How many chat systems do you use? If I look at my own device and exclude work-related Slack messages, I'd say 50 percent of my chats are in iMessage, 30 percent WhatsApp, and 20 percent are some mix of SMS, Snapchat, Instagram direct messages, Skype, Twitter DMs, and Facebook Messenger. My colleagues in Japan overwhelmingly use Line while my friends in China do the same with WeChat. My security-minded friends, meanwhile, all use Signal or Telegram. And still, there are many more chat systems to choose from.
That's probably why the XKCD comic above hit particularly close to home on Monday.
There was a time when universal chat clients were, well, universal, and worked with the most popular chat systems available. That's because chat was built around open protocols, just like the messaging protocols at the heart of email. Back in the aughts, I could chat with friends on AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Yahoo, and MSN networks simultaneously via applications like Pidgin, Adium, and Trillian. Imagine it: a single app that provided base-level chat functionality between all your contacts, no matter their preferred service. But that was before the walled gardens were built by BlackBerry (née RIM), Apple, Facebook, Google, and others.
So who's going to build the universal chat client in 2017? Easy, Google and Apple; and you're already using it. It’s your phone.
iOS and Android already act like universal chat clients
As dire as the XKCD comic seems, our iOS and Android devices already act as universal chat clients. How many times have you responded to chats directly from your iOS or Android notification panels without even opening the apps? These advanced notifications obviate the need to remember which friend, colleague, acquaintance, or family member uses which chat system. You don't have to keep checking all your different apps to see who's chatting where because the OS keeps you up to date and orders each message chronologically. (Our phones also assign registered chat systems to everyone in our contacts, thereby taking the guesswork out of which app to use when starting a new conversation.) If you desire something richer, you can tap or swipe on those notifications to launch the appropriate app for a native experience that includes added features like typing alerts, stickers, read receipts, file transfers, and sometimes even bears.
It works for voice, too, even video. For example, just yesterday my iPhone's Phone app rang and it was my aunt calling from the US. But instead of a phone number, the incoming call listed her name and "Messenger Audio" because the Facebook Messenger app supports the Apple CallKit framework, making voice-over-IP calls indistinguishable from regular phone calls. WhatsApp, Skype, Viber, and many other VoIP-clients support CallKit as well, which means a consistent and known voice and video calling experience for iPhone users.
True, this go-between isn’t a perfect solution to solving app disparateness. But it’s at least as good as those universal chat apps ever were. And short of a messaging czar dictating a single global chat standard that everyone must use, it's a pretty good workaround, don't you think?