The hottest space in mobile tech right now is messaging, with all the apps that let you skip past high-priced SMS and send texts for free (or very cheap). Just this week, we've heard that BlackBerry Messenger will soon work on iPhone and Android — and yesterday, Google Hangouts launched on those same platforms. Facebook, too, has made a big push to promote its Messenger solution with Facebook Home and Chat Heads just last month. Added together, these apps have surpassed traditional SMS in the total number of messages sent.
Yet for all that innovation in chat, there's still a problem. All these communication apps can't communicate with each other. Either you and your friends all need to standardize on a certain app or — more likely — you're going to be stuck with an entire folder of icons and need to remember which of your friends and family use which service. It's already a mess and there's no sign of relief on the horizon.
All these communication apps can't communicate with each other
The situation was thrown into stark contrast yesterday at Google I/O, when CEO Larry Page decried the lack of cooperation between companies in this space. He specifically called out Microsoft for enabling Google Talk in Outlook:
I think that we've really invested a lot in the open standards behind all that. I've personally been quite sad about the industry's behavior around all these things. You just take something as simple as instant messaging. We've kind of had an offer forever that will interoperate on instant messaging. I think just this week Microsoft took advantage of that by interoperating with us, but not doing the reverse. Which is really sad, right? And thats not the way to make progress.
Page's lamentation is deeply ironic, however, because Microsoft's announcement came just 27 hours before Google itself announced that it was releasing a messaging product that is almost as closed as anything Microsoft is offering. The Hangouts service, though it can communicate with Google Talk, is not based on an open standard and it’s not open for other companies to use.
Page's lamentation is deeply ironic
Google Talk was designed to work with the XMPP standard, which was originally known as Jabber and was meant to be a universal way for instant message apps to work together. Google's director of real-time communications, Nikhyl Singhal, told The Verge that switching away from XMPP for Hangouts "was one of the toughest decisions we made." Although Google believed in the idea that "chat networks would create a universal network," Singhal says that nobody else participated in the standard in any meaningful way. "The notion behind the original standard drafted 12 years ago never really came into fruition."
Singhal and Page are only expressing half of the truth, though, because Microsoft Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Facebook Messenger, and Skype all communicate with XMPP — albeit in a limited way. That was an old instant message world, however, and apparently no company thought XMPP was right for a mobile messaging context — for a variety of reasons.
Though there may be technical justifications for not using an open standard to interoperate, they pale in comparison to the political reasons. Page has a dim view of how these other companies used XMPP, but his comments about it reveal as much about his sense of ownership over the standard as they do about whether other companies are playing ball. "You need to actually have interoperation, not just people milking off one company for their own benefit," Page said.
Beginning with the early days of BlackBerry Messenger and continuing on through WhatsApp, iMessage, and many more, part of the allure of making a messaging app had been getting consumers locked in to your platform. With Hangouts, Google is certainly now playing that game as well. The prize of making consumers beholden to your platform for their messaging needs is apparently too tempting to pass up.
With Hangouts, Google is playing the lock-in game too
Once upon a time, we created interoperable communications standards like email, Internet Relay Chat, and hell, HTTP. Now, apparently, the only way to create a new way to talk to each other electronically is to wait for a big corporation to do it for us.
Page himself said he'd like to see more cooperation. "I'd like to see more open standards, more people getting behind things that just work, and more companies involved in those ecosystems." However, his very next sentence revealed a fundamental misconception that still seems to exist within the company — that it's synonymous with open web standards: "I think that's why this conference is so important." If Page really believed in cooperation, it seems dubious that the Google developer conference is the right place to make that happen.
That's to say nothing of the fact that Google just yesterday decided to slap Microsoft with a cease and desist letter for creating its own YouTube app. "We certainly struggle with people like Microsoft," Page said. Indeed.
Arguably, adhering to an interoperable standard can stymie innovation, keeping companies from introducing new features. That certainly what Viber's founder Talmon Marco believes, telling The Verge, "You can choose to interoperate or innovate. You cannot do both at the same time." Google's Singhal disagrees, though, saying that Google gave up on the standards-based approach in Hangouts simply because there weren't any partners willing to work with them. "It's not as much that the standard itself could not express what we wanted," he says. Whether or not Google will try to open up Hangouts as it has with other standards isn’t yet clear — but even if the company does there’s no guarantee anybody else would use it.
We've seen this story before
What's crazy is that we've seen this story before. When Time Warner and AOL proposed their ill-fated merger, the FCC recognized that AOL Instant Messenger was on the verge of becoming a monopoly and placed restrictions on the chat app, requiring interoperability for future versions. For the moment, as Ellis Hambuger has previously reported, we are in no danger that a single messaging app will become a monopoly.
But the mobile market moves fast, and unless we find a way to force these companies to cooperate, the burden of too many choices could someday become the nightmare of having a single one of them — locked in, without interoperability — control our communication. Right now, every time you tap out a message on your phone you’re supporting one of three possible futures: fragmentation, high SMS prices, or dominance from a single corporation. Happy texting.