Moving to another instant message app
In the beginning, there was a Windows application (“app”) called ICQ. It meant “I seek you.” It was, in its day, a novel concept, allowing the user real-time instant message (IM) dialogue with a circle of other users of the app. You could send short text messages back and forth, without cluttering up your e-mail Inbox.
With governments in Canada then supporting the Canadian-developed Blackberry, out of Waterloo came the next generation of IM app, Blackberry Messenger, or BBM. It was a better IM app than ICQ, and more importantly, encrypted at both ends, and sent device-to-device. This meant that servers and routers didn’t retain your message. What appealed to users was that you could keep an exchange between them secure. Moreover, when users deleted the exchange, it went away permanently, just like shredding a piece of paper.
As an MPP, we used BBM extensively. To send short messages back and forth between the Legislature and the Constituency Office, or when, for example, my staff would ‘message’ me to let me know they had arrived for our meeting to review documents. As Chief Government Whip, BBM helped me track down our Members and ensure they were doing their House or Committee duty.
BBM made itself very, very handy in business and government. When Wi-Fi bandwidth grew sufficiently, you could have a user-to-user BBM voice chat over Wi-Fi. Like a message, a voice (or later, video) chat was encrypted at both ends, and even better, was digital in voice sound and video quality. I used it on business trips to keep in touch at home, and with the office. Our long distance charges went to zero. BBM didn’t require giving out your cell phone number. It used a PIN. This meant that the app could be carried, or ‘ported’ from one device to another when you upgraded your smart phone.
Other such competing IM apps appeared, notably Facebook’s WhatsApp, and Skype, later purchased by Microsoft. We’ll deal with them in a moment.
When the nature of Research in Motion’s business changed, versions of the BBM app were written for major hardware platforms (Android and Apple’s iOS). Once Blackberry hardware itself vanished, BBM was then a niche Apple and Android app. Once outsourced in this fashion, a lot of ‘code bloat’ appeared in BBM, which filled up with such eye candy as stickers and ads quickly. It wasn’t as tightly-focused as its users had remembered and loved it for.
BBM’s global user base of about 55 million has been in decline for a few years. In April, 2019, BBM announced that the app itself would cease working after May 31, 2019. Farewell BBM.
So what of the alternatives? With the impending end of the free version of BBM, users have four principal alternatives: two popular apps (WhatsApp and Skype), and two niche-market apps (Signal and BBMe). As well, there are other niche IM products that we’ll briefly examine.
WhatsApp and Skype
If you are losing your BBM circle of friends, you are nearly certain to find them all in one or both of WhatsApp and Skype. For non-sensitive personal communications, you’re likely to use one or both of these.
- WhatsApp is an IM and voice over internet protocol (VOIP) app linked to a user’s cell phone number. WhatsApp has more than 200 million users worldwide. If someone is in your WhatsApp network, they are going to know your cell number. If you view your cell phone as proprietary, and as a business tool primarily to enable you to make outbound calls, that could be a problem, or at least an annoyance. Being device-to-device, WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted. Unlike BBM, you cannot ‘redact,’ or permanently remove, messages on both ends of the chat. Facebook has announced that WhatsApp will shortly be blended into a new app that will combine WhatsApp with Facebook Messenger and Instagram. That makes commenting on features and security of a product that will shortly exist in a completely different, and undefined form difficult. The app could lose its focus, as the expiring BBM did. The development process could also accidentally expose personal data to the outside, as Facebook has admitted happened numerous times in recent years. Teething problems are inevitable when such a major software release is unrolled;
- Skype is another VOIP and IM app that does just about all of what the old BBM did. Skype is used by more than 300 million users worldwide, and is now a mature product. It allows the user end-to-end encrypted communication (with a warning proviso) between devices. It also allows a call to connect to a standard telephone, with the part connecting to the standard phone sent in the clear. Skype users have a Skype User ID, which could be your Microsoft user ID and password if you have other Microsoft products. Skype conversations are also portable across devices. If you start a Skype message thread on the bus to work, you can log into your laptop, and pick up where you left off, even going into voice and/or audio if you wish. Here is the warning: foreign and domestic governments, and police agencies, have the capability to eavesdrop on Skype conversations, and to have access to Skype users’ geographic locations. A simple request for information is usually sufficient, with no court approval needed. This ability was deliberately added for law enforcement agencies by Microsoft when they purchased Skype in 2011. Is it secure? Sort of. You are likely safe from rogue hackers. But don’t use it for important data or communications if, for example, you are doing business in another country where Internet traffic is routinely monitored by government agencies.
