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The smartest messaging method is not a segregated mess of WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, SMS, Slack, Teams, Facebook, Instagram, WeChat, etc.

“Too Long Didn’t Read” Summary: Managing too many messaging apps can cause cognitive overload and contribute to burn-out. It’s smarter to focus on the one system that works with everything everywhere there’s internet and is completely open for you to control and customize on your own within the largest messaging ecosystem on the planet.

  1. Type message, press send
  2. Collaborative Diversity
  3. Global Standard
  4. Everyone else is NOT doing it
  5. SMS texting is obsolete
  6. Using phone numbers is dumb
  7. Every internet-connected device you buy requires an account
  8. An endless supply of capabilities
  9. You’re wasting cognitive energy
  10. Too much spam
  11. How to fix the spam problem
  12. Easy to get organized
  13. Decentralized and Open
  14. Misconceptions
  15. Video calls
  16. Group Messaging
  17. Anyone can make their own messaging server
  18. Security
  19. International Messaging
  20. Those messaging services won’t last
  21. Pros & Cons of certain messaging types
  22. The Future
  23. How to use SMS gateways
  24. Further reading

I’ve been using electronic text-based messaging on computers, phones, and other devices since the 20th century. Back then, I kind of expected society to consolidate our messaging capabilities on something standard and interoperable yet robust and flexible like we did with voice telephones, the world wide web, the postal system, roads, time measurement, etc. Over 20 years into the 21st century, and that hasn’t really happened. In fact, personal communications seem to be more fragmented and segregated than ever! It’s as if you need a different kind of car for each place you want to go to, instead of one car that can go everywhere.

If you’ve got a smartphone, you probably use some variety of electronic text-based messaging apps and protocols. Of course all phones come with a “text messaging” app that handles SMS and MMS. Some such as Apple’s iMessage add in another propietary internet-protocol-based messaging method. And then there are dozens of other internet-protocol-based electronic text-messaging apps out there that many people use. You’ve got WhatsApp, Line, Telegram, Blackberry Messenger, Google Chat, Allo, Hangouts, Skype, Viber, WeChat, Signal, KikLiveProfile, Facebook Messenger, Tencent QQ, AIMiChat, iMessage, Riot, Yahoo, ICQ, GroupMe, Vkontakte, Mail.Ru Agent, Odnoklassniki, Yandex chat, Mamba.Ru, Mig33, SINA Weibo, Renren, Fetion, Gadu-Gadu, MeinVZ, Zangi, Nandbox, Jabber, Matrix, Riot.IM, Slack, Teams, Yammer, Jami, IRC, etc.

Every one of those does basically the same thing…

TYPE A MESSAGE AS ELECTRONIC TEXT, PRESS SEND, IT GOES TO THE OTHER PERSON.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had one consistent way to do that?  Something that would work on all of our devices at all times?  Something that would sync our conversations and allow us to flag them for action items, create calendar appointments, schedule responses, categorize conversations based on topics, group conversations with multiple people, and sort things out in a variety of robust ways?

SEGREGATED DIVERSITY VS. COLLABORATIVE DIVERSITY

Of course, diversity in tech is a good thing, but what we’re seeing here is segregated diversity where each different app is closing you off from all of the others in an attempt to contain your communications and  leverage captive users for profit and manipulation. Collaborative diversity is a much better system to strive for where all of the differences can be added to a system without excluding those who prefer other differences.

IT’S CALLED EMAIL

We already do have a single consistent and fully open protocol for sending electronic text-based messages over the internet. It’s called email and it can work really well if you learn how to use it.

 

 

BUT EVERYONE ELSE IS USING SOMETHING ELSE

Yeah, that’s the problem! We need to teach society how to be smarter about electronic text-based messaging. We need to avoid the myriad of messaging apps that are made to take advantage of us and demand the features that maintain our freedom and interoperability on the internet.

You may think everybody uses Whatsapp. Someone else may think everybody uses iMessage. Someone else may think everyone uses Instagram DMs. Saying that everyone does or should use a specific centralized messaging app is discrimination against those who know better or simply have different preferences. Following the pack for the sake of following the pack is always a bad idea. I call it the “Lemmings Excuse”. Everyone else is doing it so I should too. No! My mother never would have fallen for that excuse, and neither should you. Do some due diligence and be smart about your decisions.  (Keep reading for more due diligence.)

SMS/MMS TEXTING IS OBSOLETE

Okay, there is one other electronic text-based messaging system that’s still pretty popular and fairly interoperable. SMS text messaging was great 20 years ago when mobile phones didn’t have any internet access whatsoever. You could easily send short text-based electronic messages through the mobile phone networks. Today, SMS/MMS has severe shortcomings. It doesn’t work well with attachments. It doesn’t support text formatting. It can’t handle text or image embedded hyperlinks. There are no calendar or task list integrations. Some carriers still charge you money for it!

