The State of Mobile Messaging
Like many people, I find myself frustrated with the state of messaging on mobile platforms - partly because it feels like we're so close to something better - but thus far, each solution that's been presented seems to have at least one fatal flaw.
I'm not going to pretend to be an expert, so this is more about my personal experiences and ideas than about any universal truths. I will likely make factual errors, since I haven't used every messaging solution extensively - so if I did get anything wrong, please let me know. What I do know that none of the services I've used have proven sufficient to rid myself of SMS entirely. I have friends who were brave enough to rid themselves of text plans entirely, but I haven't reached that point yet. I don't want to meet a nice girl in a bar, then explain that she can text me...if she has iMessage...or Facebook...or downloads one of the following apps. I just want to give her a number and be done with it.
So, let's take a look at the solutions currently out there, why I think they can't replace SMS in their current state, and what I recommend/foresee for the future.
For me, a messaging solution has to have, at a minimum, the following:
- Platform agnosticism. If something only works on iOS or Android, it isn't for me. I want to be able to start a conversation on Device A and continue it on Device B, regardless of what OS those devices are running.
- A single point of contact. iMessage got this right by linking your phone number with your Apple ID. If I'm in the iOS ecosystem, people can reach me through my Apple ID e-mail address or my phone number. They all go to the same place, rather than being scattered between various apps.
- Universal acceptance. It needs to be easy to use in such a way that people don't even necessarily know they're using it. iMessage is a great model of how this can work.
The Current Line-up
I'm not gonna lie - I'm obviously a big fan of iMessage. It's one of the things I miss most after my transition to Android. The problem is, like many Apple services, it's really only great if you're all-in with Apple. If, like me, you use some Apple products, but don't use an iPhone, then you miss out on some of the biggest iMessage benefits. It goes without saying that you can't send an iMessage from an Android or Windows phone, but you also can't link up your phone number with your Apple ID. There's really no reason that I shouldn't be able to receive an iMessage as an SMS on my Android phone and an iMessage on my iPad and MacBook...but that's the way Apple's decided it should work. Obviously I can't blame them for encouraging you to stick as closely to their ecosystem as possible, but I would love to use iMessage on my iPad - right now, it's pretty useless.
On the Android side, iMessages are treated like second-class citizens. If iPhone users try to add you to a group message, forget it - you'll get a disjointed experience at best. There are some Android apps that support group iMessages, such as GO SMS Pro but as of right now, the stock Android messages app does not. That leads us to more platform agnostic options...
WhatsApp Messenger/Kik Messenger/Etc.
These apps are great at what they do, but I also believe they are, unfortunately, doomed to failure. They all have the same fatal flaw - you have to download them. That sounds silly, perhaps, but I've tried both WhatsApp and Kik, and quickly uninstalled both, for the simple reason that not enough people I know use them. A messaging app without people to message is about as useless as it gets.
Beyond that, I don't want to be jumping between four or five different messaging apps, depending on how someone has messaged me or how I want to reach someone. It's ridiculous and unsustainable. While I greatly appreciate the platform agnostic approach these companies have chosen, I just don't see it working in the long-term. I could be wrong, and I would love to see one of these solutions really take off as a universal messaging standard, but I just don't see it happening. People are lazy, and Apple (intentionally or not) hasn't helped matters with the creation of iMessage. iMessage gives iOS users even less incentive to pursue solutions like these.
I decided to talk about Facebook Messenger separate from services like Whatsapp and Kik because, while it's similar in some ways (you have to download a stand-alone application), it's different in that it's built upon a service that is already used by millions of people very day. Personally, I'm actually a pretty big fan of Messenger, as it hits upon most of my requirements - I can use it on any platform, and it's almost universally accepted - but the almost is what's killing it. Although you can now use Facebook Messenger without a phone number on Android, this really just puts the service on par with other competing services. People who are reluctant to get a Facebook account are, in my experience, unlikely to want to give Facebook their name and phone number.
It also fails to give me a single point of contact. My iPhone-using friends are far more likely to use iMessage, because it's right there and just works. They have no reason to download and use Facebook Messenger as their primary tool, so while I personally use it to start group conversations, I'm out of luck if someone else decides to start a group conversation using iMessage. If Messenger were able to "intercept" iMessages sent to my phone number and present them to me as a group message, that would make the whole thing much more compelling to me.
Although not technically an SMS competitor, I thought Google Talk was worth mentioning because:
- Every Android device has it
- I personally use it all the damn time
Unfortunately, people tend to view Google Talk in different ways. I prefer to use Google Talk (via IMO, which is awesome) to reach people, because it's the simplest platform-agnostic tool I have, and a majority of the people I talk to use it. Since it is at its heart an instant messaging service, though, it's often not the primary means of reaching someone, particularly if they are using a phone rather than a computer. iOS and Windows Phone don't have any native Google Talk solutions, for example, which means it's an unreliable way (at best) for reaching someone via phone. Unless you know for a fact that the recipient uses Google Talk on their phone, you're likely to stick with something like SMS.
Still, there is potential in Google Talk. If Google were to introduce some sort of iMessage competitor by combining a user's phone number with their Google account, then things could get very interesting very quickly. They obviously have some interest in a unified messaging solution, based on their fairly recent acquisition of Meebo, but it is still unknown what form that solution will take.
