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 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.

Nexus 5


See all unboxing photos on Flickr.

It has only been a few days but I have to say that I am immensely enjoying my Nexus 5. For months I have been complaining incessantly about my first Android, a Samsung Galaxy S3. The quality of the software was pretty low, but most of all it was the cheap, soft plastic body and plastic AMOLED screen which scratched and scarred too easily. I was used to the solid build quality of my previous iPhone 4.

When my coworkers got Nexus 4s last year I was envious of the bright displays and glass bodies. The Nexus 5 takes it to the next level with a 445ppi IPS display. It is really gorgeous. Although the body isn’t glass, it is a solid plastic that has some weight to it and feels good in the hand. I don’t think it will chip easily like the S3, but it has only been a few days and I haven’t dropped it. The protruding camera is a bit of a concern (the protruding camera on my S3 is all scratched to hell), but it performs much better than the S3. I am not sure how it compares to an iPhone though.

As for the software, since I have been using a Nexus 7 for the past couple of months I am used to the vanilla Google experience, which is vastly superior to TouchWiz (though there are still a few shortcomings compared to iOS). I look forward putting something more open on the N5 in the future, something that was really difficult to do with my Mac and the S3.

All in all, a great phone. One other bonus: unlocked! I got the S3 on contract (the first time I have had a contract phone for years) and I am so glad to be free from telcos. I am using a T-Mobile SIM while I am in San Francisco, and will just pop in my old SIM when I return to Canada next month. Then while I am in Japan for New Year’s I will use a SIM from there — just like nature intended.

My first few days with an Android phone

[Sidenote: Funny how I just posted about leaving Apple and now I am talking about my new Android phone…]

Alright, so a couple of Android observations after having this new Samsung Galaxy S3 for just a couple of days. I still haven’t adjusted completely, so I am trying to keep these observations limited to more objective things.

First of all, the hardware:

The screen is flippin’ huge and I love it. It has basically given me arthritis for trying to use it one-handed, but it is nice and roomy. After using an iPad for the past couple of months my iPhone display started seeming small. The SGS3 display size is good. The color, not so good. Far too blue. That probably is related to the materials, which brings me to my next observation: It is all plastic, which sucks. It feels really cheap. Taking the back panel off is like watching SNL: disappointing.

The wifi antennae is really weak. All of my other devices have no problem connecting to my router from all over the house. I get terrible reception with the SGS3. Looking online I learned how to get into a diagnostic mode and turn off Wifi Power Saving Mode or something or other. Didn’t seem to help.

However, it is FAST. Dual core and 2 gigs of RAM. Nice. I am coming from an iPhone 4, not the 4s, so it is even more pronounced.

Now, software:

NOTE: As this thing is using Samsung’s TouchWiz Nature skin thus I cannot generalize about the Android platform as a whole. Keep that in mind — I am.

Okay, just gotta get this off my chest. Every time you tap something you get this little “natural” water droplet sound. It is an annoying manifestation of the Nature theme. Makes me want to wiz.

Widgets are brilliant. I am still not quite sure how I should organize my homescreen and my app drawer, but I see the potential for optimal customization there. I wish more widgets could be placed on the lock screen.

As for apps, I got just about everything I had on the iPhone. My only complaint is the lack of a decent Twitter client. I have been spoiled by Tweetbot.

The keyboard sucks. No spell-check? And no Japanese? But at least I can go out and download a new one that fits my needs. Score 1 for Android.

For such fast hardware, this thing locks up wayyy to easily. Apps crash… a lot. And processes too. Add a new email account and the thing becomes entirely unresponsive for about a minute. None of the onscreen or hardware keys work except for the sleep button. Even if you put it to sleep it won’t wake up until it is done doing what it is doing. This happened to me three times today, in three different apps. All of them ended in a error message.

Speaking of error messages, take a look at one that I get all the time:

Why the hell is this a customer-facing error message? It is meaningless to the average user.

And why does Bell’s Mobile TV app throw an error when I am on a wifi connection? “Content rights restrictions”? OMGWTFBBQ! And that has to be the crashiest app ever.

Okay, so here my bias will show. Feel free to skip this next section and go straight to the last para:

There is a general lack of polish. In general it feels pretty chintzy. Just like the plastic outer casing, the software inside lacks a depth of thought. The UI is “good enough” but it lacks the intuitiveness of the iPhone. Many of the workflows require an abundance of steps using checkboxes, modes and menus with very deep and convoluted hierarchies. (Speaking of menus, TouchWiz is very menu dependent. This comes down to the hardware soft-keys. I mean, soft-keys originated on feature phones. It feels like a step backwards.)

Anyways, I have basically left my iPhone on the desk and have thrown the SGS3 only twice so far, so I think things are going pretty good. I plan on living with this thing for at least the next 2 years so I should have a better sense of comparison in the future. I am sure I will comment more then.

When it comes down to it, I’m enjoying (at least the novelty of) it.