Signal and BBMe
When dependable security between users is an issue, you’ll need to leave the consumer marketplace. Two products built specifically for security offer users all the security they appear likely to ever need. If you are part of a government or a large corporation, and want to equip your people with a proven-secure IM app, you’ll want to test out and choose one of the following two:
- Signal is everything good and secure that BBM started out being, and adds open-source to that. It is free, not cluttered with ads or other annoying eye-candy, encrypted end-to-end, it doesn’t track you, and offers text, voice , video, document, and picture communications. Signal has iOS, Android, Linux and Windows 10 versions. It is secure and fast. Signal is often used by journalists and others who need the security that Signal offers. So why would you hesitate before gravitating to Signal? Probably because you might be the only one in your circle that uses Signal. Otherwise, it is everything you will likely ever need;
- The Blackberry Messenger Enterprise edition (BBMe) is similar in features to Signal, and most other IM apps. BBMe can be downloaded from the iOS and Android app stores. BBMe also has Windows desktop and Mac versions as well. BBMe is the very best of classic BBM, without the annoying parts and code bloat. It is free for the first six months, and $2.50 per six month period thereafter. If your organization and/or the people with whom you need to exchange sensitive information use BBMe, this is the IM app for you.
Other IM apps
- SMS (aka Text Messaging) The lowest common denominator for sending text messages. We all have this on our phones. Depending on your plan, you can be charged for every text message; have a set number of text messages per billing period; or have unlimited text messages. Outside your cell provider’s service area, SMS messages likely cost you money to send, even if you are on a hotel or airport free or trusted Wi-Fi point. SMS messages are not encrypted or protected in any way. SMS messages travel in the clear through different networks and routers, can be read or recorded at any point along the way, and are the most vulnerable means of sending a message between two points. Other than your provider’s supported emoticons, that’s the extent of the functionality. In short, SMS is better than nothing, but not by much;
- WeChat (Chinese for ‘micro-message’) is an IM app written by Tencent in mainland China. As of 2019, it reportedly has one billion users. If your circle of friends includes a lot of folks from Asia, you may want (or need) to connect with them through WeChat. The app has been subsidized by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since its creation in 2011. It is widely reported that PRC officials censor and monitor users. It’s been described as the ‘app for everything,’ as it is integrated tightly into e-commerce, allowing users to shop extensively, and make payments, through WeChat, a capability that differentiates it from western IM apps;
- Viber was originally developed in 2010 by Israel-based Viber Media, which was bought by Japan-based Rakuten in 2014. Since 2017 its corporate name has been Rakuten Viber. It is currently based in Luxembourg. Viber is available as freeware for Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, macOS and Linux platforms. Users are registered and identified through their mobile device number. Viber service is accessible on desktop platforms without mobile network connectivity. In addition to instant messaging, Viber allows users to exchange other media such as images. Viber has more than a billion registered users on its network as of 2019. Why would you install it? Because a critical mass of the people you wish to deal with use it.
Wikipedia lists dozens of other instant message apps, along with a side-by-side comparison of their features. As we bid adieu to the consumer version of BBM, we at least have a number of proven choices to move to in managing and organizing the short messages that would otherwise clog up e-mail systems.