A big disadvantage of SMS is that it only works on one of your phones at a time. Tech reviewers and enthusiasts like me tend to switch phones pretty often. When that happens, all of the SMS conversations remain on the old phone and you can’t see them anymore. They don’t sync with other devices. Well, okay… sometimes there are ways to get those SMS conversations to transfer to other devices. If your phone runs iOS and your computer runs macOS, you can get those SMS messages on your computer too, but Apple implemented this in a proprietary way in order to basically lock you in to using Apple products. The smarter option is to, of course, use a messaging protocol that can’t be taken hostage for the purpose of corporate greed.

SMS/MMS text messaging doesn’t work well on internet connected devices that don’t have your mobile phone subscriber’s SIM card in them either. There are some hacks to get text messaging to kind of work on some PCs, laptops, and tablets, but it’s usually very tedious to get working and involves uploading all of your text messages to an internet server that then syncs them to your other devices. That’s not exactly private or secure. Simply logging into your email account on all devices is so much easier, stress free, and doesn’t increase your attack surface area.

The only real advantages to using SMS text messaging is that it sometimes works over the cell networks even if your phone doesn’t have internet access. So if you’re using a feature phone from 20 years ago or you’re in an area with poor mobile internet connectivity and no WiFi, then yes I can see why you would want to be using SMS text messaging.

SMS/MMS is slated to be replaced with “Rich Communications System”, a new standard for sending electronic text-based messages between phones. This new system will use the internet protocol too, just like email, except everything will be routed through your mobile phone carrier so that they can charge you for it. That probably won’t work on internet connected devices that aren’t associated with your carrier and it probably won’t work on more than one phone at a time. Nor will you be able to create free “aliases” to give out to spammers while keeping a “personal” address for actual people you want to talk to. Once all those marketing robots get your phone number, your only choice is to change phone numbers completely and deal with updating everyone that you want to communicate with. The smarter option is of course to just use email since that has been using internet protocols the whole time.

USING A PHONE NUMBER FOR ID IS REALLY DUMB

Another issue with SMS text messaging as well as all of the other messaging apps that require phone numbers as ID is that using a phone number is really problematic. First of all, they are really easy to predict. It’s just a bunch of numbers. Spam bots and scammers only need to string some numbers together in order to start calling and texting any number of phones they want to.

Nextly, phone numbers are recycled. If you were to get a new phone number today, it probably belonged to some one else already. Thusly, you’re going to get all of the text messaging notifications and calls for that person. Plus any apps you sign into with a phone number will probably hijack that previous person’s account, too. I was able to easily do that with WhatsApp, Signal, & Telegram since those apps are heavily (and stupidly) dependent on phone numbers.

It’s not like there’s a central office machine counting the mechanical electrical clicks being sent over the wire in order to switch your phone line to the person you’re calling anymore either. See: Why are we still using phone numbers? | Pocketnow

EVERY MODERN SMARTPHONE, TABLET, & PC REQUIRES AN EMAIL ACCOUNT

Just as every phone comes with an SMS/MMS text messaging account (if you paid for it), all modern internet-connected consumer-electronic devices basically require an email account to use them. You can’t download apps from the Apple App Store or Google Android Play or the Windows Store store or the MacOS Store unless you have an email account set up on the device and associated with those stores. Sure you can create a new Apple ID or Google ID account but guess what… that’s going to be an email account on your device, and that’s totally fine. Email is the identity standard for being on the internet.

The big advantage here is that every device with internet access has email already. There’s no barrier to entry because everyone has it already.

You don’t have to pay for text messaging if you have email because it does the same thing. By default, emails pop-up on the screen as notifications in the same way that SMS text messages and any other messaging app does. There’s no actual reason to use SMS text messaging or any other 3rd party messaging system as long as you have internet access.

The other big advantage here is that the email account that’s already on your phone can also be used and accessed on all other internet connected devices simply by logging into it either within any email app or any web browser (if your email service offers web mail and they all do). Other instant messaging apps sometimes try to do this with convoluted secondary apps that may or may not work, but email has been working like this for 30 years or so and it’s much more reliable.

What’s really ridiculous about this is that you’re required to have an email account in order to download and install other electronic text-based messaging apps from your smartphone’s app store. Where else do we use something we already have, to buy something that does practically the exact same thing as what we already have? How many people have 2 microwave ovens in their kitchen? What’s the point of that?

My Nokia N8 from 2010 can sync my email conversations from today even though barely any of the other cloud-centric apps work at all and the operating system has long been discontinued. Practically any electronic device with Internet access (past, present, and future) can do email just fine.

