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Using your phone number as your chat ID is a bad idea

By Joe Levi June 9, 2014, 7:17 am
chat id

Our smartphones offer us many ways to communicate with each other. We can send SMS messages to one another. We can use Facebook to chat. Twitter lets us send direct messages back and form. Google’s Hangouts offers us similar functionalities. On iOS there’s iMessage. And let’s not forget Skype, AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Jabber, ChatOn, Kik, Snapchat, and who knows how many others.

One could make the argument that there are simply too many ways with which we can communicate with one another. I wouldn’t argue against that. The bigger issues, however, are identification and standards.

If you want to call me on the telephone, you pick up yours and call.  It doesn’t matter what brand it is, what OS it’s running, or even whether or not either is a cell, landline, VoIP, or even a satellite phone. Regardless of what kind it is, your call will be routed through to me.


If you want to send an email, from any Internet-connected computer in the world, you can open your email client, type in my address, write your message, hit send, and you’re pretty much guaranteed that your message will get to me. Again, regardless of carrier, ISP, platform, OS, or brand.


Chat, on the other hand, has absolutely no standard. Well, that’s not entirely true. There used to be a standard: XMPP.

According to the XMPP website:

“The Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) is an open technology for real-time communication, which powers a wide range of applications including instant messaging, presence, multi-party chat, voice and video calls, collaboration, lightweight middleware, content syndication, and generalized routing of XML data. The technology pages provide more information about the various XMPP ‘building blocks’. Several books about Jabber/XMPP technologies are available, as well.

“The core technology behind XMPP was invented by Jeremie Miller in 1998, refined in the Jabber open-source community in 1999 and 2000, and formalized by the IETF in 2002 and 2003, resulting in publication of the XMPP RFCs in 2004 and updated RFCs in 2011…”

From an end-user perspective, XMPP attempted to resolve the problems common between all the separate chat platforms: intercommunication. Unfortunately, after having some level of success not too many years ago, supporters have let their interest wane. The biggest to recently “abandon” XMPP: Google.


When using email, a message is sent out into the wild, with hopes that a response will be sent back if the message cannot be delivered.

A phone calls is a “session initiated” communiqué wherein the caller attempts to make real-time contact with the intended recipient. If the recipient doesn’t answer, the session is dropped.

Chat is different than email or phone calls. Chat relies upon knowing if the recipient is online or offline – well, some services do. SMS, for example, isn’t really chat.

SMS is a 160 character “email” that’s sent to someone’s cell phone through the carrier networks rather than the Internet. Just like email, SMS doesn’t know if the user is online or offline, and messages are sent hoping for delivery, with almost no guarantee thereof. Most SMS apps put text-message conversations together into a threaded conversation window, and messages are generally delivered within seconds. Nonetheless, they’re essentially just short emails.

Real chat includes the ability to see if your recipient is online or not, to see if your message was delivered or not, and does away with the crazy 160-character limit.

Ready to get even more confused? Both Apple and Google feel that SMS and chat are essentially the same thing, and present both types of messages in the same app: Apple’s iMessage and Google’s Hangouts. Each have their own set of problems. Apple’s, however, appear to be a bit deeper than Google’s. Why? Apple has been using phone numbers as chat IDs. On the surface that sounds fair enough, after all, you’re probably using your phone when you chat (though you could use your tablet or computer). Rather than sending a message to a friend via the limited SMS system, if the chat app sees that your friend has an associated account (as matched by their phone number), the messaging app intercepts the message and delivers it via the Internet instead of through the SMS system.

So far, so good, right? Nope.


As soon as that person pops their SIM into another phone, all those SMS texts that you’ve been sending will never arrive. They’re still routed via the Internet to the recipient’s old chat account – which they may not have on their new phone, either because it’s made by a different OEM or runs a different OS. At first it wasn’t considered to be a “bug”, but finally Apple started working on a fix.

The problem, if you haven’t already pieced it together, is the way these messages are delivered. It’s like the old fashioned Pony-Express versus FedEx’s overnight service – one uses horses, the other users airplanes.

Why are we still using SMS, anyway? Because it’s the lowest common denominator. It just “works”. It doesn’t have any bells and whistles. Is it what we want? No! Is it what we need? No! It is, however, what what we’ve got, and it works across carriers, across platforms, and across brands.

What we really need is a modern standard that’s accepted by every major OEM and every OS vendor. It needs to be an open standard, so anyone can tie into it and let people on one chat network talk to people on other chat networks. What we need is XMPP version 2.0 – or something like it. Unfortunately, that may not happen, and carriers are opposed to it. Carriers don’t make money for every Internet-delivered message that you send, only SMS and MMS messages.

Regardless of whether we see XMPP resurrected or a new standard developed, one thing is certain, using your phone number as your chat ID is a really bad idea.


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