The messy world of messaging and one way to fix it

Last week Wired wrote about an upcoming update to Google Voice, a service that allows users to set single phone number for all their phone lines that was thought to be on the way out. Wired had these unflattering words to say about Google’s messaging strategy: “It’s been a mess. The company’s moves are haphazard, confusing, and constantly self-defeating.”

Android currently has five different messaging apps: Voice, Hangouts, Messenger, Allo, and Duo. The only two I use regularly are Hangouts, for chats with my gmail contacts, and Voice, for text messaging, though I tried Allo but didn’t have time to recreate my social network there. I also use WhatsApp extensively for messaging and group chats for almost everyone not in the US, Facebook Messenger for friends for whom I don’t have a phone number or email, and Skype for some really ancient (in terms of the length of the relationship) contacts whom I haven’t reconnected with on a more recent service. That’s five messaging services.

Photographs of the Interior of the First National Bank, Philadelphia, PA, 1910 Source: OfficeMuseum.com

The Interior of the First National Bank, Philadelphia, PA, 1910. Note the three candelstick phones in the corner.
Source: OfficeMuseum.com

Vint Cerf, when talking about the early days of networking, said: “the principle goal, back in 1973, was to create a way for computers to communicate with each other… We certainly didn’t want to wind up with a situation parallel to the 1910s and 1920s, when a business had a dozen different telephones sitting on a desk – all using a different proprietary system and requiring a person to know which telephone service to use to reach someone else.

The latter is how messaging works today and we have the modern equivalent of five phones on our desk, different apps for different people in our social circle. Yet that’s not the right flow. The need to contact a friend shouldn’t even be preceded by the thought “what app is she on?” It should be about reaching out to people.

So what can Google do? First, revamp Contacts. What’s in Google Contacts now? Email, phone numbers, and yes, messaging, with pulldown options that include AIM, ICQ, Yahoo, and Skype, but not Facebook or WhatsApp, where handles are unnecessary. Then, the entry itself is static so that unlike where a tap on a phone number initiates a call, a tap on a Skype handle doesn’t launch a Skype call with that handle. This makes the messaging section not just incomplete and time-consuming to set up, but also pretty useless.

To improve Contacts the interaction between it and the messaging apps has to be bidirectional. First, the discovery of the presence of that contact on the app when the contact is added or the app is installed so that the contacts page is always up to date. Second, deeplink each app name and handle pair so that tapping it launches the “contact” action in the app. Third, list and prioritize contacting methods by the frequency and recency of use so that instead of showing email, phone one and phone two at the top of the contact page, list the most frequently used app, be it email, Facebook Messenger, or Hangouts. Implementing this will allow users to open up a contact and just click on one of the top two contact methods. They won’t have to remember who is using what app.

This might work even in today’s competitive landscape. Messaging apps can update Contacts with the right info as it’s created and Contacts has to add smart usage analysis and deeplink. If Google wants Contacts to be the starting point of any conversation, this is the kind of action it needs to have: contact by person, not by app. But please, Google, no more messaging apps for now, I think we’re set.

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