We need Messenger Interoperability

Messengers are still stuck in the early days, with almost no interoperability. But these days are long past.

How many messengers do you have installed on your phone? In my case, it’s WhatsApp, iMessage, SMS/MMS, Hangouts, Signal, Telegram, Threema and Facebook Messenger. Slack, Skype, Instagram and LinkedIn all have messaging functionality as well. I’ve probably missed a few apps, and some of them I rarely use. I also have accounts on other platforms, but didn’t even bother to install the apps.

This abundance of messengers provides me with a challenge you probably reckon with as well: how to contact any given person? Which messenger do they really use? For people you chat with on a daily basis, this is not a problem. But what about the other 1,000+ contacts you may have on all these platforms?

In the history of telecommunication and other networks, this is a common issue of the early days. After the telephone was invented, it was impossible to call anyone who used to be on the wrong network. Early in the 20th century, more than half of the US population lived in areas where there were two unconnected telephone exchanges.

Railways had similar problems: track widths varied, carriages could not be coupled. Lawmakers had to solve this and ensure interoperability. And that turned out to be a good thing, ensuring both growth and positive network effects.

Opening up the walled messaging gardens

So why don’t we have messenger interoperability today? We have, at least when it comes to SMS/MMS. The ITU has standardised these services to a point where phone users can send messages to everyone who has a cell phone. And Facebook has announced plans to make FB messenger interoperable with WhatsApp and Instagram, both owned by Facebook.

But Apple, Google and Microsoft (which owns Skype) don’t show any intention to open up their walled messaging gardens. Apple’s iMessage at least is somehow integrated with SMS/MMS, allowing to exchange messages with people outside the Apple universe. Skype can send SMS as well.

There are a few possible ways to achieve messenger interoperability. As a first step, the integration of SMS/MMS should be made mandatory by regulators. This would bring a kind of basic message exchange between different platforms. Users would need to configure how and where they want their messages, like they need to do with iMessage today.

But what about groups, the killer feature of modern messaging? It will be interesting to watch if and how Facebook is going to implement cross-platform message groups. From a UI/UX point of view, this could be a challenge.

Regulators need to step in

It is about time to throw off the chains of the WhatsApp group tyranny. There should be a way to participate in message groups without being forced to join a specific company’s walled garden.

Messenger interoperability has been a topic for years, if not decades. Ten years ago, we had more interoperability than we have today. The IETF, which has been working on internet protocols for ages, has discussed and proposed different solutions over all those years. In 2001, the FCC imposed measures after the AOL Time Warner deal to ensure interoperability.

The early days of messaging are long past. It is ridiculous that we still don’t have interoperability after so many years. Regulators clearly need to step in. With interoperability finally ensured, there is still ample room for product differentiation: through innovative features, better UI/UX, or integration with other products and platforms, to name a few.

Some basic level of interoperability should be feasible: SMS/MMS integration is a first step, and group interoperability a second step, that could follow after Facebook’s big switch to messenger interoperability later this year or maybe in early 2020.

Cory Doctorow, who spoke at NEXT a few years ago, recently called for interoperability to be applied to all kinds of monopolistic and oligopolistic big tech behaviour, not just in the field of messaging. It is true: interoperability is deeply rooted in the internet’s basic design. The term internet itself is shorthand for interconnected network.

Time to interconnect the messenger networks.

Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash