The state of instant messaging

Why is there no excellent instant messaging software? And by excellent, I mean it fits all the following criteria:

  • End-to-end encryption, ensuring that even if your messages were intercepted between you and the recipient, they couldn’t be read
  • Cross-platform support1
  • Multi-device support2
  • Sync conversations and message read status between devices
  • Two factor authentication

And, of course, the obvious standards:

  • Contacts list
  • Multiple chats at one time
  • The ability to send messages to offline contacts

Plus some niceties:

  • The ability to send files, such as photos, videos, and audio messages.
  • Voice and video calling
  • Extensibility (allowing functionality to be extended through plug-ins)

Ideally, it’d also be open source, so the security protocols in use would be transparent.

iMessage, WhatsApp, and Telegram seem to be the three closest to reaching this – all are good, but fall short in one way or another. Also, neither iMessage nor WhatsApp are open source, which means (and yes, this is being paranoid) there could be backdoors purposefully coded in the software and we’d have no way of knowing.

iMessage:

iMessage is Apple’s instant messaging service, built in to iOS and OS X. Limited registration necessary – all users need is an Apple ID, which they’d be prompted to create when turning on their device for the first time, and they’d need to download apps from the App Store and media from iTunes.

Pros:

  • End-to-end encryption
  • Multi-device support – I can use it on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac simultaneously, receiving and sending messages from all devices, with message read status synced between devices
  • Free3
  • Requires the addition of a new device to be approved by existing trusted devices
  • Finally supports two-factor authentication
  • Can send files through
  • Friends with Apple devices almost certainly will have an iMessage-compatible device
  • Built into the standard Messages application on your phone, so requires zero extra effort to use – automatically sends messages as iMessage if they can be received on compatible devices
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation (a non-profit group dedicated to protecting users’ digital rights) gave iMessage a Secure Messaging Score of 5/7.

Cons:

  • Not cross-platform, meaning it only works with iOS and OS X devices – no messaging those Android heathens!
  • There are still some issues with de-registering a phone number from Apple’s iMessage servers, which could lead to messages being sent to you disappearing into the void if you switch from an iPhone to any other device.
  • Closed source and proprietary, so there’s no way to check how secure the service is.

FaceTime – Apple’s voice and video chat service, while separate from iMessage, has the same overall benefits and downsides as iMessage. It received the exact same score from the EFF as iMessage – 5/7 – for the same reasons.

WhatsApp:

WhatsApp is a mobile IM service which runs on a variety of mobile operating systems – iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry 10 etc. With such wide mobile OS support, your friends will almost certainly be able to install and use the app on their smartphones.

Pros:

  • End-to-end encryption (however, see below for more information)
  • Cross-platform support
  • No ads
  • Supports two-factor authentication
  • Can send files through
  • Free year of service before requiring a subscription
    • Subscription cost is very small (non-existent if you bought WhatsApp before Apple allowed in-app purchases in free apps)
  • Huge existing user-base of 600 million users4

Cons:

  • Cross-platform support is limited to mobile operating systems, so there’s no true Windows/OS X/Linux support5.
    • There is an online client, but requires your phone to be on at all times. It also requires your phone be anything but an iPhone, for whatever reason (WhatsApp claim it’s due to Apple’s limitations). Finally, it requires you use Google Chrome.
  • No multi-device support. WhatsApp doesn’t have an iPad client.
  • Now owned by Facebook. Yes, this is a legitimate “con” for many users.
  • Closed source and proprietary, so there’s no way to check how secure the service is.
  • The EFF gave WhatsApp a score of 2/7 – lower than iMessage. The EFF also claims WhatsApp doesn’t support end-to-end encryption. However, this is possibly due to the fact WhatsApp enabled encryption after the first version of the scorecard was published and haven’t contacted the EFF with proof of end-to-end encryption since. Either way, 2/7 is worryingly low for a messaging service whose developers claim security is one of their prime concerns.

Telegram

Telegram is a completely free instant messaging service with cross-platform, cross-device support. Has a web application too.

Pros:

  • Can be accessed anywhere, on any device you have an internet connection and a web browser or app (assuming the ports it uses haven’t been blocked, of course)
  • No ads
  • Free
  • Limited support for end-to-end encryption in Secret Chats (see Cons)
  • Open source with documented APIs and contests with large money prizes if their Secret Chat encryption can be broken (nobody has successfully won a Telegram crypto-contest as of yet)
  • Multi-device support
  • Official cross-platform support for every major desktop and mobile OS, with the exception of Blackberry.
  • Third party applications exist for platforms not officially supported
  • Supports self-destructing messages in Secret Chats
  • Supports self-destructing accounts
  • The EFF gave Telegram Secret Chats a score of 6/7 – better than iMessage.

Cons:

  • Uses client-server/server-client encryption. Still secure, but not as secure as end-to-end encryption.
  • End-to-end encryption only works in Secret Chats, which are only accessible on the device they’re created on.
  • Very few people I know use it. Out of my contact list of 230 people, only 10 have ever used Telegram and show up as Telegram contacts.
  • The EFF gave standard Telegram chats a score of 3/7 – standard chats in Telegram lack a number of the security features present in their Secret Chats which give them such a high score.

Facebook Messenger

Facebook’s built-in messaging service, accessible through the Facebook website or applications on mobiles.

Pros:

  • Free
  • Can send files through
  • Built into Facebook, so it’s incredibly likely your friends will be able to use it
  • Can be used through a browser, so usable anywhere you have an internet connection and a web browser
  • Supports voice and video calls
  • Applications for all major mobile operating systems

Cons:

  • No end-to-end encryption
  • Changes in the Facebook API 6 mean Messenger can no longer be accessed in external applications such as Adium, Pidgin, Trillian etc.
  • Facebook removed the functionality from the Facebook application, meaning in order to use all of Facebook’s features on your device, you need two applications instead of one. Unsurprisingly, this has not gone down well with Facebook users. Currently, both Facebook and Messenger sit at 3/5 stars on the iOS App Store.
  • The EFF gave Facebook Chat/Messenger a score of 2/7 – worryingly low for a messaging service people use every single day.

There seems to be a real gap in the market here. Nothing seems to fit the bill 100%. Nothing seems to have the above combination of features.

Am I right though? Is there a gap in the market, or does anybody know of an instant messaging system which fills all the above criteria?
Let me know down in the comments! 7


  1. By cross-platform, I mean works between operating systems on one type of device – mobile or desktop.
  2. By multi-device, I mean works on mobile, tablet and desktop/laptop computers.
  3. Though, admittedly the ability to use it requires the purchase of an iOS device capable of running at least iOS 5, or a Mac running OS X Mountain Lion
  4. As of November 2014
  5. There are workarounds involving emulating Android on your PC using Bluestacks
  6. Application Program Interface, protocols for creating software and, in this case, communicating with Facebook’s services
  7. Also, you can now use Markdown in your comments!

3 Responses to “The state of instant messaging”

  1. Aidan Romero February 17, 2015 at 5:53 pm #

    Binfer instant messaging is secure and encrypted. It is completely free. http://www.binfer.com

  2. rob S February 16, 2015 at 7:47 am #

    It ain’t paranoia when there really is someone/thing out to get you.

  3. PedroStephano February 15, 2015 at 11:27 pm #

    There’s a few “secure” apps around – Signal, PQChat and Telegram come to mind instantly. But they fail on one or more of your “excellence” criteria so there *is* a gap to be had. With the way mobile is growing and dominating ( Benedict Evans “Mobile Is Eating The World” http://a16z.com/2014/10/28/mobile-is-eating-the-world/ ) that is the gap that should be addressed first, monetized, to allow development of other platforms (which could thence be FOC).

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