next month. And everyone has always exhausted this limitation, accumulating bills for sending tiny pieces of text.

Then everything was easier. If I had a phone of a person, I could send him a message. I did not need to check a lot of applications and switch between services. All messages lived in one place, and everything was beautiful. If I was at the computer, I could use MSN Messenger or AIM [let's not forget about ICQ/app. perev.], but only occasionally, and everything always returned to SMS, when I was AFK [not at the keyboard/approx. trans.].

And then the Internet penetrated the phones and a new kind of messaging application appeared: always online, on the phone, with photos, links and other types of materials. And I no longer needed to pay the operator $ 0.2 per message if I was online.

Startups and tech-giants started the fight for a new world, not disconnecting from the network, and as a result in the following years hundreds of messaging applications appeared. iMessage gained popularity with iPhone users in the US, in particular because it could roll back to SMS. WhatsApp, then still independent, conquered Europe as it focused on privacy. China intervened in the affair and distributed WeChat, where users could do everything, from buying music to searching for a taxi.

It's amazing that the names of almost all these new instant messengers will be familiar to you: Viber, Signal, Telegram, Messenger, Kik, QQ, Snapchat, Skype, and so on. Even more surprisingly, you will find several of these applications on your phone - definitely not just one of them. There is no more just one messenger.

In Europe, it annoys me daily: I use WhatsApp to communicate with friends from the Netherlands, Telegram for those who switch to it, Messenger with family from New Zealand, Signal with people who are fond of technology, Discord with friends on games, iMessage with parents and personal twitter messages with internet friends.

Thousands of reasons led us to this situation, but messengers have become a sort of zoo: no one is friendly with each other, and messages cannot be passed between messengers, because each of them uses a patented technology. Older messaging applications took care of interoperability — for example, Google Talk used the Jabber protocol to allow users to send messages to other people using the same protocol.

Nothing can get Apple to open the iMessage protocol for other applications — or even for Android users — because then it will be too easy for users to leave the iPhone. Messengers have become symbols of proprietary software, an ideal tool for managing users: they are hard to give up when all your friends use them.

The short message service, SMS, despite all the flaws, was an open platform. As an email today, SMS worked everywhere, regardless of device or provider. The providers may have killed this service, demanding a disproportionately high price, but I miss SMS because it “just worked” and was the only reliable way to send a message to anyone.

Little hope still exists


If Facebook succeeds, this situation may change: in January, The New York Times reported that the company is working on merging Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp into one backend, so that users can correspond with each other without switching. At first glance, this looks attractive, but this is not what I need: Instagram is good because it is separate, like WhatsApp, and combining them will allow Facebook to get a complete look at my habits.

Also, such a system will be a great goal: if all the instant messengers are gathered in one place, then the attacker will only need to hack one of them to find out everything about you. Some security-conscious users specifically switch between different applications, believing that their conversations are harder to track if they are broken into several channels.

There are other projects to revitalize open messaging systems. The protocol Rich Communication Services (RCS) continues the SMS business, and recently received support from operators and device manufacturers around the world. RCS transfers all of your favorite iMessage properties to an open platform — pointers to a set of messages by the interlocutor, images, online statuses — so any manufacturer and operator can implement it.



Despite the fact that Google is actively promoting this standard and integrating it into Android, RCS is slowly gaining momentum, and is having problems postponing its widespread popularity. For example, Apple refused to add it to the iPhone. The standard has received support from major players such as Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Huawei, HTC, ASUS and so on, but Apple remains silent - perhaps fearing the loss of the appeal of iMessage. RCS also depends on the support of its operators, however they slow down, because it will require significant investments in infrastructure.

But the uncomfortable reality is that this mess is unlikely to be corrected in the near future. Unlike most of the technology sector, where players close to monopolies have taken control - for example, Google in the search area, and Facebook in social networks - messaging has yet to be managed. Historically, it was very difficult to capture a monopoly in messaging, because this area is highly fragmented, and switching between services is very unpleasant.However, Facebook, controlling so many large instant messengers, is clearly trying to seize this space so that users never leave it at all.

For now, there is at least one solution that makes life a little easier: applications like Franz and Rambox place all instant messengers in one window, so that they can switch between them faster.

But in the end, everything remains on the phone: we have a whole directory of instant messengers, and there is no way to simplify everything. Great choice in this area has a positive effect on the competition, but every time I look at the phone, I need to carry out calculations in my mind, which I have been doing for almost ten years: which application should I choose to send a message to a friend?

Source text: [Translation] Why do we need so many messengers?