Instant Message Confusion

May 12th, 2016

After hearing about what a marvelous service WhatsApp is, I decided to give it a try. So I downloaded the app on my iPhone, and set it up using my Facebook account. Other than the fact that Facebook owns WhatsApp, the result of a $19 billion acquisition, it seemed the simplest way; I have quite enough usernames for different apps as it is. But installing the WhatsApp Web on my Mac only revealed the limits of the technology.

While WhatsApp for iOS and Android, both official and third-party, are available from Apple and Google’s online stores, not so with the Mac clients. At least not yet. But when I first launched the official app, listed as a beta, I wondered why I bothered. So the opening screen revealed a QR Code. A who? Well, in order to set up the app, I needed to open Settings in the iOS version, and scan that code.

This step had the effect of linking the two. You see, WhatsApp evidently requires the iPhone version in order to sync messages. This is similar to the way Continuity integrates SMS messaging and phone service with your iPhone and Mac. Indeed, there’s a recommendation to make sure your iPhone, or Android handset, is hooked up to a Wi-Fi network so you’re not consuming too much data from your wireless carrier.

Indeed, my son’s uses WhatsApp on his iPhone, but says, “I dislike the amount of battery and data it consumes.”

With support for voice chats, I got to thinking that WhatsApp might give Skype a run for its money if it added support for group chats and, perhaps, the ability to make regular phone calls.

Regardless of the potential, I’m not at all sure that WhatsApp is necessarily so much better than other chatting schemes, although I’m sure some of you will be delighted to tell me how. To me it just leads to more chat confusion, to some degree a throwback to the way it was in the early days of the online world where that wasn’t much integration among different services.

In other words, it’s a comedown.

So not so long ago, you could use Apple’s Messages to talk to AOL and AIM users, Facebook users via Jabber technology, plus such services as Google Talk and Yahoo! Last year, in its infinite wisdom (??) Facebook decided to kill Jabber support. There may have been technological and security reasons for it, but it meant that I could no longer use Messages to chat with Facebook users.

To use the Facebook Messages, I had to download a third-party app on my Mac. iOS has a native client from Facebook. That meant two instant messaging apps running at the same time with separate messages and contact lists. Add to that Skype, which I use mostly for my radio shows. That makes four with WhatsApp, which can be integrated with contacts from such services as Facebook and your own list. You even have the option of sending invites to entice your friends to sign up, a typically clever way to expand the ecosystem.

Recently, WhatsApp added end-to-end encryption for chats and voice calls. I was reminded of this capability with an onscreen message the first time I launched the messaging apps. More to the point, this serves as a notice to the authorities that, even if you manage to break into a smartphone despite encryption, WhatsApp exists in its own space. It’s another layer of encryption they have to attack.

So imagine, after the FBI unlocked that iPhone 5c used by a terrorist, and found a copy of WhatsApp installed. If the contents were encrypted, it would have left a whole new problem after spending over $1.3 million to some hackers to gain access to the handset.

But that’s an issue for another column. My concern about this chatting situation is that the various apps don’t talk to one another. While having simultaneous chats on a Mac or a PC isn’t such a big deal, it can get pretty ungainly on a smartphone. Consider the multitasking limits, even if you consider Split View on recent iPads.

While many of your contacts might have several of these apps and would thus be available on the service of your choosing, the mess results when they only use one or two. To reach a fellow mobile handset user, you might just stick with old fashioned SMS; that is, unless they have installed one of the other chatting apps. And remember that Apple’s proprietary messaging scheme doesn’t let you talk to people who aren’t using an Apple gadget. At least SMS, AIM, Facebook, WhatsApp and other chatting schemes have multi-platform support.

Notice I haven’t considered RC, MSN, ICQ, and other services.

While there are apps that support several chat systems, none support them all — or at least the most popular ones — so far as I can determine. The underlying technology shouldn’t make a difference so long as it integrates with your contact list and provides a reasonable level of notifications. There may be reasons why the owners of different technologies do not want to work together, and I see where Apple might want to keep its messaging scheme for itself. But none of that serves the customer.

After all, you can use loads of email clients to access all or most email accounts. You choose the one you like based on features and performance. But when you’re stuck with a proprietary instant messaging system and have to use several different apps to stay in touch with all your contacts, it can easily discourage chatting, and that’s not the way it ought to work.

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