As you know, Facebook Home was announced this last week and was met with mixed reactions ranging from horror at the privacy implications (Facebook says not to worry) to degrees of interest and excitement.
Having Facebook integrated so deeply into your Android phone may be worrying to you but then you probably wouldn’t install it anyway. Something that interested me after this anouncement was how this development could impact mobile messaging. I posed this question on Twitter, Facebook and Google+:
What would it take for Facebook Messenger to replace WhatsApp, BBM and iMessage for you? Could it?
— Paul Jacobson (@pauljacobson) April 4, 2013
Not as long as requires users to be on FB. A message client needs to be platform agnostic.
I thought about this a bit and he has a point. The big messaging services we tend to use include SMS, WhatsApp, BBM, iMessage, GTalk, Skype and, perhaps, Facebook Messenger. Of this lot, SMS and WhatsApp are arguably the only ones which are probably “platform agnostic” in the sense that they are not limited to a specific operating system or device manufacturer or platform provider. BBM is limited to Blackberry users, iMessage is limited to iOS and Mac OS 10.8 and later and Facebook Messenger runs across multiple devices but you have to be a Facebook user (although doesn’t it use the XMPP protocol?).
SMS works on virtually every mobile phone although an SMS costs orders of magnitude more than an equivalent data message. GTalk is Google’s branded implementation of a messaging service running on XMPP but I just haven’t seen really easy to use, cross-platform apps that support it so it probably tends to have more use on Android devices which have a great app as part of the app suite. Skype comes pretty close. There are versions and implementations for a pretty broad range of devices and platforms and it is Microsoft’s default messaging service (which made a lot of sense). Skype also integrates, to an extent, with Facebook (which also makes sense given that Microsoft is a Facebook shareholder).
WhatsApp is enormously popular and it isn’t tied to any of the major social services or device manufacturers, yet. It is practically ubiquitous and has just about replaced SMS as the standard messaging service for anyone with a device that supports it. It is also probably an acquisition holy grail with numerous rumours about interest from a variety of the larger social services including Facebook and, more recently, Google. The Google acquisition rumour seems to be somewhat dubious but it is a matter of time before someone comes up with the right number at the right time to convince WhatsApp’s owners to sell. So, bearing in mind Rich’s comment about messaging needing to be “platform agnostic”, I wondered to myself what would happen if WhatsApp was acquired? It would be absorbed into its acquirer (could be Facebook, Google or another player) and it would leave SMS behind as the only truly platform agnostic messaging service. Given the cost of SMS, that isn’t a satisfactory option so what then?
An XMPP-based model would be ideal. XMPP is an open protocol and is supported by a dizzying array of apps and services. Unfortunately there aren’t many apps that are quite as easy to use as iMessage, Skype, GTalk (on Android) or Facebook Messenger. For users accustomed to being able to just open their app and send a message and have the authentication stuff handled using their phone number (WhatsApp’s identifier) or login credentials (the rest), there is a little more friction than there should perhaps be to make this an easy choice. I use an app called Imo, for example, which allows me to add a variety of XMPP accounts (all my Google accounts) but it feels a little clunkier than I would like so I don’t bother. I have WhatsApp and iMessage, after all.
Skype seems to carry a little overhead on a mobile device even though it works pretty well. That might be because I still think of Skype as a desktop app/service and it just seems a little too complex for an app I want to open quickly and use to fire off a message. iMessage looks and feels exactly like SMS and has the least friction when I use it but its not perfect. It sometimes doesn’t pick up a sufficient connection to kick in (and switches back to SMS) or doesn’t pick up my recipient’s iMessage identifier/s. I have a desktop iMessage app but that option isn’t available to anyone not using Mac OS Mountain Lion or anyone who is not a Mac or iOS user.
Google could present an almost ubiquitous solution in the form of its rumoured unified messaging service, reportedly code-named “Babel” but we will have to wait for that to actually be announced to determine whether it will be cross-platform and even platform agnostic (if it will run on XMPP or a similarly and widely embraced open protocol could do the trick). Google used to be very much in the habit of producing apps and tools for everyone but has been focusing more and more on its Android and Chrome platforms at the expense of everyone else.
If WhatsApp does fall to a purchaser and Google doesn’t come up with the goods, it really looks like Facebook and its partner, Microsoft, have a pretty compelling alternative from a user perspective. Between Facebook’s 1 billion+ userbase and Skype’s status as the messaging equivalent of MS Office, they have enough of a potential userbase to make an integrated messaging service both platform agnostic (in the sense of working on multiple platforms and devices but certainly not necessarily independent of the requirement that you be a Facebook and/or Skype user). Requiring you to be a Facebook friend or accepted Skype contact of the person you are trying to reach may seem like a limitation but the appealing effect of that is a lot less spam (direct marketers will have to stick with obnoxious Facebook ads to reach us – one of the less appealing and anticipated features of Facebook Home)!
For now, the WhatsApp flag flies high and strong as an independent option for us users but if that falls, where will we go next? How will we keep in touch with everyone?