Messaging is probably one of the most common tasks you perform on your smartphone. So, like anything else, you should seek out the best apps and services to do it.
That means making the break with standard text messaging, or SMS. It’s actually a rather old technology, harking back to the days of the flip phone. But like the fax machine and landlines, it’s managed to stick around.
Part of that is convenience. Put someone’s phone number in your contacts and then just text away. But all the innovation and extra features that come with apps like Hangouts or Facebook Messenger are hard to ignore: you can share your location in real-time, sync up the conversation with desktop apps, and stay in touch over Wi-Fi if you are without a cell signal.
Pushing your friends onto a messaging service remains the biggest challenge, but it’s worth the effort (well depending on your friends). Here are a few thoughts on why using one of the many instant messaging apps offers a compelling alternative to text messaging.
The backstory to SMS and IM
SMS stands for Short Message Service. It’s a standard communication platform built for for early days of mobile communication, when texting someone meant flipping open your phone and trying to communicate with the buttons on the dial pad.
Messages were also capped in length at 160 characters (barely more than a tweet). That limitation remains in effect, though a modern text messaging apps will turn longer messages into an MMS (Multimedia messaging) in order to workaround that limitation. It's part of the GSM protocol and doesn't require a data connection.
Instant messaging works differently. Messages are sent over the 'net and through the servers of whichever company runs the service. As such, you just need an Internet connection to communicate, whereas with SMS your device needs to be connected to a cellular network.
This is why IM was first popularized on desktop computers by services like AOL’s AIM, ICQ, and eventually Google Talk, which was the forerunner to Hangouts.
Though IM has been on Android a while, Google’s most ambitious foray was through Hangouts. There are plenty of competitors, as being the hub for all your communication gives these companies a chance to hook you to their ecosystem. Fortunately, this competition has brought about a lot of innovation in the messaging space.
These mobile messaging apps are frequently called "over-the-top" (OTT) messaging, as the services operate on the Internet as an alternative to what is offered by your carrier.
IM app advantages over SMS
As indicated, instant messaging on your smartphone is a vastly superior method of communicating with others. Here are a few examples of what they do better.
Read notification: Many apps give some type of indication as to whether or not the recipient has read the message, usually through a small icon in the conversation view. It’s great for letting you now you may have to bug that particular person again if they didn’t read your message. Some will also show you when someone is replying, before the message comes through.
Location sharing: As an example, with Hangouts when someone asks, “where are you?” the app will automatically offer to share your location. It’s a slick feature, though Hangouts isn’t the only app to send your current place in the world. This type of tool is a handy way to find out if someone is going to be late for that meetup.
Seamless conversations: Conversations can get disjointed when you switch from chatting on the desktop via IM to texting on the phone. Using an instant messaging app adds a good flow to the conversation because you can pick up from where you left off. This is the strength of Apple’s iMessage, of course. But since it’s iOS-only, you’ll need to pick your favorite Android alternative.
No need for a cellphone connection: Using a Wi-Fi connection to message people is particularly helpful if you’re out of the country or in a spotty coverage area. Unless your carrier lets you text out of the country, an IM app is the best chance at keeping you connected to others.
Stickers: Who doesn’t like stickers? Many apps go beyond the Emoji with a bunch of zany characters that sometimes are the best way to get an idea across. If nothing else, they can liven up a boring day at the office.
The best instant messaging apps
Which service you use the most may depend on several different factors. Some are super popular overseas, like WhatsApp and WeChat. If you are heading across the pond or have friends on other continents you may find that this is the best way to get a hold of them.
Here in the U.S., everyone’s access to Facebook, and the social network’s plans to build its app into an eCommerce platform, makes it a must-have. Skype remains a powerhouse in video chat, and the instant messaging component can make it convenient if you need to follow up after a call. A few of my hard-core Android friends swear by Hangouts, so I use that as much as possible.
The caveat: you’ll need more than one
You may have noticed one thing about the solutions outlined here: there are way too many. Some of this is Apple’s fault—by keeping iMessage proprietary to Apple devices, iPhone users will forever stick to the Messages app, which means ugly green messages (standard SMS/MMS) to Android users.
The best hope is that Google makes Hangouts more attractive, which could mean more users. Facebook’s efforts into Messenger, and the fact that just about everyone is on Facebook, make it a good option. You probably can’t (or don’t need to) completely escape SMS, but you’ll find the conversations easier to follow if you do.