Alternative messaging apps

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Blue bubbles vs. green bubbles for iPhone users. And RCS for all. Are my messages secure? How do I know if they’ve read my message? Those are questions I get a lot from iOS and Android users. Today, we’ll sidestep all those questions and discuss alternative messaging apps. There are a lot of choices out there but we’ll confine our discussion to just a few — the most popular ones: WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal, but I’ll also touch on a few of the more esoteric ones.

First, we should cover what using iMessage on your Apple devices, Messages on your Android devices, and Google Voice on either platform gives you and why you might want an alternative messaging app.

iMessage uses the Internet to communicate with other Apple devices, providing all those nifty features the Apple community has come to enjoy. It will fallback to SMS or MMS if the target user isn’t using an Apple device or the Internet isn’t available. How is this possible? The data path for SMS/MMS isn’t strictly using an Internet connection. It’s more akin to a voice connection which is why you can often make phone calls when you don’t have an Internet connection available. Apple encrypts iMessages to other Apple users so it can only be read by its recipient(s).

Messages on Android is starting to use Rich Communication Services (RCS) which provides many of the same features of iMessage but RCS uses your Internet connection so, like iMessage, if the Internet is unavailable, it will fall back to SMS/MMS. Apple has said they will adopt RCS but the timetable is still up in the air. Also, I don’t believe that RCS uses encryption so your messages could be intercepted and read by someone other than your intended recipient.

Google Voice is another option and it has apps for both Apple and Android. Besides providing a free phone number that you can use for phone calls, it uses Internet data if possible for calls, messages and group chats but will fall back to SMS for the latter two when an Internet connection is unavailable. However, even when using an Internet connection, it does not offer advanced features like typing indicators. I’m not going to get into the details of using Google Voice for calls in this discussion. We’ll cover it in another issue.

Moving on to the more advanced messaging apps, all of which have apps for both Apple and Android devices, WhatsApp is owned by Meta, the folks who own Facebook. That may be a non-starter for you but there are folks who don’t like Facebook that will use WhatsApp. It only uses your Internet connection so if you don’t have an Internet connection you’re out of luck. You can easily send voice messages, photos, videos, documents and regular files. And, of course, you can do group chats and make audio and video calls. Some companies use WhatsApp to provide support for their products. WhatsApp can be used on several devices at once and your messages can be backed up to a Google account so you can restore your messages when you change devices. And, your chats and backups can be encrypted.

Telegram is owned by the Durov brothers and is headquartered in the United Arab Emirates. It stores your messages in the cloud making it easy to switch between devices and your chats can be encrypted so no one else can read them. It’s open source, which means anyone can inspect the code which tends to make it more secure. And, like WhatsApp, some companies offer support via Telegram. You can send arbitrarily large files through Telegram and make audio and video calls. It, too, requires an Internet connection.

Google Chat is another option that’s available if you have a Google account. It provides the same functionality of the previously discussed options including typing indicators, file sharing, group chat and voice and video calls.

The last major alternative messaging app I want to discuss is Signal. It is known for its security and privacy. It uses strong encryption for everything including your messages, voice messages, voice and video calls, photos and videos. It’s open source and has been audited a number of times by trusted security researchers. Signal is run by a non-profit, the Signal Foundation, so there’s no worry about revenue generation from ads, selling your information, and so on.

There is another standard that’s been around for quite a while called Jabber (also known as XMPP or eXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) and there are a number of apps that use it including Signal if the user so desires. Jabber debuted in 1999 so it predates the apps we’ve been discussing, and it offers all of the features we’ve been discussing, based on the Jabber server you connect with. There are a lot of options and different capabilities based on both the Jabber server you connect with and the client you use. Because of that complexity I won’t go into it more here, but I mention it for historical purposes and as a possible alternative if you’re inclined to look more deeply into other alternatives.

That’s all for this week’s column. I hope this helps you understand some of the options available to you for chatting, file sharing and voice and video calls. Don’t hesitate to write to me if you have questions.

As always, my intent is to help you understand the basics and equip you to search for more detailed information.

Please feel free to email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, to sign up for my newsletter or whatever at [email protected] or just drop me a quick note and say hi!

You can read the original columns in the Hillsboro Times Gazette at https://go.ttot.link/TG-Column. That will take you to the most recent column in the newspaper. You can read all my columns and sign up for my newsletter so they’ll be delivered to your email when I publish them at https://go.ttot.link/TFTNT-Newsletter.

Tony Sumrall, a Hillsboro native whose parents ran the former Highland Lanes bowling alley, is a maker with both leadership and technical skills. He’s been in the computing arena since his graduation from Miami University with a bachelor’s degree in systems analysis, working for and with companies ranging in size from five to hundreds of thousands of employees. He holds five patents and lives and thrives in Silicon Valley which feeds his love for all things tech.

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