Essays on Technology and Culture

The Fall of the Multi-Platform Instant Messenger Client

I have six messaging apps on my phone right now: the stock Apple Messages app, Telegram, Skype, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and Slack. (Seven if you count Tweetbot.) Each gives me access to a subset of my friends, family, and coworkers. Each app’s subset overlaps some, and, well, it’s really annoying in a first-world problem kind of way. The proliferation of messaging apps over the past several years has me desperate for the days when I could reach the majority of people in my life with one simple application on my phone or computer, regardless of platform.

That’s right. Once upon a time, messaging services had open APIs, and there were clever applications that could tap into several of them at once. In one window, I could see all my friends on AOL Instant Messenger, my friends on ICQ, my friends on Google Talk, and eventually my friends on Facebook. When I was a Windows user, there was Trillian—an app whose name I appreciated, even if the app itself was ugly and clunky. Once I switched to the Mac, I had Adium, which I customized to hell and back, and kept its buddy list pinned to the corner of my desktop for the better part of eight years.

These apps still exist for the desktop, along with a handful of multi-platform iOS messaging apps, but they’re moribund, and typically ad-supported. Trillian was last updated a little over a year ago, while Adium’s last major update was in 2014. Many are tied to legacy APIs that don’t provide newer features. I ended up abandoning Adium after I found out I couldn’t join a Google Hangouts group chat with it. And there’s no incentive for the platform creators to allow that API access, since they can’t monetize a third-party app. The result is a bunch of competing services with no sane way to unify all your contacts in one place.

SMS is the closest thing left to a “universal” messaging platform, but its limitations are myriad. It’s limited to text and images, many phone plans still have limits on the number of SMS and MMS messages that can be sent, and it’s insecure. iMessage looks like it aspires to be the replacement for SMS, and another potential “universal” platform, but as long as it’s limited to iOS, that won’t do. My partner is on Android, and despite the pre-WWDC rumors, it’s not looking like Apple will release an Android iMessage app any time soon.

Our messaging needs have changed since the days when America On-Line opened up their instant messenger platform to the masses. We’re no longer sharing text, we’re sharing our lives—links, photos, video, and audio. More of us are concerned about our privacy, and we want encryption to make sure nobody is peeking in on our conversations. It’s possible that these are obstacles to a more interoperable messaging space. I suspect they’re secondary to a lack of interest on the part of the platform owners.

I’m asking to send a message to someone on Facebook from my Telegram account or with the Messages app. I’d just like to keep one app where I can reach everyone, regardless of what service they choose to use, like I could only five years ago. Moving forward with richer, more secure, and more robust messaging platforms shouldn’t mean convenience and freedom get left behind. Yet, that’s exactly the situation I find myself in. I can’t be alone.