The long and the short of mobile messaging incompatibility

15 years ago in Japan, I thought it was pretty cool that I could send short messages via text to my friends. That wasn’t a thing yet in North America. I was living in the future!

But it was complicated. There was “short mail” and “long mail.” Short mail could be sent at a steep discount to other mobiles on the same carrier. Long mail was for mobiles on other carriers. In other words, SMS was not cross-carrier at the time. Long mail was actually an email dedicated to your phone. In fact, typically it was just your phone number @carrier.co.jp. later you could customize it. Many people had a “PC mail” address separate from their “mobile mail,” some used their mobile mail for their primary email.

Thus, we were ever asking new contacts:

  1. What carrier are you on? (AUですか?J-Phone?やっぱりDocoMo…)
  2. What is your mobile mail address? (メールアドはなんですか?)
  3. And if they had a separate PC mail. (パソコンメールは?)

15 years later, in the present future where we all have smartphones, things are even more complex. There are a plethora of messaging platforms, and none of them universal. Messaging apps are very personal. Like Todo list apps, we each have particular workflows we want our apps to conform too. Though, more likely we are influenced by the network effect. Different regions and cultures tend to have a dominant platform, say WeChat in China or WhatsApp in India.

“If only there was one app that was universal” has been the lament of the consumer for the past few years (UPDATE: h/t to @chrisfosterelli). And even earlier, by the little history lesson I opened this post with.

Benedict Evans said in a recent podcast that the notifications panel is the actual unifying app for messaging. We just have to get used to having a dozen different messaging apps on our devices, and use Notifications as our universal interface. Kind of like using a mail client with all your different email accounts.

Ah, email. Email is another old scourge of messaging. The ultimate fallback that everyone is trying to kill. On mobile, more often than not, that role is played by SMS.

This chart from The Economist has been going around to show the imminent death of SMS.

Whatsapp overtakes worldwide SMS delivery and keeps rocketing up

But it also shows how much SMS is still used in the world. The forecast is still 20 billion per day. I still txt a number of people, friends and family, even with my $500 smartphone and $80 a month data plan. Most are on iPhone or Android. One is on Blackberry. None are on feature phones. OMG RIP TXT, WTF!?

Looking at this recent chart by Comscore will show you why iMessage isn’t viable:

In Canada, iPhone has 38% of the 81% of smartphones

Well, I say not viable, but the truth is iPhone users don’t care. They use the same app either way, and if you aren’t on an iPhone, then you deserve Green Bubble Disgust. The rest of us are relegated to SMS. iPhone users are like the drunk salaryman on the train who is stepping on your foot the whole time, and if you say something he glares at you like its your fault.

My wife is one of those drunken salarymen. She txts like crazy. We pay an extra $7 a month for an unlimited txting plan for her. Since she is txting in Japanese I know she is not messaging people on feature phones. OMG RIP TEXT, WTF!?

My officemates and I use Slack. My gaming group uses Hangouts. Everyone else uses SMS.

As one the more tech oriented in my family, I have the power to convince people to adopt a platform. But what am I going to push? The options out there are terrible. Take a look at a slide from a recent presentation where I measure apps on a scale of tinfoil hats:

On a scale of 1 to 5 tinfoil hats, EVERYTHING is terrible

As I’ve said before, any universal platform must be:

  • cross platform (Android, iOS, BB… WinPhone I guess…)
  • cross device (Mac, Windows, Linux)
  • have native clients (no browser plugins please!)
  • have end to end encryption

This is otherwise known as my Inverse Pentagram of IM. Since nobody is willing to make it, we might just have to summon it from an alternate dimension.

Chad expounding on The Inverse Pentagram of IM

So, the long and the short of it is: People will use what they are used to, and what everyone around them is using, even if the alternatives are better. Unfortunately, SMS still rules the roost in my region. We might have to wait until everyone dies and the new generation takes over the earth before we see a change in messaging platform. Either that or my dream platform is finally released and I can go on an IM adoption crusade. Until then, just as 15 years ago, send me a txt.

Author: Chad Kohalyk

Bellatrist, communitarian, tech contrarian. Generous with Likes. http://chadkohalyk.com