There are lots of reasons messaging features are eating software. They range from standardization (network effect) to cost (cheaper for some people to message over web than other networks) to “stickiness” (you’ll keep using a platform if your friends are there) and to ease of use (text is flexible and powerful and leads to natural language commands). All of these reasons are good drivers to adopt messaging in your app or on your platform.
But a strange thing happens when your app becomes successful. First messaging happens on a network, then between clients, and then between networks. This happens because the people using that network have friends in their larger social group who don’t use that network — yet use a similar mode of text based communication.
I’m pretty sure you’ve seen these common forms — and others — leak beyond the original networks where they were used and show up in your “message inbox” of choice:
“Let’s catch up soon — dm me”
“Send me a message”
“Private message me and we’ll iron out the details”
“Text me when you get there”
Context is Everything
Without context (*where* should I message you back), how do you decide where you should respond to that person? If you’re like most of us, you typically respond on the channel where the person messaged you. Not bad, but all of that context leaves your mind when you encounter that very same person on another messaging platform.
You might not remember the last time you talked to them. You might not remember their unique handle on that network (phone number or otherwise) and you probably remember their avatar (and are hoping it’s relatively constant between systems). What’s a person to do to make this job easier? You need to pick an app, find the person you want to talk to, and share a message with context.
Text is a universal messaging protocol
Let’s imagine this process is easy. You may remember a similar world in the late 90s, where AIM chat, ICQ, and gChat were difficult to merge. At that point the world of SMS was a silo and 2-way video was still mostly the province of Dick Tracy comics even though Skype was on the scene. There was a product called Meebo that aggregated chat services and placed them in a single interface (many other people have used Trillian or Adium with similar purpose).
The need of the customer — give me one way to communicate with my friends — directly conflicts with the desire of any one message provider to own the messaging stream and therefore the customer.
So why do we need an easier way to message each other that works in most if not all of the systems out there?
1) supporting text-based communication ensures that new services are backward-compatible. Reaching the next billion web consumers will require SMS or a similar modality given the very basic mobile devices available in those communities.
2) we are wasting a lot of collective development time building the same messaging features over and over again. We should be building presentation layer improvements and “last mile” translations of messages so that all clients get some kind of message, even if that message has to be degraded to present on their device.
3) there is a whole new world of interoperability between services that doesn’t yet exist because services like Snapchat, Skype, and iMessage are siloed and not connected to the rest of the Internet.
It’s okay, I like “best in class” messaging
I get it — you’d rather upgrade the devices you have to support the Next Big Thing (whatever that will be) and don’t want to lock yourself into yesterday’s world.
But look around — we’re already there. We still support voice calls (120 years old), SMS (23 years old) and will continue to keep old messaging formats around even as the clients that utilize them morph into something almost unrecognizable.
Universal clients will connect the world
The first company to create a universal client will create a true world network. That network will be more powerful than the existing voice or email networks because of the exponential number of nodes involved. Data from things, sensors, and meta-conditions (networks of sensors) will create new messaging methods we can’t even imagine yet.
We should get there sooner. The first step is to stop worrying about the name of the network someone messaged me on and what app I need to use to contact them back. My phone should handle this for me, and get better over time at understanding the right network and protocol to use to give me the best chance of reaching that person in the way they’d prefer to be contacted.