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Here’s why email is still the best messaging app

Rob Pegoraro
·Contributing Editor

My latest descent into messaging hell came two weeks ago, when I saw a notification for a friend’s message pop up in the growing list of notifications on my Android phone. I reflexively tapped the button to clear the list — and then realized I didn’t remember which app the notification came from.

Was it a Twitter direct message? No. Facebook message? Nope. A Google Hangouts message? Hmm, that wasn’t it either.

And then I got distracted by something else, because smartphone life sometimes shaves my attention span down to seconds. A week later, I was in my SMS app and I realized I’d had an unread message — the one from my friend that I’d lost track of before.

Messaging mania

That led me to inventory the apps on my phone, besides email and text messaging, that somebody could use to ping me with a quick note. Let’s see… Facebook Messenger, Twitter (via direct messaging), Google’s Hangouts, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, Evernote, Yelp.

(Yes, Yelp. The only message I’ve received there was from a Washington Post colleague seven or eight years ago. His observation after I’d added him to my friends list: “it’s not just you… EVERY site on the web is becoming a social networking portal.”)

As bad as eight messaging-capable apps seem, things could be worse. I could not be over 40 and therefore actually use Snapchat for interaction with friends.

And Google (GOOG) would now like to add messaging apps number nine and 10 to my collection.

Last week, it shipped Duo, a one-to-one video messaging app for Android and iOS—think FaceTime, but without the Apple exclusivity and with end-to-end encryption. Duo will soon be joined by a “smart messaging app” called Allo, which is to WhatsApp what Duo is to FaceTime: a catch-up effort.

Apple (AAPL), for its part, is adding enough interactive features — stickers! giant emoji! Handwriting! — into iOS 10’s version of Messages that Macworld called it an “overloaded attack on Snapchat.” And this week, Bloomberg reported that the iPhone maker has begun work on a video editing and sharing app.

But look, everybody’s trying to catch up here. When it works, messaging can tie your users to your app by making it the place where they hear from their friends.

And failing to take advantage of that opportunity might kill you. AOL’s neglect of AOL Instant Messenger — with its user profiles and a friends list, it could have become Facebook — ranks as one of the worst social-networking strategic blunders of all time.

(Yahoo Finance’s parent firm made a similar mistake with Yahoo Messenger.)

How to make email look good

Messaging apps, by virtue of being their own proprietary platforms, can innovate in ways that would be harder when other companies are involved. They can quickly add features like encrypt messages, which secures them while in transit and when stored on your device — something far easier to do in Facebook Messenger than in e-mail.

They can get past limits enforced by wireless carriers: WhatsApp makes a U.S. phone number relevant for free overseas, even when I’m using a prepaid SIM.

And some social networks really do need their own messaging channels. Direct messages in Twitter (TWTR) provide a necessary complement to public tweets, although they also allow for the occasional “DM fail” when a user taps the wrong button before dispatching instead of a message sends a tweet.

But each new messaging app requires a new assessment of its privacy issues, as WhatsApp’s announcement that it would begin sharing users’ phone numbers with its corporate parent Facebook (FB) should have reminded all of us.

Each app can require a new password and (if management there have their security priorities set right) a new two-step verification scheme to ensure that a compromised password alone won’t result in your loss of the account.

Messaging apps’ emphasis on immediacy can not only make them an intrusive interruption but also often leads to willful neglect of search functions and other ways to surface messages from a week, a month or a year ago.

They also often skimp on contacts management and don’t tie into your existing address-book apps. What’s more they force you to maintain your own mental contacts list of who likes which platform: Is this guy a Twitter DM type, or does he spend more time on Facebook Messenger?

Finally, if a messaging app’s developer decides to make its app more annoying for some business reason, you’re stuck with the results.

Email may be the messaging medium we all love to hate, but nobody owns the underlying standard. You can use the app of your choice, it’s never confined to your phone — and you can’t sign up for most messaging services without an email address anyway. So if you want to get in touch with me, an email to the address below remains the best way.

But won’t you please use a clear, concise and memorable subject header on that message?

More from Rob:

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.