AN ENDLESS SUPPLY OF CAPABILITIES

Using email is like owning your own company; you can decide for yourself how it works. You can modify it for your own purposes. There is no dictator telling you what is or is not possible.

There are hundreds and hundreds of apps and programs available to use with your email.  Of course you only need one (on each device you use), but with so many options available, you have the flexibility to choose one that works really well for what you want to do with it. Maybe you want messages to be threaded like a chat dialog? No problem, Hop Mail (now Spike Mail) does this really nicely. That one also adds some instant messenger style extensions to email like end-to-end encryption, voice messaging, typing indicators, and read receipts. Delta Chat and OX COI Chat do something similar. Office 365’s Outlook has a conversational IM style view, too. Maybe you want snoozing, scheduling, and email archiving features? No problem, lots of apps have that.  Maybe you want to color code emails based on categories or keywords so that you can visually differentiate between them and reduce the amount of cognitive energy needed to process communications?  No problem, Outlook for Windows has had those capabilities for decades.

If you don’t like the default email app that comes preinstalled on your device, it’s easy to install a different one. For example, if you have an iPhone which still doesn’t support instant push receiving of emails on IMAP servers (such as Gmail), you can install Outlook for iOS or Google Inbox or another email app and easily get those messages instantly.

Furthermore, you’re not a slave to the whims of some company that owns your email. You can switch email programs anytime. You have complete freedom to use that electronic text-based communications service as you wish!

SMS text messaging, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, etc. have none of those luxuries. If WhatsApp decides to stop working on your phone (like it sometimes does and will again), then you’re out of luck. If you wish you had automatic replies in Facebook Messenger, sorry, you’re out of luck again. In all these cases of proprietary instant messengers, you’ll always be stuck with the poorly made or restrictive apps the central company decides to give you. That’s no way to live! Although, if you’re using Android, you can choose different SMS apps, but they all have the same limitations of the SMS protocol and are often filled with advertisements.

YOU’RE PROBABLY WASTING COGNITIVE ENERGY

Trying to remember which people prefer to use which electronic-text-based communications systems can become a huge hassle and burden. Successful and very smart people often wear the same outfit every day. The reason for this is that deciding what clothes to wear takes up some small amount of cognitive energy that could be better spent doing more important things. The same is true with electronic messaging systems. Instead of simply typing a message to your friend and pressing the send button, you have to spend some cognitive energy trying to remember which messaging app that friend prefers to use, then switch to that app, find the message thread, THEN you can pick up the conversation. If you want to go back and reference or search for something in some conversation you had with someone, you have to spend more cognitive energy trying to figure out which app and which service that conversation took place in. You’ll be lucky if that app even has a functional search, and you can imagine how much cognitive energy you’ll have to spend looking for it. Managing dozens of electronic messaging apps is a great way to waste your time and reach cognitive overload. You might be wasting five working weeks per year, or 9% of your annual time at work (See: How Much Time and Energy Do We Waste Toggling Between Applications?)  If you ever need to switch phones, good luck getting all of those gabillion conversations to sync with the new phone.

By consolidating all of your text-based electronic messaging into one application (and filtering out the clutter), you’re greatly increasing your cognitive ease, and that is an excellent thing to do… not just in terms of time-management and efficiency, but also for your sanity.

Proof

If you want to test this for yourself, get out a clock or stop watch to keep track of time. Then open and navigate to the latest messages within each of the messaging apps on your phone that you use. If you have a half a dozen messaging apps, that might take 15-30 seconds, right? That doesn’t seem like a lot, but now imagine if all of your electronic text conversations were in just one app. The amount of time you need to take checking and reading those messages will probably be reduced to 1 or 2 seconds. That’s 1000% more efficient!

Harvard Business Review actually published a study recently measuring this very thing. See: How Much Time and Energy Do We Waste Toggling Between Applications? (hbr.org)  It turns out, “Over the course of a year, that adds up to five working weeks, or 9% of their annual time at work.”

THERE’S TOO MUCH SPAM!!

Okay, I can understand that a lot of people get overwhelmed with email because they often get a lot of spam messages, marketing messages, newsletters, and otherwise unimportant junk. Fixing this is pretty simple. I get zero spam in my personal email account and the reason for that is: I don’t give it out to anyone other than actual family and friends that I want to communicate with. I don’t publish that address on the internet, I don’t use it for ecommerce shopping, not even my bank knows that address.

Fortunately/Unfortunately, email addresses are required for doing anything else on the internet and that’s how the spammers are going to get you, so the solution is to dedicate one (or two) email accounts as spam accounts. You’ll use those for anything on the internet like shopping, Facebook, Twitter, newsletters, app stores, etc. and then use a different one for communications. I know some people who make a totally new email alias for every online shopping site they use. That way they can tell exactly who is selling their email addresses to other marketers. There are a number of alias services available like AnonAddy SimpleLoginBurner MailFirefox Relay, and 33mail that will let you create email aliases on the fly. You’ll probably have at least one other email account for work.

