Why a Cross-Platform Chat/Video Chat Client is a Win — And Doomed to Fail

We live in a world of vast technological choices and options. That’s a good thing. Without options we’d be left with just one solution to choose from. Quality, features, and functionality would be limited, and the choices we’d have would likely be of poor quality. At least that’s the way a monopoly usually works.

Instead we have three (or four) primary choices for our mobile operating systems (with more on the way). We can get hardware from any one of a dozen OEMs. We can install software on our devices to enable us to do things that would have seemed to be “science fiction” a decade ago.

We can make phone calls from any platform to any other platform. We can send text messages from one OS to another. Email works everywhere. So why can’t I video chat with sister from my Nexus 4 to her iPhone 4S? Come to think of it, why can’t I audio chat between the two? Why can’t I even text chat?!

I know, text-chatting is the same as texting via SMS for many people, but from a technological standpoint they’re very different. Text messages are limited to just over 100 characters so they can fit into the left over spaces at the end of a cell phone “checking in” with the tower to which it’s connected. The fact that cellular carriers can get away with charging people for these message blows me away — but that’s a topic for another article.

Data data data!

Texting is data. Emailing is data. Sending pictures, or audio or video clips is data. Even most cellular voice conversations these days are data (though not to be confused with VoIP or VoLTE). It seems like it’s all pretty standard already — or could be.

Picard uses Android

Image if you could only call or text someone that was using the same type of device as you. Your iPhone couldn’t call Androids, BlackBerries, or Windows Phones. Would you stand for that? Same question for you Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry users: what if you could only get texts and calls from people using the same OS as you?

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Phones are built upon standards that enable interoperability not just across platforms, but all across the globe!

Now that we finally have data speeds that are sufficiently fast, coverage that is decent, and devices with front-facing cameras, we’re finally starting to see video calling as a possibility. Unfortunately, nobody can talk to anyone else. That may be a bit of of an exaggeration, but it feels that way.

Morse code keyer

-.-. .- -. / -.– — ..- / .-. . -.-. — — — . -. -.. / .- / –. — — -.. / .- .–. .–. / ..-. — .-. / – …. .- – ..–..

These interoperable standards voice and SMS standards are what allowed the entire mobile industry succeed … and now platform creators (Apple, Google, BlackBerry, Microsoft — all of them) are “proprietizing” the next major advancement: universal chat.

What is “Universal Chat”?

“Universal Chat” is a really lame phrase that I’m coining here. It essentially eliminates the need for “old” standards in lieu of today’s technologies grown out of the Internet era. It includes, but is not limited to, text-based communications, peer-to-peer transfer of basic and trusted file types (images, short videos, etc.), voice chat, and video chat. All of these communications methods would allow as little as two parties to participate in a conversation, with some arbitrary cap on the number of participants. If we could throw in peer-to-peer x.509 encryption on top of all that, I’d be a very happy camper!

Kirk and McKay on trial

“Can you understand me now?”

Devices, regardless of OS or OEM, would include this set of telecommunication standards which would allow everyone to accomplish these core functionalities seamlessly with each other.

We don’t have anything like that today

Apple has their Messages app which lets users text and video chat with one another — but not with anyone else. Google has Google Talk which lets Android and desktop computer users text, audio, and video chat with each other; they also have Hangouts that let groups of people talk all at once. Microsoft has Skype that works across many platforms. Others are trying to get in the game, including, but not limited to, Qik and Tango. Independent app developers see other use case scenarios and are releasing apps to fill those needs, too — Zello comes to mind.

What do they all have in common? None of them talk to each other.

Is Google trying to remedy that?

It’s rumored that Google may be working on a new project that could unify everything. Some are calling it “Babble”, other’s “Babel”. There are a few possibilities concerning what it actually might be. We recently uncovered some pretty compelling reasons to believe it’s “Babel”, but let’s think through both possibilities for the time being.

First and foremost, on Android Google has their Google Talk app. They have Google+ Messenger. They have Google+ Hangouts. They have Google Voice. They have their SMS messaging app. That’s a whole lot of apps that do essentially the same thing. If you include the audio and video chat capabilities of Google Talk and Google+ Messenger, you might also include the phone dialer as a “redundant” app. The first theory is that Google is simply trying to unify some or all of these apps into one. That alone would be a welcome change. If this is the case, the codename of “Babble” seems to fit.

The second theory is a little more intriguing. Could Google be attempting to unify the major text, voice, and video chat services available on other platforms into one “Universal Chat”? They’ve done it before.

Years ago Google Talk allowed users to communicate with both AOL Instant Messenger (now “AIM”), and Microsoft’s recently discontinued Windows Messenger (“Live Messenger”) services. While this was only text chatting — no audio or video at the time — it was a major achievement for one of the major players to allow and enable their users to talk to their competition through their chat client. Both Microsoft and AOL began pushing updates out that would “break” Google’s ability to send messages into their networks. Google would “fix” the problems, only to be met with another “patch” from one of the other two. Back and forth it went until Google finally gave up. Ironically, much later AOL and Google partnered to allow chats to flow to and from AIM again, but not before AIM was all but irrelevant.

Tower of Babel

“Let’s build a tower! What’s the worst that could happen?”

Could Google brute-force their way into their competition’s networks for voice and video chatting? Sure. Are they going to do it again? Probably not — at least not without the blessing of and support from the owners of those networks.

So, for the time being, you and I as users are forced to speculate — to wonder if and when we’ll have interoperable communication standards that will let us all talk one with another, regardless of platform or service provider. In the meantime, all mobile platforms will be held back from the next major advancement. Why can’t we all just get along?

Image Credits: Google, EmergingTruths.com, Star Trek

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy". By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.