For a long time now, our smartphones have been getting more and more, well, smart. They do more things. You probably haven’t beaten your phone at chess in years. And the race to cram increasingly granular, eventually useless, features into them has defined the past few years of phone making. Except the next big waypoint won’t be some technological marvel like week-long battery life. It’s something much simpler: Plain old chat.
Ironically, through all the Foursquares and Ubers and even Google Nows, the one area where our phones haven’t really improved all that much recently is as pure communication devices. Oh, we’ve got some of the standby services on there, like Google Talk, or AIM, the Michael Meyers of chat protocols, and even some genuine breakthroughs, like GroupMe. But no one’s really nailed it. There is no one phone you can unbox, activate, and immediately log in and message with every contact you’ve ever had, right through the first party software, and access it from anywhere—your computer, the web, your phone, your tablet. But that’s where we’re going next.
Need proof? We officially send more chat messages than text messages now, at an astonishing clip of over 19 billion every single day. Here's who's in the best position to add real quality to that astonishing quantity.
Facebook is in pole position in the messaging wars. Now that it’s finally dipped its toe into phones with both Facebook Home and chat heads, we’re about to see how far Facebook’s chat ambitions really go.
Facebook's advantages are great. First, it’s already got a billion people plugged into its proprietary messaging system. That’s a huge leg up on someone like, say, Microsoft, which is in the comical position of trying to build up a Windows-Phone-only group chat service like Rooms when there are very few people using the platform to begin with.
Then remember that Facebook isn’t a direct competitor to everyone else trying to nail down chat. Not yet, at least. It’s still a social network that every phone platform desperately needs. Apple has bent over backwards to integrate every Facebook feature it can into iOS. Android lets Facebook’s chat heads run amok across the entire platform. And Facebook is the one outside chat partner Microsoft has already accepted, and it’s actively courting even more Facebook involvement.
Facebook combines the brute ubiquity, non-threatening mobile presence, and centralized hub on the web to make unified chat—all your messages in one place, on your phone or the web—a reality. It just needs to make one concession: partner with Google. Maybe that sounds crazy. But why stop at just building Facebook Home into Android? Why not go all the way, implementing Google Talk (and maybe, someday, Babel) into Facebook Messenger? As much as Google+ makes it a Facebook competitor, the two companies still need each other's strengths enough that a more thorough coupling wouldn't be out of the question. And would give you an undeniably powerful chat experience.
Google places a strong second, but it’s a mystery why it’s taken so long for it to get its act together. It was on the vanguard of bringing your text messages, and content from your phone in general, onto your desktop. It’s been copied into the ground, but Google Voice is probably the best implementation of SMS into your browser that’s out there.
Google’s also been working in secret on its Babel project, which is rumored to be unifying all of its divergent chat services into one, monolithic chat hub. Talking to people who are using Google things would be made simple. Which is a great thing, because for all Google Talk’s virtues—like being totally open to basically any chat client that will have it—it’s got a lot of issues, especially with multiple accounts and using the default web client, which doesn’t nest popped-out chats.
And yet, Google Talk is not, by default, integrated into your Android phone’s SMS messages. Its multi-account functionality can be confusing to navigate. Your best bet for a unified chat experience is some combination of the Facebook Messenger app on select phones that bunch in SMS and WhatsApp.
But Google Talk chat is the inheritor of ubiquitous chat hub, and would be in a strong position for gathering up everyone, if only everyone would use an Android phone and Chrome. Google’s biggest problem, though, is getting others to play along. It’s too big and threatening at this point. Microsoft has so far refused to embrace Google in its Messaging apps, both in Windows Phone and, more ludicrously, Windows 8. Apple allows Google into OS X’s Messages and iChat apps, but keeps it at arm’s length on iOS. Google’s just too big a competitor.