How is having a different email account for personal communications different from using a totally different app for personal communications?  Well, you still get the cognitive energy advantage of not having to learn or decide which other communications apps to use.  You still get the advantage of everything being searchable within one program. You still get the advantage of email being accessible on all internet-connected devices, and you still get the advantage of future-proof flexibility and longevity.

How to fix your spam problem

If your current personal email account is overrun with spam, the easy fix is:

  1. Make a new email account
  2. Tell all of your friends & family to use the new address to communicate with you.
  3. Suggest they do the same
  4. Don’t use your new email account for anything other than priority communications. Keep the spam account for all of your ecommerce and newsletter stuff. Check it only when you want to.

This is basically the same thing you’d do when your phone number starts getting bombarded with marketing robo calls. Just change your number and tell the important people about the new number. I did this with my email 20 years ago and it has been awesome. My personal email inbox is nothing but messages from friends & family that I want to communicate with. The difference is if you do this with a phone number, you’re likely to get another number that some one else gave up because it got too many robo calls. Email addresses are far less likely to be recycled especially if you own your own domain where you have full control over the account names.

If you don’t want to make a new address, there are many many options for spam filtering and blocking. This could be as easy as installing a different email app and turning on a built-in feature that shows only the email messages from people you send emails to or people listed in your contacts.

MANY WAYS TO GET ORGANIZED

Maybe your email is still bombarded with lots of real messages that you need to read and respond to and that’s overwhelming because there’s just too many of them.  Well, installing more instant messaging apps or installing Slack or Microsoft Teams or moving conversations into SMS text messaging certainly isn’t going to help that. It’ll make things worse because then you’ll need to put a lot of cognitive energy into learning and managing those other apps IN ADDITION TO email!

It’s best to put some effort into learning how to manage your email and keep things simple by sticking to that. Microsoft Outlook on Windows probably has the largest variety of tools to organize email.  Firstly it’s easy to keep the personal account separate from the work accounts and spam accounts, but within each account I like to create custom views with conditional formatting rules. This way I can color code incoming emails based on who they’re from, keywords, categories, etc. So maybe all of my family member emails show up as blue, best friends show up as green, etc.  With colors like this, I’m able to visually differentiate between emails without having to actually read the name and subject. It greatly speeds up my ability to process the listing.  Of course I do this in my work email accounts too, color coding specific teams or clients and prioritizing accordingly.

Many email services also have excellent server-side automatic filtering and organization tools. Office 365, Gmail, Outlook.com all offer simple methods for automatically categorizing, labelling, or moving specific emails based on any number of criteria such as the sender’s address and content keywords. Categories are great since some email apps show those within the listing so that you can easily see what’s what. (Gmail calls categories “labels”.)

If you really really want to get organized, there are even programs like Email Parser, which you can use to create any number of rules that do all sorts of things with emails. You can program automatic file attachment saving/processing. You can automatically parse text and add it to databases or excel spreadsheets or send it through to another application programming interface. The things you can do with email are practically unlimited.

For more tips on organizing your email see:

EMAIL IS DECENTRALIZED AND OPEN

Another big advantage in using email is that there is no one potentially greedy company controlling it. Email is an open protocol that anyone can use.  I can register a domain and create any email account names I want. I can choose any email hosting service I want or even set up my own server. What’s more, you can change the email server or services that you’re using with your custom domain email accounts at any time. Even on free email accounts like Gmail and Outlook.com you can make as many different email addresses as you want and all of them can send to anyone else in the world. It’s a huge amount of freedom and you can “own” your communications in a way that’s not possible with carrier-based text messaging or any of those other proprietary messaging applications. Maybe I want my “adamlein.com” emails to be hosted on Office 365? No problem. Maybe tomorrow I want to switch it to use Gmail servers. No problem. Maybe I want to build my own Linux server to handle my emails. No problem.  It’s like owning your own house or car versus renting from someone else or relying on public transportation.

There are some other electronic messaging apps that are decentralized and open, but many of them have other issues.  Signal and Telegram are two other popular ones that people think are open, but they aren’t really. They also require a phone number and they both sync your contacts list with a centralized server for contact discovery. You can’t use them on devices without phone numbers unless you connect them to your phone too. It really doesn’t make sense to use phone numbers as identification in a world of ubiquitous internet access. AND they’re not really decentralized. They just say they are. Neither will federate with 3rd party servers. See “I don’t trust Signal” by Drew Devault for more on why you shouldn’t use centralized messaging services.

