Why do we need so many messengers?

Original author: Owen Williams
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Slack, Signal, Hangouts, Wire, iMessage, Telegram, Facebook Messenger ... Why do we need so many applications to complete one task?

Decades ago, science fiction imagined flying machines that automatically prepare food for the kitchen and the ability to call anyone on the planet. But they did not realize that we would end up in a messenger of hell, having in their hands an infinite 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 on WhatsApp. Another has WhatsApp, but he doesn’t answer there, you have to use Telegram. Others can be found through Signal, SMS and Facebook Messenger.

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

SMS: first communication application

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

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

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

And then the Internet penetrated the phones and a new breed of messaging applications 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 began to fight for a new world that wasn’t disconnected from the network, and as a result, hundreds of messaging applications appeared in subsequent years. iMessage gained popularity among iPhone users in the USA, in particular because it could roll back to SMS. WhatsApp, then still independent, conquered Europe, as it focused on privacy. China intervened and distributed WeChat, where users were eventually able to do everything from buying music to finding a taxi.

It's amazing that the names of almost all of these new 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 longer just one messenger.

In Europe, it annoys me daily: I use WhatsApp to chat with friends from the Netherlands, Telegram for those who switched to it, Messenger with a family from New Zealand, Signal with people who are interested in technology, Discord with friends on games, iMessage with parents and private messages on Twitter with online friends.

Thousands of reasons led us to this situation, but messengers have become a kind of zoo: no one is friends with each other, and you can’t send messages between messengers because each of them uses proprietary technology. Older messaging applications took care of interoperability - for example, Google Talk used the Jabber protocol so that users could send messages to other people using the same protocol.

Nothing can make Apple 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 closed software, an ideal tool for managing users: it’s hard to refuse them when all your friends use them.

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

There is still little hope

If Facebook succeeds, this situation may change: in January, The New York Times announced that the company is working on combining Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp into one backend so that users can chat 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 big goal: if all the messengers are gathered in one place, then the attackers will just have to crack one of them to find out everything about you. Some security-conscious users specifically switch between different applications, believing that their conversations are more difficult to track if they are divided into several channels.

There are other projects to revitalize open messaging systems. Minutes of Rich Communication Services (the RCS) continues SMS business, and has recently received support from operators and device manufacturers worldwide. RCS brings all of iMessage’s favorite features to an open platform — interlocutor message set pointers, 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 experiencing problems that delay its widespread popularization. For example, Apple refused to add it to the iPhone. The standard 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 appeal of iMessage. RCS also depends on the support of its operators, but they are slowed down, since it will require significant investment in infrastructure.

But the uncomfortable reality is that this mess is unlikely to be fixed in the near future. Unlike most of the technology sector, where players close to the monopolies have taken control - for example, Google in the field of search, and Facebook in social networks - messaging remains to be crushed for themselves. Historically, it was very difficult to seize the monopoly in messaging, as this area is highly fragmented, and switching between services is very unpleasant. However, Facebook, controlling so many large messengers, is clearly trying to seize this space so that users do not leave it at all.

So far, there is at least one solution that makes life a little easier: applications like Franz and Ramboxplace all instant messengers in one window so that it is faster to switch between them.

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

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