There is a moment when a new product is introduced that changes the way that we think about an entire category. A product that changes the dynamic of things so much that other companies have to react with their version of it to stay relevant. The rise of Netflix for example sent shockwaves to the traditional television channels that they must adapt to the world of streaming. And if they do not do this, then they have languished in irrelevance. It is this kind of shift that I think about when it comes to Apple’s iMessage and how it has reshaped the way that we message one another. Specifically, in the context of those of us that use Android phones, it has created a litany of apps trying to emulate it and compete with it. And this has led to a confusing result for the end-user when it comes to something as simple as how to communicate with family and friends.
How Did We Get Here
The concept of the text message was invented back in 1984 but wasn’t popularized until Nokia’s 9000i Communicator in 1997 (this is a good read from 2012 about the history of SMS). Text messaging in its early days was limited to 160 characters, a way to send a quick burst message to another phone. Over time with the introduction of the smartphone, these messages became longer and longer. Yet the standard hasn’t changed much over the years, save for the introduction of MMS (multimedia message service) that allowed for sending photos and videos.
This all changed when Apple introduced iMessage in the fall of 2011. The idea was simple, we as users have evolved past the phone call being our primary form of communication. But the nature of SMS and MMS was reliant upon cellular service and hadn’t evolved with the times. Apple’s solution was to create a server that created a messaging solution through the internet as opposed to cellular phone networks. This is something similar that made BlackBerry Messenger such a success in the heyday of the BlackBerry as well. The true genius of Apple’s implementation of iMessage though was in a color. Apple made iMessages blue while standard SMS was green, creating what is often referred to as “green bubble syndrome” where iPhone users feel that those using standard SMS are inferior.
The benefit of using an internet-based messaging service is the ability to send photos and videos in full resolution and to send voice notes nearly instantly. The messaging experience that Apple has created is so far superior in terms of quality and speed that traditional messaging that Android phones have had to use for years now. This is a real problem from the perspective of a company like Google or Samsung since they have been losing the messaging battle ever since iMessage was introduced.
Google, to its credit, has tried to catch up multiple times. The issue has been that it has been unable to commit to a single solution and because of the more open nature of Android getting users to switch has been challenging. It is a joke from every tech blogger that Google has an urge to introduce a new messaging app just to do it. Over the years services such as gChat, Hangouts, and Allo have fallen by the wayside in the chase to catch up to iMessage. What has resulted is a wild west of messaging apps on Android that bring their own merits but create a messaging overload for an entirely new problem. Let’s take a look at a few of these options.
Rich Communication Services (RCS)
Rich Communication Services or RCS has been billed as the natural evolution of SMS, and as such is the technology that Google and most carriers have put their investment behind. RCS borrows heavily from iMessage in the sense that it uses internet connections to send richer multimedia and faster text messages. Other iMessage features such as read receipts, typing indicators, a web client, and chat nicknames are also present here. The issue has been that there have been too many companies attempting to differentiate the standard for a competitive advantage and this has caused confusion and a lack of widespread consumer adoption.
Google made the decision that RCS was the way forward and communicated this to its carrier partners. Initially, the embrace of the technology was very slow with only Sprint integrating it into the default messaging applications on Sprint Android phones. The other carriers meanwhile, started to make their form of RCS on the messaging apps of the Android phones that they sell. The problem with this was that it was proprietary. Or in other words, a T-Mobile phone would send RCS-like messages to other T-Mobile Android phones but not to anything else. Admittedly, this was a bad system.
AT&T and Verizon implemented their own separate messaging apps and T-Mobile used a protocol specific to its network. After a while, Google had decided that it needed to take action into its own hands. In its own Google Messages app, the company turned on RCS without the need to have the carrier’s blessing, since it was not getting that blessing anyway. Eventually, manufacturer and carrier partners agreed to start to implement this system in their stock messaging apps. Over the months we have seen this become integrated with LG, Samsung, and Motorola phones on all carriers in the US by default.
The issue that remains with RCS is that it is perpetually playing catch-up with iMessage and not adding features at the same rate that Apple is. While the service has support for better multimedia sending and typing indicators, other features are still missing. Message reactions are still not fully rolled out to Google’s app and nowhere to be seen on OEM apps. End to end encryption in Google Messages is being rolled out but that does not count towards the apps that use Google’s RCS protocols. In short, Google is trying to re-create iMessage without the full control that Apple has over its hardware and software relationship and the results have been a mixed bag. However, it remains the easiest way to message on an Android phone without the need for other apps.