Matrix is the only fully decentralized and open new messaging protocol that can also be federated, but it’s not nearly as accessible as email right now and doesn’t come close to having the same capabilities (no HTML formatting, very limited app support, etc.)  XMPP is another decentralized and open messaging protocol from the early 2000’s, but it’s similar to Matrix in the lack of ecosystem support.

Eventually, centralized entities will become destructive and self-serving.

MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT DIFFERENT ELECTRONIC MESSAGING SYSTEMS

It appears there are a lot of misconceptions about the differences between all of the various electronic messaging systems. The BBC published an article about why some people love texting and hate email. People think that email is more for long-form messages or formal, business-like messages, where-as texting is for more fun short messages and emoji. The truth is, email can be used for emoji and animated GIFs and voice messages and embedded memes and short messages just the same as SMS or any other instant messaging app. In fact, that points out another advantage… email can scale up or down very easily.

Some people think texting or instant messaging is faster than email. That may have been true 20 years ago when email was delivered by “pull” timers and dial-up modems, but today just about everything does “push” instant email delivery (except for Apple’s Mail on iPhone with IMAP accounts.)  You can actually measure the speed of your email server using online tools. The response time naturally depends on which country you’re sending to, but in most cases it’s between a couple hundred and a couple thousands milliseconds, which is hardly slow. Sending from New York to China might take as much as 45 seconds though, so there is still some latency in some cases.

All of the “fun stuff” in instant messengers still works in email. However, the “ease of use” in adding fun stuff like emoji, animated GIFs and graphics to email greatly depends on which email app you’re using. You’re current email app might not have features for that at all, but there are plenty of alternatives that do.

Another misconception about email is the idea that it is not secure. That may be true if you set up an email server without adding any security options, but that’s your fault not the protocol’s fault. The truth is, email can be secured in many ways and there is a lot of work being done to make it easier.

AUDIO/VIDEO CALLING

A lot of these other electronic messaging apps also have full duplex video calling, but there are ways to add that to email too.  Hop/Spike Mail is one email app that does that in a proprietary way which uses their own servers. They even use a webRTC-based video calling server for people who don’t already have the same app installed.

There is a relatively new standards-based method of decentralized audio/video conferencing and it works with just about everything.  Jitsi Meet uses WebRTC for video calls and it’s very easy. Basically, you only have to type or copy/paste a link into your email (or any other messaging app), and whomever opens the link that you sent will be added to the video call. The link would be something like https://meet.jit.si/videocallname. Just replace the last “videocallname” part with whatever you want to name your room and it’s ready to go. You can add that link to meeting request emails too so that it goes straight to the other person’s calendar.

The Jitsi Meet servers are open source as well, so if the meet.jit.si free server stops working, you can install the software on your own server for free. Ideally, this kind of WebRTC communications could be federated via domain name servers for even easier interoperability, but that hasn’t widely happened yet. Still it’s pretty easy to add your own notification system to a Jitsi Meet server. I made my own in a couple hours. Furthermore, there are dozens of other Jitsi Meet servers around the world that you can use, and some email apps such as Delta Chat already have integrated Jitsi Meet video calling.

GROUP MESSAGING

There is currently a big market for “group messaging” apps out there like SlackMicrosoft TeamsMissiveGroupMeWorkplace, etc., but the idea that you need something completely separate in order to send electronic messages to multiple people is ridiculous. A high percentage of what those groupware apps & services are made to do can already be done in email.

Firstly, adding more than one person to the “to” field will act as a group message. That’s pretty obvious. The problem is that sometimes some people don’t understand that the “reply” button only replies to the last sender, while the “reply all” button replies to all of the people in the group. Having both of those options is very important since sometimes you don’t want to reply all.  Still, many people don’t understand this.

Another option for group messaging via email is to use a List Server. Basically this is an email address who’s only function is to forward messages to everyone on the list. The advantage here is that everyone on the list does not get their contact info attached to each message, and there is no reply vs. reply all confusion. Spike has built-in ListServ functionality for their group messaging and it’s a very smart way to do it since it works with everyone with an email account. If you don’t want to be locked into Spike for managing the groups, there are plenty of other ways to make an email discussion groupFreelists.org is a nice free one. Google Groups and Yahoo Groups have similar functions but also with a web-based interface (Update: Yahoo Groups is shutting down). If you have your own email server, you can add Listserv software there, or if you have a WordPress website, there’s a Listserv plug-in for that too.

ANYONE CAN MAKE THEIR OWN EMAIL SERVER

You have complete freedom to set up and run your own email server. All you need to do is register a domain, plug a computer into the internet (preferably with a business-class internet connection and static IP address), set up all the DNS pointers, and install some email server software. It’s even possible to make your own email server using a $35 Raspberry Pi computer. Or you can get an extremely easy private email server from The Helm for about $500.

