Your phone company is screwing you on text messaging. SMS messages cost them next to nothing, yet they charge you up the yin-yang. So how's about sticking it to the phone company with some viable alternatives to SMS messaging?
Platforms Supported: iOS, Android, Windows Phone
What's Good: It's totally free. It shows message status (sent, delivered, read). Group messaging and picture messages. It's one of your few Windows Phone options. And it's fast.
What's Bad: The people you send messages to have to be signed up for Kik. No video, audio, or location messages.
Verdict: Kik only makes sense if the vast majority of your friends are on Kik, which they probably aren't.
Platforms Supported: iOS, Android, BlackBerry
What's Good: Sends photo, video, voice notes, contacts, and location. You can add contacts via social networks or email address. Shows not only delivery status but also typing status.
What's Bad: Again, you can only message other people who use PingChat. No Windows Phone support. The UI isn't quite as slick as some of the others.
Verdict: Again, unless you have a ton of friends on PingChat, then there's not much point.
Platforms Supported: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Nokia/Symbian
Cost: Free for 1st year, $1.99 each year thereafter
What's Good: Uses phone numbers as user names, which is extremely smart. It means as soon as you install it, it checks the phone numbers on your phone's contacts and automatically populates your buddy list. Photo, video, location, and contact sharing. Nice, clean UI, and handles group chat well.
What's Bad: Yet again (and this will very much be a reoccurring theme) if your friends aren't on WhatsApp, then it's useless. It's also the only service you have to pay for (even though that's only after a year). No WP7 support.
Verdict: Ibid, baby. While WhatsApp has the largest user-base of those we've mentioned so far (especially in Europe), if your friends aren't on it, it's a non-starter. That said, of the three we've listed so far, this would be our favorite.
Platforms Supported: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, Web, Mobile Web
What's Good: Chances are good that the majority of people you know are already on Facebook. This gives it a massive advantage. It has apps for every major platform with varying features and degrees of integration. Its messaging and chat features are particularly relevant, particularly on iOS, which now has a dedicated Messenger app.
What's Bad: No picture/video/location messaging in the mobile apps. Also, typically people have notifications turned off so they aren't constantly bombarded by their friends' horrible improv shows (which happen 3,000 times a week, apparently). Without notifications, messaging is useless. Also, the apps are often buggy and don't always deliver messages. No dedicated Facebook messenger app for iPad or Android tablets yet.
Verdict: Facebook is on this list more for its potential than anything else. Their messaging is less feature-rich than plain old email, and won't be delivered any faster unless notifications are on. Basically, Facebook has the power to do something awesome in this space, but they haven't yet.
Platforms Supported: BlackBerry
What's Good: It's fast, it's simple. You can create groups, share pictures, even comment on pictures. It's encrypted, unless you live in one of a handful of repressive countries. Pretty intuitive.
What's Bad: It only works for other BlackBerry users, and those numbers are dwindling. Adding other BBM users isn't super intuitive—the whole PIN thing is ridiculous.
Verdict: Spoiler alert: if you're only available on one platform you're wasting everybody's time. This makes even less sense when BlackBerry has been hemorrhaging users.
Platforms Supported: iOS
What's Good: The smartest thing iOS does is that it integrates into the messaging program. You don't really have to do anything different. Whenever you want to send a contact a message, iOS checks to see if they also have iMessage, and if they do, it will use it. If they don't, it will use SMS. Can do group messages and photos, thought not as gracefully as BBM. Also allows for synced messaging on your iPad and iPod touch.
What's Bad: Only for iOS. ARRRRRGH. Seriously, it's a nice feature, but it's not going to incentivize anyone to switch. Also, when you send a group message to someone who doesn't have iOS things get very screwed up. Android users frequently have to download these messages as SMS, and replying to it may send the reply to an entire group (that the other user didn't know existed). It's very bad.
Verdict: Creating a service that will only work on a certain type of device is ass-backwards. Yes, it may sometimes seem that everyone you know has an iPhone, but you're wrong. At least 50% of my friends use Android and other devices. iMessage and BBM are creating pockets and subsets, moving people further apart, not closer together, which is, y'know, the opposite of the point.
The Bestest Alternatives
Platforms Supported: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, WP7, Web
What's Good: It's on more platforms than any of the others we've mentioned. Its group messaging is the best of the pack. It has a super clean UI, and pretty wide adoption. It has other features like conference calling, location sharing, and a really nice web interface. It's extremely reliable and it's completely free. It uses plain ol' SMS if you don't have the app, so basically anybody, with any phone, can get in on group conversations.
What's Bad: Once again, you've gotta get your buddies to sign up. It's a bit easier than some of the others as it has a little bit of SMS integration, but not much.
Verdict: It's not often that the crew at Gizmodo calls an app a "lifechanger" after their experience using GroupMe at CES. It's very good, but we'd like to see it go further with its SMS integration to further increase adoption.
Platforms Supported: Android, iOS, WP7, BlackBerry, Symbian, Web, Mobile Web
Forgive me for abandoning the "What's good/bad" model here, but this one is a bit complex.
Google offers three different options in this space. Google+ Huddles is the newest, and while it has potential to be great, it isn't yet. It only works for the Google+ app, and that app has major bugs with push notifications. It's also text only at this point, and you still need an invite to Google+. Not good, but has potential. Google Voice and Chat, however, are both ready and willing to put the big hurt on SMS.
Voice gives you your own number with free texting. That's free texting to any phone number. It has apps for all of the major smartphone operating systems (Windows Phone is third-party apps only for now, but they're pretty good), and an excellent web implementation. Besides backing all your messages up and making them searchable (not to mention providing free phone calls and visual voicemail), the killer angle here is that it doesn't require anybody else to sign up for anything. You can text anybody whose number you have. It's just like SMS—it is SMS—but it's free. With group texting similar to Huddles and the ability to add multimedia, this already killer service would dominate.
Everyone who has a Gmail account has Google Talk, and all of the major mobile and desktop operating systems have apps that work with it. That already gives it a ton of reach. And if you and your friends are on Android, it may have already killed SMS for you guys a long time ago. The APIs are open, which means not only can any platform use it, but anyone can create an app the uses it and makes it even better. The web version already has video chat, and that's coming this month to mobile as well. Talk in itself is not super special, but basically, if Google combined it with Voice they would be the perfect SMS replacement. As of now, the functionality is all there, but you have to switch between a few apps, which is why the winner is a tossup between them and GroupMe.
Scott White is an illustrator based in Herndon, Virginia. You can see his work here and follow him on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter.
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