The Sad Status of Instant Messaging

Saturday, 12 Dec 2015

Sometimes I find it hard to believe we are in this era. Sometimes I feel as the technology went backwards instead of moving forward. One of the areas that seems like that is the instant messaging world.

We went from this…

MSN Messenger Live

to this:

Skype Windows

Or—God forbid you’re on Linux—to this:

Skype Linux

I know that when looking backwards things seem better than they were. But I remember how it was, and I know the past wasn’t the best. Sending files, or audio/video (when it started to be a thing) wasn’t that great. Sometimes messages were dropped. I remember at one point that messages with links in them would get mysteriously lost. (It turns out there was a 3rd party service somewhere that was supposed to analyze links “for safety reasons” which malfunctioned.)

Also, there were client updates that were unusable because they used more resources than the computers of the era could provide. And then there was the discontinuation of “old” client versions, forcing you to update or stay offline.

But still… we had customizable emoticons; we could change fonts, sizes and colors; and we could insert sound clips to the conversations (and also choose not to see/hear those things). Those are huge personalization aspects that make a text-based interaction more human. Especially the font customization: it said a lot about a person what font he or she used, or what kind of custom emoticons they had.

We also had addons available. Even if the client was closed, there were things like MSN Plus!. Eventually people-made features were implemented in the official client, like using colors in your nickname, or having a “sub-nick” or status message—which used to be done by people appending things to their nicknames. And add to that list the possibility of syncing a media player to display what track you were listening to.

There were obnoxious features too, like the nudge button. (I remember there were patches for the client’s binary that would allow you to remove the limit of nudges you could send in a row, allowing to spam people with alerts and vibrating windows.)

It wasn’t perfect, but with it flaws and all it all made for a human experience. And maybe those flaws were part of what made it human.

Fast-forward to the present, and now we can’t configure anything. We are stuck with seeing those awful dialog balloons (which I figure are there to compensate for the fact that all text looks alike) and using horrible emoticons that have been selected for us. We can’t even change the UI’s font size or look.

At that time I remember thinking it wasn’t good that the protocol was closed, but still there were open implementations like aMSN and Pidgin and Trillian that ran on every platform. You could use different clients, some didn’t offer all of the functionality, but the text exchange used to work everywhere.

I remember when Google released Google Talk. It used the open XMPP protocol, and I remember thinking that it would be the future of instant messaging. Someone could chat from their computer with someone else chatting from her car, or from his toaster; all using the same public protocol, independent from the OS the people would be running or who manufactured the hardware they would be using.

I don’t know if that was a naive way of thinking, but it turned out very different than that. In fact, we now have even closer gardens that do not offer half of the same functionality and lock people in a closed circle. And they force people to decide not for what the platform offers, but to decide because of who is on the platform. After all, why would you try to communicate through something that nobody would be listening to?

I really find it hard to believe the current state of affairs. Considering that sending text through the internet is something simple, and that we have technologically solved since the 80s. But even harder to believe to me is the fact that while we have technically gone backwards, this is the era where an instant messenger like WhatsApp is supposed to be worth (in billions!) three Nokias or two Skypes.

Screenshots taken from: