Messaging interoperability – in which it would be possible to send a message to someone without knowing or caring which chat service they use – finally made it into the European Union’s Digital Markets Act.

It was one of the most controversial elements of the upcoming legislation, with some arguing that it would be a technological nightmare to implement, and others that it would benefit both startups and consumers …

Background

The EU has long been working on a huge piece of antitrust legislation known as the Digital Markets Act (DMA). The key aims of the planned law are to ensure that tech startups are able to enter the market without their growth being inhibited by the dominant players, and that consumers are able to benefit from the fruits of that competition – the best services at the lowest prices.

There has been much internal debate about the appropriate scope of the legislation, and, in particular, whether messaging interoperability requirements should be included. Some argued against it on the grounds that it would be a nightmare to implement, others because consumers are already free to choose from a wide range of messaging platforms. But in the end, those arguing in favor won the day.

The problem with instant messaging

Right now, the instant messaging market is extremely fragmented. There’s SMS, RCS, iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Signal, Telegram, WeChat, Line, QQ, Viber, KIK, Snapchat, Twitter DMs, Discord, and many more. That’s before we even get into Google’s ever-changing range of IM apps, those popular in specific countries (like KakaoTalk in South Korea), and the even lengthier list of business messaging apps like Slack and Teams.

On the one hand, that’s great for consumers, and evidence that competition works. Everyone can choose their own preferred app. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a nightmare when you want to actually, you know, message someone – because everyone can choose their own preferred app.

I have most of the above IM apps installed on my devices, not because I want them all, but because different friends, family members, and other contacts use different services.

I’m old enough to remember things being simple when it came to digital communications. Yes, there were a bunch of competing, incompatible chat apps, but people only used those when they wanted to actually chat – that is, have a real-time interactive text conversation. Most asynchronous digital communication – sending a message for someone to read when it was convenient to them – used email.

But that’s no longer the case. Email is probably the least-popular option when it comes to sending a message to someone. Today, chat apps are the new email – and that’s a problem.

Email is purposely universal in nature. I can send you an email without knowing which email platform or app you use. You might receive my email in Apple Mail on your iPhone, in Spark on your Mac, in Outlook on your PC, on the web interface for Gmail – or hundreds of other options. I don’t need to either know or care: I just send you an email, and you receive it.

But if I want to send you an instant message, I need to know which apps you use. I mean, I can use your phone number without caring whether you receive it as an SMS or an iMessage, but that’s about it. Otherwise I need to know which apps you have, and which ones you actually read.

Messaging interoperability

Messaging interoperability is the idea that instant messaging should be like email. We can each use our preferred service and app, while still being able to communicate with each other.

So I might use Telegram, and you might receive it in WhatsApp. Your mom may send you a Facebook Message, and you might receive it in iMessage. Like email, we would send the message to the person, not the service.

Of course, this would be a technical nightmare! Just look at the difficulty WhatsApp has had in making its own service operate seamlessly between iPhone, iPad and Mac (spoiler: it still doesn’t).

That’s mostly down to end-to-end encryption. It’s not just that different messaging services use different forms of encryption – it’s that the way E2E encryption works which makes it tricky even for one service to support multiple devices for a single user.

So there is no doubt at all that this would be an absolute nightmare for messaging companies to implement. E2E messaging essentially expects one person to be using one app on one device.

But solving this is not impossible. Even Apple – which has complete control of hardware, platform, and app – had to come up with a clever workaround to enable you to seamlessly use iMessage between iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Watch. Development of a messaging interoperability standard is tricky, but entirely possible.

It isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and even the DMA acknowledges this. But I do think it’s a worthwhile goal, and I look forward to the time when I can message five different friends without having to use five different apps.

What’s your view? Is this something you’d like to see? Please take our poll, and share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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About the Author

Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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