Having your own server means you have a higher degree of independence and control. But of course, you’ll need to learn some things about setting up and maintaining it. The point is that you’re not tied down to a single company or small handful of companies when it comes to email messaging and being able to communicate with anyone in the world.

SECURITY

Some of the new text-based messaging apps like WhatsApp boast end-to-end encryption for the messages. That’s so that your conversations are kept private, although they’re still going through centralized servers owned by Facebook, so the trust-worthiness of that is certainly debatable since you can’t actually audit the service in order to verify that it’s doing what they say it’s doing.

There are numerous ways to secure email. First off, you should test that the server’s protocols are up to date. You can encrypt the entire network connection using Transport Layer Security and enforce encryption using DANE. Then you can also encrypt each message individually using a variety of methods. There’s GPGPGPMailfence, DNSSEC, etc. and some email services like Office 365 and Outlook.com have implemented encryption in the web mail interface as well. The “portal” technique is another way to send encrypted emails and Pauxbox provides another more-user-friendly and HIPAA compliant method of secure email. There are also lots of other email services focused on security like HushMailProtonMailTutanotaDisroot, Mailvelope etc. Just be careful with Google’s Gmail which tends to read your emails and is blocked in China.

If you’re a business with a large number of users that need to communicate with each other, email can be even more secure since you can have you own internal server or set of servers that manages all the internal email communications. You can lock down all sorts of things and keep very specific types of communications from ever leaving your domain. Many cloud services like Office 365 offer all of the legal security compliance features for government and sensitive industries as well. That’s certainly not true with 3rd party messaging services like Slack, Whatsapp, and all of the others.

INTERNATIONAL MESSAGING

If you haven’t noticed, we humans have become part of a global society that has been brought together by the internet. We can instantly send message and browse web pages full of information across the globe. Unfortunately, many trendy electronic text-based messaging apps and services don’t work so well when it comes to international messaging.  SMS/MMS text messaging either doesn’t work or gets you major fees or becomes severely limited when you travel outside of your home country.  Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Gmail, Instagram, Slack and others are completely blocked in China. Regular email still works everywhere there’s internet though (as long as you’re not using Gmail which is also blocked in China.)

A lot of people and companies in China use WeChat, which is a proprietary messaging app from Tencent with API’s for other companies to integrate with. This is another case of a single company trying to lock you in and control you, but it’s also pretty closely tied into the whole country’s government which has full authority over censoring your communications.

THOSE OTHER INSTANT MESSAGING APPS PROBABLY WON’T LAST

The goal of an instant messaging app like WhatsApp, AIM, Facebook Messenger, Kik, etc. is to gain a large group of users, lock them in to depending on the service, and then use that population to sell advertisements or other services. The same is true with social networking apps like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. If they really cared about your ability to communicate with people, it would be something that works with all of the other text-based electronic communications platforms out there and would be based on an open structure that any other company could plug into (collaborative diversity).

We’ve seen instant messengers do this many times before. AOL Instant Messenger was a big one in the 90’s that eventually became riddled with advertisements. MSN Messenger started out being interoperable with AIM, but eventually added dozens of games and animations along with the ads. Skype was bought up by Microsoft and slowly but surely became unusable. All of those popular text-based messaging apps of the 90’s are now gone or irrelevant. The same will happen to our current crop of proprietary electronic messaging apps.

WhatsApp is one of the big ones right now and we’re already seeing signs of its eventual failure. The company was bought by Facebook and is continuously losing money. They will probably have to give in soon and start pushing advertisements to its users in order to stay afloat.

Also, keep an eye out for companies that pretend to support open standards, 3rd party API’s, and external interoperability, but when they get a large user base, they start shutting all of those things out. A good example is how Facebook messenger used to allow 3rd party apps, had an email gateway, and SIP XMPP standards, but removed them all later on. Another is how Twitter used to have great 3rd party app support, but lately they’ve been shutting all of that interoperability off as well.

Here’s a list of once popular instant messaging apps that have since shut down:

Many more are listed here on Wikipedia.

