Hop: how instant messaging should have been done decades ago
You may remember an article I wrote a while back called “Why are we still using instant messaging apps at all?” where I talked about all of the annoying and frustrating issues involved in using all of these disparate instant messaging apps that all do basically the same thing; transferring text-based electronic messages from one user to another. You’ll definitely want to read that if you haven’t already. Basically, the biggest problem with all of those gabillion instant messaging apps is that none of them are able to communicate with each other. Each one is their own little walled garden and you need to install a separate app if you want to communicate with others inside that little walled garden. It’s like having to buy a different phone to talk to each group of people who live in different states or countries. And in the case of things like iMessage, it’s exactly like having to buy a different phone to talk to certain groups of people. What you end up with is a folder full of instant messaging apps that are painful to manage and annoying to keep track of. Just try to search for details of a conversation you might have had a month ago, but can’t remember which app.
My idea was to consolidate communications on something that everybody who’s been on the internet already has and which already works with every device that’s ever had an internet connection; good old email. Email already sends text-based electronic messages pretty quickly. Many servers are quite close to instant. In my last paragraph of that article, I said that a clever developer could probably make the whole instant messaging market irrelevant by designing an app that formatted email into chat-like conversations and added a few server extensions to enable “typing” indicators and read receipt indicators along with some animated GIF/emoji embedding functions.
As it turns out, someone else also had a similar idea and already has an app that basically does exactly that… extends email to instant messaging while keeping the backwards compatibility. Genius!!
Hop Email: First Run
“Hop Mail” starts off with an instant messenger style interface right away, even for your first run set up and adding your email account. You start by entering one of your email addresses and it proceeds from there by asking you a few other questions. In some cases it can import your server settings from an email program you already have installed.
At the moment, Hop is in a slow-roll-out invitation-only phase… kind of like how Gmail was in the beginning. That means if you try to download and use the app right now, you’ll be put on a waiting list in order to be approved. The advantage to this is that Hop can monitor server usage and keep things optimized without getting overloaded and crashing everything. However, if you’re reading this article, you can skip the invite-only phase by entering our invite code: “Pocketnow“.
Turning emails into chat
This is where Hop really makes a lot of sense. Instead of creating a whole separate proprietary network for instant messaging exactly the same way that every other instant messenger service does, Hop chose to add extensions to email in order to preserve compatibility with all existing email programs. It’s an idea that really should have been implemented on all types of email servers two decades ago.
When you set up your email account in the Hop client, that address gets registered on the Hop servers as having access to the Hop client. That way if someone else tries to send you a message from another Hop app client, the Hop servers will know to generate a direct connection between the two users and also enable a few special “instant messaging” features like the “typing” indicator icons and direct transfer. Don’t worry, even though the messages between two Hop users are bypassing the email servers for the sake of speed, the messages are still ALSO going to your regular email account mailboxes. That’s exactly what you want because then you’ll still have all of your conversations in whichever email program you feel like using at any time. It’s totally genius.
By the way, “message read” indicators also work in Hop, but those are enabled the same way email marketing systems do it… via an embedded image with a query string attached to it that identifies the message as being opened. Doing it this way means that the “message read” indicator will work on any email client as long as the user has “load images” turned on. Yep, that’s extremely useful and much more cross-app compatible than Exchange Server’s read receipt options!
Beyond that, Hop simply re-formats regular electronic text messaging into cute little instant message style bubbles like you’re used to in all the other instant messenger apps. Short and quick messages work great, but really long emails are condensed a bit into a “full message” button that obviously shows the full message when you tap it. That maintains the quick & easy chat views while also giving you a simple option to view longer messages. It’s the best of both worlds.
Of course, Hop has plenty of other normal email features including some special features like archiving and scheduling/snoozing. The snoozing feature hides the email on your phone until a later time that you specify when you select that action. That’s not useful to me since it doesn’t sync that status with Exchange Server and subsequently all of my other devices. (What I prefer is the “Flag with Reminder” feature.) There’s also some basic filtering like the “Priority” option which hides all emails from people who are not in your contacts list in an “other” section. It’s still easy to access the “Other” section, but that’s a nice way of keeping important messages that you actually want to read up front. This doesn’t interfere with your server-side rules either, so that’s good.
The best part is that you don’t have to use this chat style interface on every device. You can use Hop on your phone, then when you get back to your desktop or laptop, use full Outlook to categorize, flag, and file your electronic messaging conversations accordingly. You also don’t need your phone to be on or activated with a SIM card in order to access messages on another device like you do with things like WhatsApp or generic text messaging. Incidentally, since this is an email app, you might want to at least disable the notifications of your phone’s default email app so you don’t get double the notifications while using Hop.
Hop does group messaging a little differently than I would have expected. With email you can easily send a message to a group of people just by adding their names to the To, CC, or BCC fields. Anybody on the list can remove people from their replies at any time with that method. Instead, Hop uses what amounts to a custom list server that supports up to 100 person groups. A list server is basically a single email account that sends any messages sent to it out to everyone on a list. So the group messaging interface in Hop creates a new “hopgroups.com” list server email address and sends a contact card to everyone added to the group along with a notification email saying that they’ve been added to the group. All of the Hop users have the capability to remove themselves or others from the group, but if you’re on a different email program, that’s not easily possible. You’ll have to ask the group owner/creator to remove you, or simply set up your own server-side rule/filter for that list server email address.
