Messaging apps must come together

Internet messaging has broken the rule of universal communication standards, and it needs to be fixed

Messaging apps must come together

We live in a constantly connected world. We can contact anyone on or off the planet in a matter of seconds. We communicate using a wide variety of mediums, from blind broadcasts to specific one-to-one messaging that moves to and from smartphones, computers, tablets, or any other device capable of an Internet connection -- my watch, for example.

It’s not always easy. The Internet has brought us amazing possibilities, but it has also brought us massive fragmentation in new areas of communication. The proliferation of instant messaging applications is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Not only are there no universal standards, sometimes there aren’t even standards within the fragments themselves.

Occasionally we’ll discover that newer versions of one messaging app can’t talk to older versions of the same app. Addresses or usernames have no standardization. You might be able to use a third-party client for some services, but not others. You might need to sign up for some massively overbuilt framework simply to send the equivalent of a text message to someone else who happens to use that framework. You might find that your messaging needs require you to have accounts at a dozen different services, with your contacts scattered among them. You may actually have to remember that you talk to one person with XYZ app and another with ABC app. It’s the Tower of Babel.

This is a new development. Historically, we have been able to settle on a single standard for any given form of communication, generally because there was no viable alternative, and the barriers to entry were substantial.

Take broadcast radio, for example. When radio communication began, it was almost mythological in nature. It was magic. The fact that it worked at all was a miracle, and we rapidly built a large broadcast communication framework based on AM radio. We moved on to FM radio, but there were no significant competitors to these standards then, and there aren’t now. An AM or FM radio built anywhere in the world will receive AM or FM broadcasts anywhere in the world. We have a universal standard for analog radio transmissions.

The same can be said for the telegraph and the telephone. Building out the infrastructure required the effort of nations, and only one standard was in place. While there were local variations, you could (and can) make a telephone call from anywhere in the world to anywhere else in the world. The same universal standard for telephone service has held true through the advent of cellular communication and SMS. We have CDMA, GSM, and LTE networks worldwide. We can make phone calls and send text messages internationally, through different carriers. We enjoy a universal standard for this.

We also have a universal standard for email. We can send an email addressed to any unique address on the Internet, and if the recipient servers are properly configured, the message will be delivered. This is no different than assuming that a local telephone company’s switches are functioning properly, that there is a sufficient number of circuits available to complete an analog call, or that there is sufficient bandwidth available to deliver a digital call. We assume in all instances -- from radio to telephone to email -- that both sides of the communication are independent but interoperable, based on using the same framework, the same protocols, the same language. This is how modern communication is supposed to work.

Unfortunately, Internet messaging is heading in the opposite direction. Imagine you had to have five different phones and phone lines to be able to talk to the people you needed to reach, if Verizon customers could only call other Verizon customers, if you needed an AT&T phone to call AT&T customers, or if you required 20 different email addresses in order to communicate with people using those services. Imagine you needed a separate radio to listen to each station in your area.

As absurd as these scenarios seem, we have this exact situation occurring right now with Internet messaging apps, and it’s getting worse. The barriers to entry are low, and the spread of usage is driven by frivolous advertising, social media, and basically, a popularity contest. People jump from one app to another to continue talking to their friends. Entire countries become enamored with one specific app, and it becomes the de facto standard for hundreds of millions of people -- while the other few billion have never even heard of it.

We might think or hope this will sort itself out, and we’ll eventually have one messaging standard, but the fact is, an organic outcome is unlikely. We need the large players in messaging to come together and re-create a method, not unlike email, wherein messaging can flow from one framework to another, from one service to another. If we want to send a message from iMessage to WhatsApp, we should be able to do so at some basic layer. Gluing all of these services together in combo apps that require you to have accounts everywhere is a fragile and cumbersome solution.

Of course, most of the companies that operate these services want to collect all the users they can, so interoperability isn’t at the top of their list. However, if a few of them formed a consortium to develop an interoperability standard, this might lure customers away from other walled-off services, who might then have the motivation to join the party.

We can’t rewind and fix messaging from the start, but we have to do something -- because the status quo is untenable.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.