Why Messenger Interoperability is a digital canary in the coal mine

Would you accept a world where you couldn't send a parcel to a client without being signed up to the same delivery service as them? Then why do you accept this in the digital world?

Messaging is beautifully symptomatic of the state of digital right now. The fact that we live in multiple parallel words of chat, without any ability to reach someone on a different service is something we are used to, but it becomes bizarre as soon as you think about it.

Imagine if you couldn’t send a letter to a friend unless they were signed up to the same delivery service as you? Or if you needed multiple phones in your house to call different friends or family members. It’s unimaginable. But that’s the situation we find ourselves in. It’s a mark of how slow governments have been to take digital seriously that this situation has been allowed to arise in the first place — but it should not stand.

This is not a problem of competition. There are plenty of messaging apps out there. Martin listed his selection earlier in the week, and mine is broadly similar. It’s a problem of interoperability — which is, in of itself, a problem of competition.

That’s not quite as recursive as it sounds. You have plenty of messaging clients to choose from, sure. But it’s not purely your choice, is it? If you want to talk to anyone, you’re dependent on them being happy to use your preferred client. If they’re not, you’re stuck with two choices: don’t chat with them, or install that client.

Once you get groups involved, things get more complex. If the parents of your daughters’ class all chat and share information via WhatsApp, you’re installing it or you are missing out. And there are social consequences to that.

That’s why we need interoperability at a practical level — we should be able to use the messaging app of our choice, without having to be forced into a corporate silo against our will.

Pulling up the digital ladder

However, there’s a historical element to this as well. Many of the companies that now foist these locked-in messaging systems on us built their success in a different era of the internet. The platforms of today largely grew on the back of open standards. The internet, and the main services that brought it into most people’s lives — the web and email — are interoperable, open standards.

They were designed largely by technologists and academics to facilitate open communication, and we would most likely not have the internet we do today without them. You don’t have to be using the same email app as a friend to mail them — it just works. The same goes for the web. Any browser can access any website. (Admittedly, Microsoft had a go at locking the web down with its “embrace and extend” philosophy in the 00s, but it failed, and the browser in question, Internet Explorer, is gone.)

We used to believe that open would beat closed. After all the “wild west” of the open web beat out “walled garden” services like AOL back in the 90s and early 00s. But that’s not been our experience in the last decade. As messaging has slowly supplanted email and even the phone as the default means of communications, the platforms that have built messaging clients have steadfastly avoided opening them up.

It’s understandable. This is the corporate version of pulling up the ladder after you’ve climbed up yourself. Build your business in the open web, and then create things that are siloed. Good for your business — but bad for innovation and competition.

The innovation failure

This is also a function of failed innovation. SMS and MMS, the main texting standards, failed to evolve with the speed they needed, and so inconsequential parts of operating systems, like Apple’s Messages app, slowly became centrepieces of a platform lock in — and even a cause of snobbery.

People didn’t really predict the rise of messaging in the way it has become so central to many people’s communication lives. And the incumbent networks — especially in Europe — had little incentive to fiddle with a system that was reaping them big rewards, in terms of per message fees. It was that failure that created a fertile breeding ground for the current wave of essentially free messengers — as long as you don’t mind paying with your data.

There is a revamped version in the offing called RCS and Google — who have never really managed to get a successful messaging platform going — are pushing it as hard as they can.

Who owns your conversations?

There’s an ethical dimension to this, too. Communication between people is a fundamental function of human society. It’s deeply concerning that three of the platforms most used for messaging — Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram — are all owned by the same company. And that company is in the process of integrating them in a manner that makes then, effectively, the same platform.

That company — Facebook — does not have a great track record on user data. The bulk of human remote communication passing through a single company’s service and being analysed and exploited is not a great situation.

This needs to change. We need consumer pressure, legislative action and technological solutions to make sure that any open standard preserves the fundamental privacy of the end to end encrypted solutions we have now. It seems a strange choice of some governments to seek to break that encryption as a priority rather than pursue interoperability in the consumer interest.

So, if you like, messaging is a canary in the coal mine. If it stays siloed, disconnected and “owned” by companies, then we know that digital is walking the path of fragmentation. If interoperability finds its way into the marketplace, then we’ll know that our governments and regulatory bodies have the ability to make the tough choices that are needed.

Photo by Ali Abdul Rahman on Unsplash