The Washington Post

Chat with me: The failure trap for chat apps

Chat apps messaging has finally overtaken short message service (SMS), according to research firm Informa. But app proliferation prevents the simplest of Internet applications from achieving true success.

A woman uses her smartphone in central London, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. UK Lawyers say the mounting tally of those arrested and convicted of making offensive comments through social media, shows the problems of a legal system trying to regulate 21st-century communications with 20th century laws. Civil libertarians say it is a threat to free speech in an age when the internet gives everyone the power to be heard around the world. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
A woman uses her smartphone in central London, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012.  (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

Obviously e-mail takes all the credit as the killer app of the early Internet. But its faster little brother, chat, was always right there too. After all, chat can be real-time, and better parallels a real conversation.  I’ve had chat windows open on my desktops for as long as I’ve had multitasking. As I write this, I’m in chat rooms with people in numerous time zones.

Of course, the telecommunications companies jumped on the bandwagon early and deployed SMS.  It was the perfect application for the pre-smartphone era: a hundred bytes can convey volumes of information to a device that lives in your pocket. And, without a real keyboard, very few people ever wanted more anyway.  Not to mention, these tiny, discrete messages can be billed easily—and excessively.

The volume of SMS messages rose into the billions, coupled to complicated billing plans that really annoyed Internet chat users who expected to idly chit chat with small groups.  When smartphones appeared, users started to expect to communicate at speeds inconceivable in the era of the thumbs. This was great for the telecommunications companies—until people started installing chat apps.

It took only a few years, but these chat apps have finally overtaken SMS.

WhatsApp is the most popular, but everyone wants in on chat. Facebook, Google and Apple all have chat applications scattered over their platforms. And don’t get me started on Twitter.

The problem of course is that these systems are annoyingly incompatible with each other.  My phone can buzz with chat notifications from 3 different apps at any moment.  My desktop has even more scattered across browser tabs and standalone apps.

No single app wraps them conveniently together. And the mega corporations aren’t really motivated to work together anyway: Ovum, reports the BBC, estimated billions of dollars in revenue were lost as users migrated from text messages to chat apps. But there are still billions of dollars to be made by owning the ecosystem that people use to communicate the most.

There are standards available, such as XMPP, and different vendors have tried committing to them.  But it has always been half hearted: when Facebook released Jabber compatibility for its chat application years ago, it did so without encryption—a move that could be considered recklessly irresponsible for what might be our most sensitive communication.

The high prices of SMS and lack of APIs drove the world away from SMS into a ludicrously fragmented world of incompatible apps—a world where the user suffers.

I’d be willing to chat with you about it, but it would be easier to e-mail, because every e-mail you send is delivered to my mail client.  They all talk using SMTP.  It isn’t sexy.  It isn’t controlled.  But you know if you send it, I’ll get it.  And at the end of the day, that matters more.

Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.

Rob Malda is the chief strategist and editor-at-large for the Washington Post’s WaPo Labs team. Prior to that, under the pseudonym “CmdrTaco,” Rob created the popular “news for nerds” Web site, which he ran for 14 years. Read more by “CmdrTaco.”

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