Private and Secure Messaging Apps

Privacy, data protection and secure communication are always hot topics in the instant messaging and social networking world. Sometimes the issues at hand are greatly exaggerated by the media, however, quite often messaging apps have security and privacy flaws which users should be aware of. There aren’t many messaging apps which serve as a good example of how to protect as user’s privacy and personal data. That’s why today I want to take a closer look which messaging apps offer secure communication.

Market leader of messaging apps does not serve as a good example

One of the market leading messaging apps, Whatsapp, is definitely not a good example when it comes to protecting a users privacy. Whatsapp has had several security issues in the past. For years on most devices a user’s personal data, content and address book have been transmitted to the server unencrypted. Whatsapp has used HTTPS, but then has sent messages and content unencrypted, and even your ID visible in plain text. Thus in Wi-Fi networks it has been very easy for others to intercept a user’s data and to follow conversations. Actually there is even an Android app called “Whatsapp Sniffer” which allows to easily scan other people’s conversations in the same Wi-Fi. Only recently Whatsapp said to have closed these encryption issues. However, with millions of clients and different version out in the market, it will take a longer time till the existing security issues are really closed. And it remains to be seen if this encryption is a save one at all. Besides Whatsapp is an American company whose privacy and data protection enforcements are generally weak. From a market leading messaging app with millions of users I would have expected a better security and privacy concept.

European messaging apps better for privacy and data protection

Actually for better privacy and data protection it might be worth looking at European messaging apps, which have much stronger legal requirements in regard to protecting a user’s data. So far a good example is Grouptime from Germany. The Germans have some of the strongest data protection legislation in the world, and regular investigate and challenge the policies and practices of Facebook, