What You Don’t Think About When Instant Messaging…

Long gone are the days when you’d have to dial your friend from a landline to coordinate plans. Nowadays reaching your friends and family can happen anytime, anywhere quite literally in an instant…

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Instant Messaging (IM) was invented in 1971 as a computer-based messaging system. That’s barely younger than the Internet itself! It took a while for this to become popular, but AOL made that happen in the late 1980s. Social media companies and gaming platforms expanded on the idea, and telecommunications companies developed their own.

Sure, IM is a powerful communication tool, but not all messaging services are created equal. 


IM and SMS—Don’t Get it Twisted

First of all, SMS uses an entirely different infrastructure than IM, and yet the end result is the same: text-based communication between multiple people in real-time. Still, IM was more successful at the start because there was a proper keyboard involved. Despite also being developed in the late 1980s, SMS didn’t take off until telecommunications companies allowed for cross-company communication AND people had something like a real keyboard to type on.

SMS has some surprising limitations. There is a character limit of 70-160 characters for a true SMS message, and precisely the limit depends on how the telecommunications company you’re using implemented it. Still, thanks to a hard limit in the standard that defines SMS, it cannot go over 160 characters. Instead, the SMS app will break a message into parts to ensure it all goes across the airwaves as needed.

Another limitation is that true SMS _requires_ cell service. 

If all you have is wi-fi, then your mobile device’s native app has to do some behind-the-scenes shenanigans to convert it to a different type of message for it to send. That’s where services like Signal, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger come in handy.

One side note about SMS and security: For those who have turned on multi-factor authentication (MFA) on your accounts, GO YOU! However, it turns out that receiving your second factor via an SMS message is both common and not actually ideal. Where possible, using a third-party app like Authy is a better choice.

We know, annoying, right??? What gives?!

IM and Encryption

Back to actual IM services, the most important differentiator between IM apps is not whether it has the best emojis (though emojis are pretty cool). It’s whether the messages are encrypted the entire way from one phone to the next. Apps like Signal and WhatsApp support end-to-end encryption by default, but Telegram only supports end-to-end encryption between two parties. Even with that, you have to turn it on; as soon as you invite others to the chat, the message is not encrypted the whole way through.

That’s because as with everything on the Internet, the devil is in the details…

Some apps that claim encryption don’t encrypt what’s stored in backups, don’t encrypt by default, or don’t securely delete old messages wherever they are. Some apps like iMessage are a great option, but there’s a notable difference if everyone is using an iPhone (all the encryption! woohoo!) versus messaging across different operating systems (which will put you right back in SMS land).

Looking at all the trade-offs, IFM’s go-to is Signal. Signal offers top-notch encryption, is not owned by any big companies that thrive on collecting data about you, and is easy to use.

IM and the World

Most messaging apps work best when messaging other people who use the same service. That means that depending on where you are in the world, you’ll find different apps to be most useful for communicating with the natives. 

The all-around most globally popular is WhatsApp. Facebook Messenger is a pretty strong runner-up, though by how much depends on the country. But if you’re in China, you’re more likely to use WeChat.

Some messaging apps, like Telegram and Messenger, are very much part of a social network that feeds how and where they are used. Telegram, in particular, was in the news for its use in Ukraine as part of communicating about the war. 

With so many messaging options, it’s worse than trying to choose an email client! But that’s a different post.

In Closing…

Whether you call it texting, IMing, DMing, or just messaging, the desire to have a quick and easy way to send a message to a friend or colleague is necessary for how we function in the modern world. It only takes a little more thought to make sure that your communications are secure from snooping, and then you won’t have to think about whether any particular message needs to be secured before you send or receive it.

Posted by heather

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