PROS AND CONS

Email

Pros

  • Longevity & reliability – It’s going to be around for a while
  • Largest usage & install base of any other messaging platform (4.2+ billion and growing)
  • It works on practically everything that has ever had an internet connection, PCs from the 90s, modern smartphones, tablets, ebook readers, smart speakers, watches, etc.
  • Everyone who uses the internet has an email account
  • Email is practically a requirement when setting up a new phone, Mac, or PC. (Linux is still immune to email account associations).
  • Instant delivery or scheduled delivery – you can choose!
  • Read receipts
  • Appointment requests support
  • Task management integration (flag for follow up, reminders, task assignments.)
  • Attach anything (depending on your hosting provider’s file size limits)
  • HTML formatting for embedded images, hyperlinks, emoji, animated GIFs, etc.
  • Decentralized protocol uses internet domain registrars for fully interoperable communications
  • Anyone can start their own email server and it will be able to send messages to anyone around the world
  • Email addresses are domain-specific and can be transferred to other hosting providers or servers very easily if you own the domain name
  • Huge ecosystem of powerful apps and management tools available for all computing platforms
  • No single company has control over the protocol or its apps
  • Encryption can be applied to email with added extensions
  • Numerous security and policy enforcement options for legal requirements
  • Scales up and down very easily supporting short messages, long messages, and threaded conversations
  • All email conversations sync with all devices where that account has been added (unless you’re using a POP server).
  • Auto-replies and robust server-side rules make organization and management a breeze
  • No roaming or international messaging charges
  • You can use multiple accounts for different purposes – Example: 1 for family/friends, 1 for work, 1 for spam & online purchasing, 1 for newsletters & social networks, etc.
  • Multiple accounts can be used in any Email client on any device
  • Conversations can easily be exported or archived for data preservation or to move data to a different email program
  • Lots of options for group messaging such as simply adding multiple addresses in the “to” field, carbon copy, or blind carbon copy fields as well as group list server options. Easily reply to all or reply only to the sender.
  • Many free or paid hosting options

Cons

  • No standard interoperable video or voice calling extensions (but you can use http://meet.jit.si and any other web-based real time communications video conference service)
  • Can be slower than instant depending on which servers are communicating
  • No typing indicator (unless you use a proprietary email extension app like Hop/Spike Mail)
  • Read receipts are not implemented in a standard way across all email apps
  • No default encryption and enabling secure encryption on both ends isn’t easy (unless you can get other people to use specific email systems like ProtonMailMailfenceQuickMSG, etc.)
  • Some people don’t know how to avoid/manage spam and become frustrated with the protocol as a whole
  • Different servers impose different limitations such as attachment file sizes and online storage space

SMS/MMS (texting)

Pros

  • All mobile phones support short message system (SMS)
  • Domestic carriers allow interoperable messaging
  • It’s enabled on your phone by default (no manual set-up required unless you’re using an international phone that doesn’t recognize your SIM card & doesn’t include the correct MMS server settings.)
  • SMS and the MMS extension are fairly well integrated
  • Many carriers offer email gateways for sending/receiving SMS to email

Cons

  • Tied to your MSISDN phone number in a world where most everything is becoming Internet-Protocol-based
  • Requires paying for a legacy phone company subscription
  • Poor international interoperability
  • No standard interoperable video or voice calling extensions (The UMTS video calling protocol is no longer supported on modern phones.)
  • No typing indicator that shows when the other person is typing
  • No read receipt indicator
  • Only works on one phone at a time
  • Can’t have multiple accounts/numbers on the same phone without having multiple SIM cards
  • Tied to your mobile phone network’s service and phone number
  • Doesn’t work on other internet-connected electronic devices without using phone-specific proprietary SMS transfer/sync software. (Example: iPhone messages only sync with Macs and the phone has to be on)
  • SMS only supports 160 characters per message
  • SMS was devised as a hack to transfer 128bytes of data along the cellular network signal
  • MMS has poor support for attachments
  • No way to embed hyperlinks or multiple images in line with a narrative
  • No encryption at all
  • Very little user-facing spam management capabilities
  • Very few options in terms of organizational capabilities
  • Poor ability to sync messages between devices (no online storage)
  • SMS to Email interoperability is poorly implemented on many carriers
  • Mobile phone carriers often charge you for messaging and will especially charge you for international messaging/roaming
  • International messaging doesn’t work very well or is expensive

WhatsApp

Pros

  • End-to-end encryption out of the box
  • Easy setup sniffs your address book and matches contacts with phone numbers in the WhatsApp database
  • Includes proprietary video/voice calling
  • 1.2 billion users

Cons

  • Proprietary centralized messaging (could get shut down at any time)
  • Owned by Facebook, the least trustworthy tech company around
  • Losing money (probably won’t last long) (1) (2)
  • No 3rd party apps allowed to integrate
  • Application ecosystem shrinks when WhatsApp removes their software from certain platforms (Symbian, Blackberry, Windows Phone, Windows 10 Mobile… more to come.)
  • Won’t work on up and coming platforms
  • New platform developers aren’t allowed to integrate their own software
  • Account is tied to your MSISDN phone number, which is a bad idea.(1) (2)
  • You can’t have one account on more than one phone
  • Transferring your account between multiple phones too many times will get you blocked (Reduces your freedom to change phones)
  • You can’t have multiple accounts on one phone
  • Conversations don’t sync between devices or with a server
  • Requires 3rd party Google Drive service for backups
  • Sends all of your contact phone numbers to WhatsApp servers for adding contacts to the app
  • Accessing messages via the web app or PC app requires the activated phone to be on and connected to the internet
  • Zero interoperability with other messaging applications. No email gateway, no SMS gateway, nothing.
  • Doesn’t work well on devices (tablets, PCs, etc.) other than supported smartphones
  • Very few options in terms of organizational capabilities