Emoji, Animated GIFs, Attachments, and Voice Notes
There’s nothing preventing regular email programs from sending and receiving all sorts of multi-media content that people have become accustomed to in trendy instant messenger apps. It’s just that most email programs don’t make it easy to embed animated GIFs, emoji, voice clips, etc. Hop does make it easy.
There are icons at the bottom of the message input field that let you add animated graphics, pictures, voice messages, attachments, and emoji. The voice messages, attachments, and pictures are sent as email attachments naturally, while the 3rd party animated graphics and emoji are hosted on a public server and embedded in the email/message. As mentioned, this is nothing new as far as email programs are concerned, but Hop makes it all easily accessible in the same way that instant messenger apps are known to.
Privacy & Security
In order to enable the faster direct messaging and typing indicators along with the custom “read receipt” system, unfortunately Hop has to route your messages through their servers… but that’s the same problem with all instant messenger platforms. Standard email is essentially the only electronic messaging system that can be set up privately and still communicate globally, so building on that makes a lot of sense.
There’s also a new switch in the messaging thread interface (it’s one of the ambiguous icons at the bottom) that turns on the extra-secure and encrypted mode. Hop calls their new secure option Encrypted Email Messages (EEM). EEM creates a per message encryption key and splits the key between Hop and your email provider, making external access virtually impossible. The Hop app is required on both sides for this secure encryption method, but you will get a normal email telling you that you’ve received an EEM message in your regular email inbox. Unfortunately, requiring a specific app to read them kind of defeats the purpose of messaging interoperability but that’s the easiest way to do it at this time.
Luckily, Hop says that should someone want to build a server that includes these types of extensions, they are willing to work on a interoperable solution that would allow other privately owned servers to communicate with each other directly while enabling all of these extra features. Currently email uses a DNS MX record to transfer messages between servers, but these extensions would probably be enabled via a separate TXT record on the domain name server that communicates support for the extensions to other servers when they attempt a connection. Obviously if those instant messaging extension DNS records aren’t there, it will fall back to regular email and still deliver the messages. Sounds great to me! If you’re an email server developer, you should probably consider collaborating with Hop’s developers.
At the moment, there aren’t really any chat bots included inside the Hop app… except for the first-run setup chat bot that nicely helps you through configuring the app. There are a lot of predictions that chat bots will be the new user interface of the future of mobile technology (are they really?). Many chat bots are required to live inside a proprietary instant messaging app like Skype, or Facebook Messenger, or Google Allo, or Wechat, or some other specialized app. That’s a bad idea for a future of open communications and human-computer-interaction because obviously any of those proprietary messaging systems could close up or change policies at the drop of a hat (and they probably will.)
With a free, open communications system that everyone already has and is easy to plug your own server into, those problems don’t exist. It makes perfect sense to create chat bots that interact with users on this open platform. Anyone can make a chat bot that lives on an email server and automatically replies to emails with the requested information. In fact, Microsoft’s budding artificially intelligent Cortana already has an email address. I can include “Cortana <[email protected]>” in an email about scheduling and she’ll communicate with the others on the list to find a time when the meeting can be scheduled. You can learn more about that project here. Unfortunately, that version of Cortana doesn’t currently have access to all of the other answers that Cortana can provide within her native app interface, but there’s no reason that she couldn’t be made to. There’s no reason that chat bots couldn’t be made to reply with graphical buttons that communicate a user’s choice back to the AI system either… that’s been possible in emails for a very long time (though it requires a web browser to load the hyperlink response).
This is where Hop has a minor problem with clarity. Hop uses a lot of incomprehensible icons for its user interface elements and it can be frustrating to learn how to use some parts of it. As most UX & UI designers should already know, a text label is always better. That’s especially important with touch screen user interfaces since you can’t tell what the touch action will do before it does it. I actually accidentally marked my entire inbox full of messages as “read” when tapping a tiny pointed oval shape. It’s really difficult to figure out where the settings are or how to add more than one account. It turns out just tapping the upper left corner repeatedly should get you to a screen where you can find a gear wheel icon that goes to the settings where you can configure the app and accounts with more control. Most of our readers probably won’t care about usability issues like this, but it’s important to point out that things could be a lot better. (Also see “8 ways to tell if your mobile app sucks” as this is true with the majority of mobile apps out there.)
There are many articles out there about the annoyance of having so many incompatible instant messaging apps. In “The great instant messaging foul up“, we see that even the older instant messaging services like AIM that once supported open-source connectivity are closing their walls. That leaves Pidgin users out in the cold. Google has a myriad of its own methods of transferring text message messages from one person to another and none of them are compatible with each other. Google Chat is being shut down so if you were using that, you’re going to have to switch to something else. They’ve also got Google Hangouts, Allo, and Google Docs chat. Microsoft has Skype, a Messaging app that works with Skype, Skype for Business, Send, Microsoft Teams, and Office 365 Groups. Facebook Messenger recently dropped support for certain operating system platforms as has WhatsApp. So not only is the necessity of having multiple instant messaging apps installed at the same time getting worse, you also need the newest smartphones in order to use them. The solution is obviously to consolidate text-based electronic messaging on one protocol that is widely used, works on everything, and is as open as the world wide web. For the past 30 years, that’s meant email… we just need to upgrade it a bit in the same way that we’ve been upgrading the world wide web capabilities, and that’s what Hop is doing. The next step will be extending email servers to include a standard for voice & video calling capabilities. (Using telephone numbers as identification is so archaic.)