Science fiction visions from decades ago imagined flying cars, kitchens that cook food for us, and the ability to call anyone, anywhere on the planet. What they didn’t imagine is that we’d end up in a messaging hellscape, with an endless array of apps on our phones just to send a simple piece of text to a friend.
Sending a message to a friend is now an exercise in mental gymnastics: that one friend doesn’t use iMessage, but will reply if I send a WhatsApp. Another friend has WhatsApp, but never replies there, so I have to use Telegram. Others are available on Signal, SMS, Facebook Messenger and everything else, all at once.
How did we end up in this messaging mess, when everything was so easy before? Why do I have a whole folder of apps called ‘Messaging’ on my home screen just to contact my friends?
SMS: the original messaging app
In 2005, I was a teenager in growing up New Zealand with ‘dumb’ phones having become ubiqtuous, and there was just one way to message on a phone: SMS.
Carriers in the country offered plans for just $10 per month to send unlimited text messages for a few months, but dialled it back to a cap of a mere 10,000 messages when they discovered that teenagers absolutely would send as many SMS messages as you’d give them. We counted our limits remaining, sent thousands of messages per day and took care to not run out. Hitting zero would mean being cut-off from the world, or needing to pay $0.20 per message until next month. Everyone always ran over, racking up bills to send tiny bits of text.
It was easier back then. If I had someone's phone number, I could text them. I didn't need to check multiple apps and switch between services.. Messages lived in a single place, and it was beautiful. If I was at a computer, I might use MSN Messenger or AIM, but only in bursts, and it always came back to SMS when I was ‘AFK.’
Then the internet came to our phones and a new breed of messaging app appeared: one that was always online, on your phone, with photos, embedded links and other media. And, I didn’t need to pay a carrier $0.20 a message to send anything if I had a data connection.
As startups and technology giants jostled for a stake in the new, always-online world, hundreds of messaging services launched in the ensuing years. iMessage became ubiquitous for iPhone users in the US, in part because it could fall back to SMS. WhatsApp, then still independent, took hold in Europe because it focused on privacy. China dug in and used WeChat, where users eventually could do everything from buy music to getting a car.
What’s astounding is almost all of these new messaging apps became names you’d recognize: Viber, Signal, Telegram, Messenger, Kik, QQ, Snapchat, Skype, and so on. Even more surprising is that you almost certainly have a few of these on your phone, but certainly not just one. There’s never just one messaging app anymore.
In Europe, it’s annoying on a daily basis: I use WhatsApp with my Dutch friends, Telegram with those who switched away, Messenger with New Zealand family, Signal with the technology-focused crowd, Discord with my gaming friends, iMessage with my parents, and Twitter DMs with internet friends.
There’s thousands of reasons we ended up here, but messaging apps have become the ultimate walled garden: nobody plays nice with each other, and you can’t message between tools because each uses its own proprietary technology. Older instant messaging tools focused on interoperability, such as Google Talk, which used an open protocol called “Jabber” so users could message people anywhere that used the same protocol.
There’s no reason that Apple would ever want to open up iMessage to other tools—or even Android users—because it would risk making it too easy to switch away from an iPhone to something else. Messaging apps have become the symbol of walled gardens, the ultimate tool used to exert power over a services’ users: it’s hard to leave at all when your friends still use them.
SMS was the open platform, despite its flaws. Like email still does today, SMS worked everywhere regardless of what device you owned or service you preferred to use. Carriers might have ruined it by charging extortionate prices for years, but I miss SMS for how it "just worked" and was a single, reliable destination to message anyone.
There’s still (some) hope
There is some hope that messaging might soon become simpler again.
If Facebook has its way, this may change: in January, The New York Times reported that the company is working to unify Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp into a single backend, so users can message their friends without switching. While that sounds appealing on the surface, it’s not something I want: Instagram is good because it’s separate, as is WhatsApp, and merging them all would give Facebook a single, unified overview of my habits.
It would also be a big target: putting messaging in a single place means attackers only need to break into one to see everything about you, and any of the apps a potential way in. Some security conscious users deliberately switch between multiple messaging app for this reason, thinking that their communications are harder to track if split across many channels.
There are other projects to reinvigorate open messaging, too. Rich Communication Services (RCS) is the spiritual successor to SMS, and has gained traction with carriers and device makers around the world. RCS brings the things you know and love from iMessage into an open platform—typing indicators, images and online statuses—which means any device maker and carrier can implement it.
Despite Google heavily endorsing the standard and deeply integrating it in Android, RCS has been slow to gain traction, with problems stalling a wider rollout. For one, Apple has refused to add it to the iPhone. While the standard has commitment from big names including Google , Microsoft, Samsung, Huawei, HTC, ASUS and so on, Apple has remained silent—presumably because it would make iMessage far less appealing. RCS also depends on carriers adding support, but they’re dragging their heels because it involves a sizable investment in infrastructure.
The unfortunately reality, however, is that this mess isn’t likely to get meaningfully better for a long time. Unlike the majority of the technology sector where near-monopolies have gobbled up control—such as Google in Search and Facebook in Social—messaging is still very much up for grabs. Historically, it’s been really difficult to establish a monopoly in messaging because it’s so fragmented, with the pain of switching service being so high. But, with Facebook controlling so many major messaging apps and its pivot to privacy, it’s making a clear play to own the space and prevent users from switching away at all.
For now, there’s at least one solution that can make life a little bit more bearable when you’re at a computer: apps like Franz and Rambox put all of your messaging services in a single window, to help make switching between them faster.
But, in the end it’s the same old story on mobile: we’re still stuck with a folder of messaging apps, and little power to simplify it back to just one. More choice in messaging apps was good for competition, but now wheneverI stare at my phone I have to pause and do the subtle mental math I’ve done for almost a decade: which app do I use to message that friend?