Facebook boasts an active global user base of 2.7 billion people. That number accounts for roughly 36% of the world’s population, which is a very impressive number. This means that those 2.7 billion people also have access to Facebook Messenger, Facebook’s dedicated chat application that is available on any platform that you can think of. Over the years, Facebook has taken steps to differentiate Messenger from the social media site itself. This started with decoupling Messenger from the Facebook mobile app in 2014, which angered quite a few people. Since then the company has created a mini social network centered around Messenger.
A Messenger account can be accessed even if your Facebook account has been deactivated. Messenger introduced a Stories feature that was lifted from Snapchat and Instagram and even has specific account QR codes ala BlackBerry Messenger. Messenger in many ways has become the platform that iMessage competes in the US. It seems that whenever Facebook rolls out a new feature for Messenger, Apple is not far away with its spin on that same feature.
Messenger also has the added functionality on Android of being used as a primary SMS application for all of those friends that do not like to use Facebook Messenger to communicate. In that regard, it is the closest parallel app to iMessage that is on Android. Messenger also includes a video chat feature that can be considered a direct rival to FaceTime on the iPhone. Group chats on Facebook Messenger also boast similar functionalities to those on iMessage with various sticker packs and quick media sending with reactions.
The issue with Messenger is one of reputation. Facebook is a company that makes money on advertising. The way that it does this is through browsing habits and the company having trackers on the way that we use our phones. While this may be something that we have accepted on the social media network side of Facebook since we share with a large group of people, this is a different discussion entirely when private conversations are in play.
When there is a thought that perhaps the company is monitoring your conversations to deliver more laser-focused targeted ads is very unsettling. And when it comes to a messaging service, having ads delivered isn’t what many in the west are accustomed to, which makes converting full-time to Facebook Messenger difficult for some, even if it is the closest thing to iMessage that is currently available.
What about Facebook’s other messaging app? The global king of messaging apps, WhatsApp. WhatsApp is iMessage’s chief competitor in the world across the Atlantic Ocean. I first learned of WhatsApp’s popularity a few years ago when I visited my father in Jordan. At the time I used a Google Pixel 2 XL as my primary device. Pixel phones are not sold in Jordan, so many members of my family asked to look at the Google phone that they had never seen in person before. And one of my cousins looked at my home screen and asked me why I had the stock messaging app front and center on my phone.
I thought it was a strange question, so I asked “why wouldn’t I have it on there”? This is where I learned of the dominance that WhatsApp has in the Middle East and other parts of the world. WhatsApp is used for everything in these countries. My father who is an interior designer sends blueprints and contracts for his job through WhatsApp as opposed to email. There are countless WhatsApp group chat networks and the platform is the primary communication and file transfer client in many countries that do not have quick access to the cloud and laptop computers. A reason for this is that smartphones have become more accessible and many countries offer unlimited internet but not unlimited text messaging. And since WhatsApp operates using an internet connection this lent the app to become as popular as it has.
Outside of the right time and place, WhatsApp offers a feature set that makes the app very appealing. WhatsApp offers cloud backups to both Google Drive and iCloud so transferring messages to another device is not a hassle. This backup method makes transferring photos and videos very simple as well, which is a limitation that traditional messaging backup has had for years. WhatsApp also boasts a web client for those looking to message a group chat while on a laptop. Most importantly though, WhatsApp supports end-to-end encryption and despite being owned by Facebook many of the pitfalls of Facebook Messenger have not trickled to WhatsApp…yet.
The issue that WhatsApp faces is an issue that Facebook Messenger faces to an extent. And that is that it must be downloaded and is not set up immediately on new phones like iMessage is on iPhones or how RCS messaging is on Android phones. Overseas this isn’t an issue as it has taken a foothold, but the lack of a large US user base is what holds WhatsApp back from dominating in the way that iMessage does on this side of the globe. Yet of all these options, it is the most feature-rich and the most compelling option…if your circle of family and friends uses it.
Signal and Third-Party Messaging Apps
One of the appeals of Android has always been that if you do not like an app that came on your phone, it can be replaced. This is the case for keyboards, home screen launchers, email apps, and of course text messaging apps. In the early days of Android, these apps were all the rage. Apps like GoSMS, Chomp SMS, and Handcent Messages were some of the first apps that people downloaded to their phones. They offered a faster and more customized messaging experience that outclassed the default option that came with a new Android phone.
Over time, more and more third-party SMS apps rose to prominence with a focus on elegant design principles. Apps such as Textra SMS, QK SMS, and Pulse SMS became very popular by keeping the spirit of customization of the original texting replacement apps and further enhancing speed and usability. However, as it has become clear in recent years that chat is the future and SMS is the past these apps seem to have been losing popularity.
