Despite all the talk we hear every day about revolutionary new devices and services that improve the quality of our lives, we’ve really got the basics wrong. Communication is one of the most fundamental purposes that today’s mobile products should serve, but it’s one of the things that we really haven’t done well so far. Making calls is a chore on some of today’s phones thanks to the increasing complexity of our hardware and software. The one saving grace is that every phone system in the world works on the same standards and therefore we can, at least in theory, dial any phone number in the world from any other phone and get through. Imagine if some phones could only place calls to other phones sold by the same company, or if one exchange suddenly decided it wanted to isolate its subscribers from a new competitor to prevent people from switching. While things like this do happen—phone companies around the world have tried to stifle cheaper VoIP providers, and our own WLL debacle of a decade ago isn’t entirely forgotten—they’re extreme exceptions to the norm because telephone connectivity is still perceived as a common utility, not a commercial service. A phone company’s duty is to connect you to a global call switching backbone, not to its own private network. You make phone calls, not Tata or Verizon calls. Your provider might try to sell you add-on services and promise better prices for calls within its own network, but it cannot ever afford to restrict you to it. We’d never accept anything less.
Text messaging, on the other hand, is a relatively new concept. SMS is baked into the core of GSM and CDMA phone networks, so it’s part of your phone no matter whether you use it or not. Every other messaging tool is a branded commercial product that uses the Internet as a conduit, and is thus free to do whatever it pleases with the data passing through it. There is no standard; no common behaviour a user can rely on.
BBM will come to Android and iOS later this year
WhatsApp, Kik, Facebook, ChatOn, iMessage, Line, WeChat, BBM, Hangouts, MessageMe and Skype are just a few of the better known services. There are dozens more, many of them popular in some parts of the world. Very few of them let you communicate with other people unless they also have the same app. Very few of them behave the same way. Not one of them works on all the platforms and in all the places you’d like them to. Some of them are add-ons to other services or are exclusive to certain brands and platforms. Barely any have clear-cut privacy policies and security policies in place. None of them can guarantee that everyone you need to talk to can be reached. That’s also why messaging platforms seem to be fashionable for a while and then fall into disuse. Remember how bloated ICQ and MSN became, with games and animations and ridiculous software design, before they died? They were trying to be too individual, rather than contribute to a greater common platform, and they didn’t react in time when users needed their messages to follow them from device to device.
Messaging is a mess. It’s fundamentally flawed. And although BlackBerry and Google claim they have the solutions to everyone’s problems, they’ve just made things worse.
BBM is coming to Android and iOS later this year, making it an option for users of three mobile platforms. On BlackBerry phones, so far it’s been quick and immersive, almost to the point of becoming invasive. BBM now wants to be a full-fledged social network with celebrity “channels” pumping updates from people or brands you might want to follow. A similar social effort, BBM Music, met an unceremonious end earlier this year due to lacklustre response from users. Audio and video chats over the Web might help you save money compared to traditional phone calls, but again, the utility of these features has so far been quite limited. Oh, and tough luck if any of your friends use Windows Phone—BlackBerry needs to ride on the success of iOS and Android, but it has no interest in strengthening its primary competitor for the third-place slot.
A screengrab of the Google I/O keynote. Hangouts promises to unify messaging across platforms.
Google’s new Hangouts tool promises to unify communication across Android and iOS phones and tablets, and PCs running Windows, OSX and Linux (with vague allusions to wider platform support—including Glass—in the future). That’s quite an achievement, but Google won’t let you have it easily. You have to be running Chrome if you want to use it on a PC, and you have to sign up for Google+, which means creating a Web profile with your personal information on it – both incredibly self-serving moves. It’s not as simple as the once-much-loved Google Talk—multi-party video chatting is just the tip of the iceberg—and it’s all compulsory. The app won’t install on phones without a front-facing camera, for example, so you’re clearly discouraged from just chatting, even if that’s all you want to do. Plus, there’s the looming spectre of Google monitoring your conversations to learn what ads you’ll click on. Already, photos are automatically saved to Google+ and chats can’t be “off the record” by default, which fits in neatly with the company’s propensity to create as detailed a record of your life as it can. Oh, and the open XMPP protocol that made Talk so easy to use with third-party clients on multiple platforms is being retired. Privacy and openness? Things of the past.
None of the previously existing services are any better, though. WhatsApp is a device-to-device service, as opposed to the new “person-to-person” trend, so your account only works on one phone at a time, just like SMS. This is its biggest strength and, unfortunately for many, its biggest annoyance. It doesn’t feel as snappy as iMessage on iOS or BBM on a BlackBerry, but it does reach a huge number of people across multiple phone platforms. iMessage is a giant mess—if you use it on an iPhone and iPad or Mac, you’ll end up with multiple fragmented message threads for each contact you talk to, and messages meant to reach your phone might very well end up only on another device which is nowhere near you. Windows Phone devices mix SMS and Windows Live messenger (now Skype) the same way. Some of these methods work fine if you and your friends use the same platform (and only that platform) for all your fixed and mobile devices—hardly likely to happen in the real world.
No one has bothered creating a chat app or service that’s actually designed around how we as humans live our lives. That’s partly because you can’t do such a thing on a software level alone—it has to be baked into hardware to let us switch focus from one device to another—and because none of the parties concerned are interested in working with each other towards a larger common goal. BBM and Hangouts aren’t going to change anything because they’re still arrogantly trying to make people choose one messaging service over all others and stay dependent on it all the time—which is exactly the opposite of how open communication needs to work.