I also wonder if Google really has a vested interest in creating such a solution, however. Android is largely at the beck-and-call if the carriers, and if they ask OEMs to remove "gMessage integration"...they probably will - and Samsung is big enough now that if they refuse to implement that functionality, it's basically DOA. Even if it exists in stock Android, that will only appeal to a small percentage of Android users, unfortunately.
So what's next?
Although I tend to be pretty optimistic when it comes to technology - I think Android, iOS, and Windows Phone are all pretty awesome and the future only looks to get cooler - I'm actually pretty pessimistic when it comes to the possibility of a unified messaging solution. I would love to see it, but the paths there seem unlikely at best and impossible at worst, primarily because the companies involved don't currently have a vested interest in working together in the necessary ways. Despite that, let's take a look at some future paths that could, theoretically, provide the Ideal Messaging Solution.
Apple makes iMessage an open standard
This is as ideal as it is unlikely. The iMessage integration in iOS and OSX is second-to-none, and if Apple were to open up the standard to Android and Windows Phone to allow for similar first-party integration, the "battle for SMS" could be over in a month. Obviously this will almost certainly never happen, however, as iMessage's primary reason for existing is to keep people in the Apple ecosystem. Making iMessage an open standard runs contrary to its entire purpose. Still, it's a nice thought to have, if only for a moment.
Facebook Messenger integrates seamlessly into SMS
This future is more likely, but still unlikely, at least for the time being. iOS' limitations prevent Messenger from ever integration into the first-party Messages app and, again, some people will simply never want to give Facebook enough information for Messenger to become a universal standard.
Although Google may or may not have something in the works, let's assume for the sake of argument that they're working on an SMS-integrated messaging solution ala iMessage. Although Apple will almost certainly not allow for first-party integration with gMessage, if Google were to utilize people's existing Google Talk accounts, this would at least be more multiplatform than iMessage, as iOS users could theoretically receive gMessages in their third-party Google Talk clients. Not ideal, but still better than iMessage, which is all-or-nothing.
Of course, Google has a lot of housecleaning to do itself - most notably, Google Talk and Google+ Messenger need to be unified under one of the two umbrellas, or merged into a third service entirely. I really do believe Google has to have something in the works...but whether it answers our prayers - and whether or not carriers block OEMs from implementing it all - remains to be seen.
So where does that leave us?
I think we're kind of screwed. The fight to replace SMS may be heating up, but it will rage for years to come, as I just don't think the current environment is suited for a seamless, cross-platform messaging standard. Google might stand the best chance, but even then, Apple users will likely stick largely with iMessage - and it's hard to blame them for doing so. It's simple, it's integrated, and it works.
So, in the short-term, maybe a unified messaging service isn't the answer, but rather, a unified messaging solution. In this regard, I think Windows Phone - and WebOS before it - have the right idea. If we can't get rid of multiple messaging services, we can at least unify the way we interact with those services. If I was more talented with Photoshop, this is where I'd have fancy concept screens...instead, I'll try to describe what I envision, while showing pictures of the Windows Phone and WebOS solutions.
WebOS had the concept down perfect, I think. It doesn't really matter how I contact someone, just that I do contact them. What I want are system-wide settings that are unified into a single Messaging application - similar to how WebOS and Windows Phone already work, but taken to the next level. For simplicity, we'll call this application "Post Office".
In both the WebOS and Windows Phone solutions, you are limited to the built-in services the OS natviely supports. I want to go beyond that. I want third-party solutions like Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, and Kik to be able to tell the OS they are a messaging platform and be seamlessly integrated - think of it like Android's Intent system, but taken to the messaging level. See my terrible, terrible fake screenshot below:
While this doesn't get around the issue of having to download multiple apps for multiple services, it does get around the logical separation of those apps. You already have a list of contacts that, these days, almost certainly follows you between devices through a cloud service, whether it's Google, Apple, or Microsoft storing the data. Let these third-party messaging apps tell the OS what contact info they use to reach their users - the service doesn't need to import or read your contact list, it just needs to tell the Post Office service what contact information it intends to use for messaging routing - and then the Post Office routes the message based on the service priority you determine. You might decide your primary form of communication is Facebook Messenger, followed by Google Talk, followed by Kik, followed finally by SMS if your intended recipient is not using any of those services.
If your recipient is using an OS that implements a Post Office-style messaging hub, then they'll get the message in their own Post Office. If not, then it will be delivered through whatever service the user has installed, based on the priority you chose. Inbound messages from users will appear under their name in the Post Office - the service that was actually used to deliver that message is irrelevant. Ideally, the Post Office would also have a web-based interface that could be used from any computer with a web browser, so that you could start conversations on one device and continue them on another.
The services that integrate into the Post Office should not have their own unique login, because that defeats the purpose. What we want is for any user of any data-driven messaging app to be able to contact any other user of any other data-driven messaging app. You don't need to tell a new friend to reach you on Kik or WhatsApp, just that you can be messaged at email@example.com or 555-555-1234 - identifiers which can, seamlessly, be integrated into as many platforms as you want.
I don't think this solution is perfect - for one thing, it won't be truly universal - but it will at least make inbound and outbound messaging seamless to those using the system. The biggest hurdle is iMessage - I could see Google and Microsoft creating such a service (especially considering Windows Phone already has something that's halfway there), but there would be little incentive for Apple to incorporate iMessage unless pressured by their users. I do believe, though, that something like this is far more likely to happen than a universal messaging standard that replaces SMS - at least in the short term.
Anyway - I suppose that's enough of my rambling for now. I'd love to hear your thoughts - and to hear what I got wrong!