Consumers have moved to SMS 2.0 with quicker messages, typing indicators, better multimedia delivery, and more dynamic methods of expression in messaging. Customization has gone down on the list of important features to most users. While standard SMS is still quite functional the lack of these new features makes it feel less than. An app that has attempted to solve this problem is Signal Private Messenger.
Signal is a messaging client that boasts encryption and privacy. In a world that is increasingly vulnerable to data breaches and hacks there is an appeal to a messaging app that is focused on keeping conversations safe and private. Signal is a not for profit project that uses an open-source privacy engine called Signal Protocol. The app also boasts disappearing messages reminiscent of Snapchat. Again, like WhatsApp, Signal suffers from the userbase issue. The app has 10 million downloads on the Play Store which is a decent amount but that pales in comparison to the over 1 billion downloads for Facebook Messenger and the 5 billion downloads for WhatsApp. And without the userbase, Signal becomes just another old-school SMS app. All of these choices highlight something that has become an issue in modern digital life: there are too many apps and too many ways for us to communicate.
Look at your phone and consider if someone wanted to reach you how they could accomplish this. They could message you on your text messaging app of choice, Facebook Messenger, Instagram direct message, Twitter direct message, LinkedIn, email, WhatsApp, or Snapchat Chat. That is a lot of ways to get a hold of someone. And in a way, the numerous ways to message on an Android device mirrors this reality, if there are so many ways to communicate why not leverage that to make your product more appealing.
The downside of this of course is the inherent fragmentation and a level of anxiety that comes from using all of these apps. There may never be a singular app that solves this, although BlackBerry tried to do it with the Hub with mixed success a few years ago. This plethora of options has led to a disconnect where some apps are used while others aren’t causing the way that we communicate with one another to be more broken than ever,
How does this relate to the text messaging conundrum on Android? Consider this as a micro to a macro problem. The macro problem is that there are so many ways to communicate that we are overloaded and almost paralyzed by choice. The micro problem then becomes where this conflict of choice spreads to one particular category of the larger choices. Perhaps that is what makes iPhones so popular especially here in the United States, that one of the million choices is taken away with iMessage being forced on iPhone users. So the question becomes, what is the right choice for the Android user?
Strength in Numbers
It is hard to say which of the solutions mentioned above are the one-size-fits-all solution for everyone because that does not exist. It comes down to you and your circle. Your circle of family and friends and what they use to communicate. If all of your family is very active on Facebook then Messenger is a good solution. If you know a lot of Android users, then mauve stick with RCS. Perhaps your friends are bought into Singal or are using WhatsApp, then those choices are clear.
The real question though is which of these solutions should be the default? Over the years there has been a gradual shift of Android, where it has become less of the wild west customization platform and more refined and closed off. There will always be a place for customization on Android, but the bulk of users now do not tinker with their devices as they used to. There has been a decrease in third-party launchers and keyboards, and third-party messaging apps have seen a similar decline.
The bulk of users in the US will almost assuredly use the text messaging app that came with their phone for their messaging needs. Because of this, RCS needs to be the answer to text messaging and communication on Android. The problem, however, is that the RCS experience is not the same across apps. The solution needs to be that all Android phones should include the Google Messages app as the default text messaging app on all Android phones.
This is currently the case on Google’s Pixel phones and Nokia’s Android One phones but not on phones from Samsung, LG, and OnePlus. This divide is the true problem with the development and acceptance of RCS as a mainstream messaging solution. If this fragmentation were to be removed then Android Messages and RCS by extension would reach many more users and allow for quicker feature rollouts. As with anything when it comes to Android manufacturers, the issue here becomes that these companies want to differentiate themselves and a stock messaging app is a way to do that. Samsung wants its messaging app to be a reflection of its OneUI software skin, not a reflection of Google’s Material Design.
Perhaps the answer then is to load every Android phone with Google’s messaging app and an optional app from the manufacturer. Then to make this visible to the end-user, a prompt during the setup to ask if they would like a new and improved messaging solution to decide what will be used on the new phone. This makes the end user aware of what RCS is and allows every Android user to enable it on their new phone regardless of manufacturer. This is not the solution to the notification overload problem on Android with messaging apps, however, it is a start to make text messaging better on Android.
Also, if you want to have my articles sent you as soon as they are available please consider subscribing to my email newsletter the Ozone Letter. All of my articles are available on there and can be sent directly to your email inbox, check it out below: