The Wall Street Journal has an article today in which it suggests that Internet-based messaging apps like the Blackberry Messenger and the newly announced Apple iMessage are threatening text messaging services provided by mobile carriers. I understand the appeal of applications that avoid the cost of text messaging and provide unique services, but my experience during my recent trip around Lake Michigan suggests to me that it will be a while before text messaging can be fully replaced.
The main benefit of apps like iMessage is that they use the phone’s Internet connection to provide instant messaging in a manner similar to text messaging. The Blackberry Messenger is more peer-to-peer in function and has features like showing that the person you are chatting with is writing a response, but it relies on the Internet to carry messages between phones. In my experience, the benefit of these messaging apps is also its weakness because Internet connectivity is still not ubiquitous across the United States.
I use Google Voice as my primary mobile voice phone number and for text messaging, and I had the service configured with my Nexus S so that text messages were only sent to me via the Google Voice app, which means they don’t count against my text messaging caps. The problem is that I went to places during my trip, such as Wrigley Field in Chicago, where T-Mobile’s coverage was not very strong and I frequently couldn’t send nor receive text messages using the Google Voice app.
I ended up configuring Google Voice to send messages to my Nexus S via standard text messaging as well as via the Google Voice app, so that I can be sure I receive the message. Text messaging is available so long as you have a cell phone signal, and works even with the weakest of connections.
You can see the problem that relying on Internet-based messaging apps has when there is not a good Internet connection on the phone. Another problem with these messaging apps is that they are locked-in to specific phone brands. You can only use Blackberry Messenger to send messages to another person who has a Blackberry running the Blackberry Messenger app. Likewise, iMessage will only communicate with the iMessage app running on two iOS devices.
For messaging to truly work, there needs to be an open protocol that enables communication regardless of the messaging app and phone being used. In this case, I think Microsoft’s recent aquisition of Skype could be very opportunistic. True, Skype messaging primarily works between Skype apps (although there has been some third party plugins developed to interface with Skype chat), but there are Skype apps available for just about every smartphone and PC platform, increasing the possibility that the person you want to send a message can be running Skype on their smartphone.
The focus of the Wall Street Journal article is on how the mobile carriers will respond to this threat to their revenue, but it only cites RIM, Apple, and Google as the possible threats, and overlooks Microsoft and their aquisition of Skype. In my opinion Skype, which is already very popular, presents the bigger opportunity for replacing text messaging than the device lock-in approaches from RIM and Blackberry, so I would keep my eye on what Microsoft does with it.