Vying to Become the Ubiquitous Messaging Service: The Criteria

(This is part 2 in a series of 3 posts on the topic.)

Last time, we covered the landscape surrounding the ubiquitous messaging service.  We recounted a brief history, looked at some dead historical platforms, and examined some common mistakes that communication vendors make.

No Success

In the past few years, many companies have tried to insert themselves as the next ubiquitous messaging service–and, in large, nobody has succeeded.  This is because they stop short of providing what the general American public deems as a full feature set.  While text messaging tends to still be the greatest common divisor in America, it falls short in many areas.  We’ve all experienced hints of the following features in some services, but no one service has yet captured them all.  And certainly, there is a need:

xkcd: Preferred Chat System

The Criteria

The ubiquitous messaging service of today should include:

  • Seamless cross-device support.  Message using any device you desire: phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, television.  User experience is seamless across devices, even when switching in the middle of a conversation.
  • Seamless cross-platform support.  Message using any platform you desire: mobile app (Android, iPhone, Windows, Blackberry), desktop application (Windows, OS X, Linux), or browser (Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer).  User experience is seamless across platforms, even when switching in the middle of a conversation.
  • Medium-agnostic.  Communicate without caring about how your recipient will read your message.  You shouldn’t have to remember that Joe is a Google Voice user, and as such does not reliably receive MMS messages.  Focus on the message, not the limitations of the medium.
  • Location-agnostic.  Message without concern about whether you (or your recipient) have access to a desktop computer or mobile network data service.
  • Always on.  Message without needing to know someone’s office/business hours.  Trust that they’ll get the message when importance of the message deems it.  Goes hand-in-hand with…
  • Offline messaging.  Don’t worry about whether your recipient is online.  Again, trust that they’ll get the message when importance of the message deems it.
  • No length limitations.  I can convey this point by mentioning a single number: 140.
  • Real-time.  Your message should be delivered immediately.  Not 15 seconds from now; immediately.
  • Ability to see when your message has been read.  Knowing whether and when your recipient has received your message helps avoid both miscommunication and over-communication.  (Side note: This is not a desirable feature for everyone.)
  • Ability to see when your other party is typing.  Knowing whether your recipient is still engaged in a conversation helps make more productive use of your time.
  • Concurrent media types.  Send text, links, pictures, and videos–all in the same conversation.
  • Real-time voice/video chat.  Don’t limit real-time conversation to text-only.
  • Notification control.  When you have a new message/conversation, be notified exactly when, where, how, and how often you want.  Don’t worry about your recipient–let them decide for themselves.  For example, you need not wait until morning to send a message just because you fear waking up your recipient.  On the other hand, if the importance of a message warrants it, there should be a way for the recipient to be interrupted if busy/unavailable.
  • Group conversations.  Remember telephone party lines?  And while you’re at it…
  • Collaboration tools.  Screen/content sharing.  Moderator-controlled sessions.  Think business meetings and classroom settings.
  • History archival.  Save off all media used during the conversation (text, pictures, video, content) for future reference/searching.
  • Archival controls.  Store/record exactly what you want.  This includes the ability to go “off the record” and a respectable privacy policy.
  • Inherent security.  Designed with security in mind.  HTTPS only (no plain HTTP), multi-factor authentication, etc.
  • Privacy controls.  Be visible to only those to which you want, and only when you want to be visible.  Ability to block people who want to harass/spam you.
  • Smart parsing/formatting.  Turn web addresses, phone numbers, addresses, dates, and times into usable context-appropriate, device-appropriate, and platform-appropriate links.
  • Open participation.  Not specific to a single device, platform, browser, or carrier.  Open API for third parties.  And finally…
  • Widespread adoption.  What good is it to have the ultimate messaging service, but to be the only of your friends using it?

The astute among you will note that many of the items on this list have come to light only in recent years.  And thus, the feature set required for the ubiquitous messaging service is a moving target:  It will evolve again in the next few years.

Next time, as we continue this discussion, we’ll identify some who are vying for the title of “ubiquitous messaging service.”


Vying to Become the Ubiquitous Messaging Service: The Landscape

(This is part 1 in a series of 3 posts on the topic.)

A Brief History

Communication is woven into our modern lives perhaps more than ever before.  What formerly required a trek across the continent is now as simple as touching the on-screen “Send” button.  Over time, we began to replace paying a visit to deliver a message with more convenient means, such as writing letters, sending telegraphs, making landline phone calls, posting to newsgroups, sending email, making mobile phone calls, sending text messages, instant messaging, posting on social media, and voice/video chats.

What telecommunication company wouldn’t want to be at the center of this business?  Notions of monopolies and anti-trust lawsuits aside, great profitability exists in providing the communication service that everyone uses.  Over time, there has been (and will continue to be) great competition to reach the center of this market; that is, to become the “ubiquitous messaging service.”


Various organizations have held this role in the past.  Historical examples include the US Postal Service, Western Union (before they did money transfers), and AT&T.  After US regulators broke up the AT&T monopoly in 1984, we began to see telecom companies compete for market share.  Since then, America has seen a fairly divided telecom landscape.  Due to this diversification, I would argue that no company has held the title of “ubiquitous messaging service” within the past decade.

Dead Platforms

Let’s run through our earlier list of historical communication platforms, condemning as many as we can.  Humor me, these conclusions are obvious:

  • Paying a visit.  This is great–if you have a teleportation device or LOTS of time/money.
  • Writing letters.  Not real-time.  Limited to text and pictures.
  • Sending telegraphs.  Dead technology.
  • Making landline phone calls.  Dying technology.  I will likely never pay for landline service.
  • Posting to newsgroups.  Dead technology.
  • Sending email.  Limited to text, pictures, and GIF animations.  Not (quite) real-time.
  • Making mobile phone calls.  The norm for today’s voice communication, but limited to audio.
  • Sending text messages.  Requires cell phone service (or something akin to Google Voice).  Limited to text and very small pictures/video.

Side note:  I would say that mobile phone carriers have worked hard to make (and keep) text messaging today’s American ubiquitous messaging platform.  (Now would be a good time to discuss pricing schemes for text messages and data services, but I digress.)

Clearly, there is a current desire for a better platform.  The last three platforms in the earlier list (instant messaging, social media, and voice/video chats) are becoming the future of communication.  Much of the communication innovation in the past five years has occupied this space.  Many major companies have tried various permutations of these three, often with great overlap.

Common Mistakes

When looking at those companies trying to find the right mix of instant messaging, social media, and voice/video chats, we see that many of those attempts have failed.  A bit of interpolation helps us to make sense of some commonly repeated mistakes:

  • Mistake #1:  Lack of features.  People won’t use your stuff if it’s not the best.  Pay particular attention to the features that your competitors do well.  People want to see innovation, not duplication.
  • Mistake #2:  Exclusive participation.  People won’t use your stuff if you refuse to play nicely with others.  For example:  I’ll likely never use BlackBerry Messenger, because I’ll likely never own a BlackBerry.  Closed services are not a way to increase your customer base.  (BYOD, anyone?)
  • Mistake #3:  Change in workflow.  People won’t use your stuff if they have to go out of their way to do it.  The last thing that people want is one more signup/login/website to check daily.  (The inference here is that the communication giants have a competitive advantage.)

Next time, as we continue this discussion, we’ll dive into specific criteria for the “ubiquitous messaging service”.