Messaging’s mission impossible: One inbox to rule them all

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Messaging’s mission impossible: One inbox to rule them all

My phone buzzes. I glance at it and see a text message from my
husband, who wants to know if I can pick him up from work. Later that
day, my phone buzzes again. This time, it’s a Facebook Messenger
notification from my mother, who wants to chat about an upcoming trip.
At the same time, a friend pings me using Twitter’s Direct Messages.
Next, a colleague strikes up a conversation on Google Hangouts.
Realizing it would be easier to handle all of these with a computer, I
flip open my laptop so I can chat with everyone simultaneously. Within
the span of a few hours, I’ve chatted with four different people on four
completely different messaging platforms. And the juggling doesn’t stop
there.

It used to be that sending an SMS was enough. Now there’s a
seemingly endless number of ways to stay in touch with someone. And it’s
not just dedicated messaging apps like WhatsApp or Line either. Instagram added direct messaging this past December; Vine followed suit earlier this April; and even Pinterest joined the bandwagon recently by letting pinners chat with other pinners. And, of course, Twitter
has had direct messaging for almost eight years now. While variety and
choice are generally good things, all of these messaging services
introduce a perplexing problem: We have too many inboxes.

Being able to send messages within different applications isn’t all
bad, of course. If I think of an interesting photo or video I want to
share with just my friends on Instagram, I can do so within the app
easily. The same with Pinterest — I can continue the collaboration
process of pinning designs and planning a home remodel, for example,
without having to use another messaging service. And, of course,
messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are a lot cheaper to
use than traditional SMS — for US users at least, there’s no need to
fork over exorbitant messaging fees every month or, if you’re on a
limited plan, cough up pennies with every text.

But the problem is all of these messaging services and apps are
siloed experiences. Messages can’t be shared outside of their respective
ecosystems. Worse still, I have an obligation to use all of them
because different people in my social circle use different apps. When I
travelled to Malaysia earlier this year, WhatsApp was the app of choice
amongst my friends. A couple of my other pals use Snapchat,
so I have that installed on my phone too. A few other early adopter
friends (most of whom are admittedly tech writers like myself) use Slingshot, Facebook’s Snapchat alternative, so I’ve got that as well. I also installed Path’s Talk app and Line to chat with a few people, though they were mostly to exchange fun stickers. I even downloaded that silly Yo app, even if I only ever use it in jest.

Forrester researcher Thomas Husson said in a report on messaging apps
entitled “Messaging Apps: Mobile Becomes The New Face Of Social” that
the “fragmented nature of the social media ecosystem is inherent to the
fact that individuals have multiple identities.” Basically, people use
different apps and networks for different reasons. For example, people
tend to use LinkedIn to talk with potential business partners, while
they might use Facebook Messenger only with friends or family. Further,
some messaging apps tend to be more popular in certain parts of the
world — Line, for example, has a stronger following in Asia — which,
if you have friends all over the globe, would mean you’re constantly
switching between services.

What’s the big deal, you might ask? Our smartphones and computers are
certainly more than capable of handling these disparate systems, and
besides, it’s not that difficult to switch between apps, right? Well,
sure, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. I shouldn’t have to
have a dozen different messaging apps on my phone to talk with all the
people in my life. Chris Heuer, a longtime social media user and CEO of
Alynd, a social business startup, expresses the same frustration over
too many apps: “I think what’s missing in this whole discussion on
messaging now is that the messaging is now often done within the
context, instead of messaging being the context.” It’s the reason why he
dislikes the fragmentation of Facebook Messenger
away from the core Facebook app. “Now I have another app I have to open
and that will waste more time I don’t have … I’ve got enough apps. I
want less, not more.”

Several years ago, there was a similar problem with too many
instant-messaging protocols. I used all of them — AOL, Yahoo, MSN,
GChat and, yes, even ICQ. I remember installing all of these apps on my
computer and keeping them all logged in at the same time because, for
some reason, my friends and coworkers just couldn’t agree on the same IM
platform. Then, something wonderful happened. All-in-one apps like
Trillian and Adium came along to unite most of the disparate IM services
under one program. At last, I could launch just one app to chat with
everyone.

What we need, then, is an equivalent universal inbox for messaging. No, not just for all your email and text messages. For everything.
We need a smart inbox that’ll sort messages by service, label them
appropriately and will let you continue conversations within just one
app.

There are a few solutions out there that come close to solving the
problem. The Hangouts app for Android, for example, is able to handle
both Google’s IM system and text messages. If you’re a loyal BlackBerry
fan, you already know that the OS from Waterloo has a unified inbox that
can house emails, texts and messages from Facebook and Twitter in one
place. Disa.im is an
Android app currently in alpha that promises to combine SMS, WhatsApp,
Hangouts and Facebook messaging in one place as well. There’s also an
app called Messages+
that promises to do the same thing, though it seems to fall short — it
doesn’t support incoming messages for WhatsApp and we weren’t able to
use it to send a message on Facebook.

Still, none of these really live up to the dream of that one, true
universal inbox for everything. Which is, sad to say, probably more
fantasy than reality. Not only because most of these apps are walled
gardens, but also because some, like Snapchat and Slingshot, are based
around messages that are meant to disappear after you’ve read them.
Further, new messaging features and apps crop up all the time, making it
tough to keep something like a universal inbox up-to-date.

The alternate solution, of course, is to insist on just one
communication method for people to contact you. You probably won’t be
able to keep in touch with as many people in your life, and it might be
harder for people to reach you. But, perhaps, that’s the price to pay
for sanity.

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