In the last few years, mobile messaging apps have been expanding like crazy. It seems like every slight variation of messaging has a different app and they’re all thriving. The app audience is differentiated by usage preferences, demographics, anonymity, social network interoperability or geography. The latter determines local communication regulation, communication pricing, availability and cost of various smartphones. All drive the adoption of a wide variety of messaging apps.
In theory, this is a good thing. Many products meeting many different needs of many different users. The Guardian was even able to write a post about what your messaging app says about you. Cute. And they only mentioned nine different apps, there are plenty more, such as apps tied to email accounts including the widely-used Google Hangouts/Chat and Microsoft’s and Yahoo’s Messengers.
That’s why in practice the fragmentation and over-specialization have gotten frustrating. Instead of thinking “I want to chat with person X” you have to think “what platform is X on and can I chat with her” and launch the appropriate app.
Compare this to phones. Earlier this week I wrote about one of the greatest changes to phones since the last earthquake here in California: the fact that everyone now has one personal phone number (aka their mobile) that goes with them everywhere. If you want to talk to X, all you have to do is dial their mobile number and whether it’s a local one or one halfway across the world, it will reach them (and pretty cheaply, I might add.) You’ll go through numerous technical providers on the way, from your local mobile service provider, through the state and national exchanges, through the international exchanges, maybe an underwater cable or two, then another national exchange, and finally another local mobile service provider. All these exchanges are managed by different entities, some commercial, some state-owned, yet they all manage to get along. With messaging, in comparison, your desired connection X must be on the same messaging platform as you in order to be contacted.
Yes, I realize that there are disadvantages of phone communication: the federal agencies are involved and historical pricing was extremely expensive. Even today the taxes and fees paid for mobile and landline phones is significant. The messaging apps are mostly free and if not free, very cheap. They also bypass many of the old phone charges imposed by the aforementioned federal agencies. Also, the phone system was/is very rigid. Either play by its rules or don’t use it. It does what it does well, but it doesn’t lend itself to personalization or even geographical localization. Yet it’s extremely beneficial to messaging apps to be closed. It drives more users and faster grown. Why would they create features that could weaken this competitive advantage?
So is that our choice? Unified and feature-limited but costly vs fragmented and feature-laden but free? I hope not. I think that the messaging platform that will provide (somewhat contradictorily) a platform-agnostic app for one-to-one chats may just win this war.