Still, Google is the best in a lot of ways right now, and has users who are more symbiotic with their Google/Gmail/Google Talk/Calendar accounts than just about any other company out there. That means something. If Babel really proves to be a powerhouse chat and messaging hub, and accepts enough other services into its folds (which would be a huge step for Google), especially considering the lengths Google’s gone through to meld Android and Chrome, Android could have as good a messaging solution as possible.
Microsoft was supposed to be the one. It was Microsoft, surprisingly enough, that actually started this run on chat. When it showed off Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango at the time) and its integrated SMS and Facebook Messaging, we were ecstatic. The convergence of chat and SMS there implied so much more. It hinted at even more partners and more functionality down the line. It suggested integration with what would eventually come with chat in Windows 8, and it promised a completionist hub of communication of not just SMS and messages, but email, photos, and every other way you interact with people.
That's not quite how things have turned out. While Microsoft has the structure in place to unite all of those threads, it’s gone all Microsofty on us and refused to partner with additional chat partners, or to empower the People app in Windows 8 the way that Windows Phone 8’s is, or even be bothered to do so much as integrate Skype, which it owns, into its chat apps. Further, in many regards it's been passed up by the same competitors it had made look outdated. Basically, it’s undermined itself, in the way that only Microsoft knows how.
Remember this guy? Remember BBM? Remember how it was the killer app for years and years and years? You do? Good. Then try very hard, if you can, to remember how then-RIM refused to grow its wonderful and secure and beloved chat service beyond the pale of its own hardware’s shrinking reach. How it squandered its devoted fanbase and let BBM not be overtaken so much as become forgotten, not worth the trouble, a Monet hanging on the wall of a burnt out warehouse out on the Canadian tundra.
BlackBerry is making strides, with a promising but flawed launch for BlackBerry 10, and its integration with Hub and Google Talk and, yes, BBM is deeply encouraging. It's also got a host of features—screen sharing—that any advanced chat platform should envy. But a chat service is nothing without users, and on that score BBM is behind. Far behind. And while there still might be a comeback story buried in there, for now, BlackBerry serves as both cautionary tale and a sort of lost city of El Dorado. It screwed up by not using BBM to bludgeon its way back into mobile relevance, but it still represents the misguided ideal for everyone hoping to dig its claws into users with a private chat system.
No. Sorry, but no.
Any time someone even mentions chat, WhatsApp’s considerable army of devotees descends on the comments section and cries, No mention of WhatsApp? Stopped reading. It's understandable, because WhatsApp is the gold standard for cross-platform chat and messaging. It’s a wonderful service. But to insert it into this conversation misses the wider point. It’s not just about you, dear tinkerer, being able to chat widely; it’s about growing a base that reaches everyone on every platform. WhatsApp is great for what it is, but there are so, so many people who will never use it unless it’s bought up and assimilated into the Borg by someone like Google.
For a chat at to be truly universal, there has to be zero barrier to entry. And that includes downloading WhatsApp.
Apple is screwing this thing up—badly. iMessage is a wonderful little attempt at bringing back the glory days of BBM. But it just isn’t enough. It makes a ton of sense one moment, and then the next you’re wondering why you opened up your laptop to find a iMessage from a few days ago waiting for you.
This is compounded with odd decisions to not include outside protocols in the iOS Messages app, and to not sync OS X Messages transcripts to iCloud. There’s now no way to sync your chat logs across computers, let alone to your phone. For all the noise Apple makes about iCloud putting all your stuff in one place, it’s pretty far behind on messaging. Which, given how tightly sealed off iOS is from the rest of the world, might be a good thing.
There’s an inherent tension to achieving truly universal chat, of course. The money, for now, says that it’s more profitable, or will eventually be so, to wall yourself off, retain your customers, build a self-sustaining city that they'll never escape from. Just ask Apple and its $100 billion treasure chest.
But at some point, some time soon, someone's going to figure this thing out, and everyone else is going to rush to catch up. And whoever it is will own the most powerful tool at your smartphone's disposal.