Facebook Messenger

Pros

  • Large user-base of Facebook (1.2 billion)
  • Turned on by default when you make a Facebook account
  • Includes proprietary video/voice calling
  • Works well on desktop web browsers and phone apps
  • Read receipts

Cons

  • Proprietary centralized messaging (could get shut down at any time)
  • Managed by the least trustworthy tech company around
  • The contents of your messages are probably added to your advertising profile
  • Application ecosystem shrinks when Facebook removes their software from certain platforms
  • Won’t work on up and coming platforms such as Kai OS
  • No 3rd party apps allowed anymore. New platform developers are no longer allowed to integrate their own software (there used to be interoperable 3rd party Facebook messenger apps that worked really well.)
  • Zero interoperability with other messaging applications. No email gateway, no SMS gateway, nothing.  (FB Messenger actually used to support SIP & XMPP standards, but removed them in order to lock you in.)
  • Very few options in terms of organizational capabilities

Apple iMessage

Pros

  • Turned on by default when you set up an iPhone
  • Includes proprietary video/voice calling
  • Animated emoji
  • Read receipts
  • Syncs with other Apple devices associated with the same Apple ID
  • Message bubbles on your iPhone are blue colored
  • Falls back to SMS for people with no registered number in the iMessage database

Cons

  • Proprietary system only works on Apple-made hardware
  • Poor interoperability with other messaging applications. No email gateway.
  • Very few options in terms of organizational capabilities
  • If you switch phones, you probably won’t receive SMS messages from other iPhone users until you also deactivate iMessage
  • Hijacks your SMS messaging system and routes messages through Apple servers

Telegram

Pros

  • Open API means 3rd parties can build client apps or integrate with Telegram servers
  • Cross platform apps available for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Windows, MacOS, Linux
  • No ads, microtransactions, or payment requirements (yet)
  • Interested in internet privacy
  • Encrypted voice calls

Cons

  • Only 200 million users
  • Proprietary centralized messaging servers (could get shut down at any time and you can’t make your own)
  • Funded by a single person (Pavel Durov) who’s funding could run out someday
  • Account is tied to your MSISDN phone number, which is a bad idea.(1) (2)
  • Very few options in terms of organizational capabilities

 

THE FUTURE

While right now, email seems to be the smartest way to communicate as an internet-connected human society, there is still lots of room for improvement. In the immediate future, I’d love to see extensions to the IMAP standards that add presence capabilities, “typing” indicators, and a standard implementation of read receipts. A standard method of initiating voice/video calls from within an email hyperlink would be awesome too. Unfortunately voice/video-over-IP is still very fragmented as well.

Did you see the Black Mirror “Be Right Back” episode? It was about technology that could reconstruct a dead person’s personality and thought processes based on archives of that person’s digital communications. It sounds like science fiction, but AI development companies are really working on this. If you’re using proprietary communications systems like WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, Skype, or any of the other dozens out there, what are the chances of your conversational essence being preserved in artificial intelligence constructs of the future? Not very likely. An open communications protocol that does allow access and exporting to technological systems of the future, on the other hand, would certainly be easier to analyze and create constructs from. I can easily produce emails that I wrote from the late 90’s but maintaining an archive of other communications protocols is much more difficult.

HOW TO SEND SMS/MMS TO EMAIL ADDRESSES

If you finish reading this whole thing and still want to use your nameless carrier-hosted phone number as your electronic text-based messaging identity, just about all carriers offer email gateways and email addresses for your phone number’s text-messaging account.

In most cases, you can use your SMS texting app and simply type an email address in the To field in order to send emails via SMS.

If you’ve realized that it’s smarter to use email as your messaging protocol but still need to send SMS/MMS messages to other people who have not learned to use email, that’s easy too.  This website called freecarrierlookup.com lets you type in a person’s mobile phone number and it will return that phone’s email address. Some international carriers don’t support email-to-SMS gateways, but this is rare.  Once you get your friend’s phone’s email address, just send an email to it and they’ll get it as an SMS/MMS text message. When they reply, it will come to your email where you’ll have far more management and organizational capabilities than if it were to show up on your phone’s SMS app. Some carrier’s do weird things to messages sent through the email gateway though. For example, Verizon likes to include the message as an attachment on both ends, which makes reading them much more annoying.

 

FURTHER READING

This article is also on Medium