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Why we still use so many chat and text apps

Ethan Wolff-Mann
·Senior Writer

2017 will mark the 35th year of the short message service (SMS), otherwise known as the “text.” Though much has changed in the world of technology, the SMS remains the same as it was in 1982—around 16 years before the iMac debuted in its colored plastic and 25 years before the first iPhone.

Today more than 68% of Americans have smartphones according to Pew, yet no fresh open standard for texting has been adopted for this modern age even though we text more than we talk on the phone.

Instead came a deluge of apps, each of them with their own strengths and flaws, creating an irritating mess of communication. So far, even the strongest leaders of the post-SMS world have fallen short of becoming anything close to a new universal standard.

Take Apple’s iMessage (AAPL) for the iPhone, iPad, and Mac computers, for instance, whose blue messages has become almost standard thanks to its market penetration as the most popular smartphone in the US. On the face, iMessage pretty much checks all the boxes. It can be used with multiple devices—desktop too—allowing people to use a real keyboard instead of the phone’s, if it’s on hand. It has end-to-end encryption, essentially guaranteeing privacy as long as messages are blue. And it has no message length limits, unlike the SMS.

But as great as iMessage is to its users, the most valuable company in the world has prevented its app from becoming a global standard—it excludes the 87.6% of the world that uses Android. Apple reportedly has flirted with the idea of bringing its messaging system cross platform to Android, internally sharing mockups of the app, but nothing has come to light yet.

If inclusivity is the measure, WhatsApp sets the standard, available across operating systems. With well over 1 billion active user accounts, it’s the second-most popular virtual community behind its owner, Facebook (FB). And it checks boxes: It uses an open-source end-to-end encryption protocol that’s easy to verify, it is available for multiple devices (including desktop) and has all the modern features you expect like photos, videos, and groups. But it’s just not popular in the US.

Similarly, some people just use Facebook’s messaging platform, Messenger, to communicate, or they stay on Gchat or Hangouts via phone after their browser windows close. Others people—many Android users—simply communicate through the age-old SMS protocol, using the built-in app. In the US, unlike in some other places, unlimited texting with the operating system’s default app is the norm, which has hindered the third-party chat app revolution that countries like China have seen with WeChat. (Of course, people in the US would never use WeChat due to privacy and censorship concerns.)

In the past few months, given renewed hacking and privacy concerns, a new app has emerged, called Signal. Signal is the messaging app made by the organization that implemented WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption, Open Whisper Systems. Similar to WhatsApp and iMessage, it accommodates photos, groups, and videos.

With all these options, it seems unlikely a single player will emerge to consolidate the market and de-clutter our home screens. There just doesn’t seem the motivation to make all the desired functionality of messaging available from one app to another, across platforms, operating systems, and, ideally, using the phone’s default messaging app.

Unfortunately, the possibility of a single messaging utopia that has everything needed may be doomed to fail, as what we ask of our chat and messaging apps evolves.

You may have noticed that many apps and services like Gmail, Facebook, and Snapchat now offer the ability to transfer cash without leaving the app to Venmo, Square Cash, or PayPal. Similarly, you can now also pay through iMessage, linked up with an app like Venmo.

Adding a payments feature to a chat/messaging/texting app may become something a consumer expects. So could video chat capabilities—and currently FaceTime, like iMessage, is not available to non-Mac devices. Some chat apps like Skype and Gchat/Hangouts (GOOG) already allow for video chat, but don’t come standard on all phones. Furthermore, messaging apps may be the go-to place for chatbots to live and interact with us, either reading our texts and suggesting things or living as discrete robot contacts.

Whether any of this is reaching a breaking point with consumers is up to how many apps a person can juggle —or a matter of the device learning how to juggle them in a way that makes sense, be it a dashboard or something verbal like an Amazon Echo.

It’s possible that the age of platform-less texting, which requires no special software apps or accounts with the SMS, is all but over, and in the new era it’s a strictly opt-in procedure that may change at a moment’s notice as people get tired of Skype and just use FaceTime. Or Hangouts. And maybe that’s fine. But for 2017, some sort of consolidation is definitely in order.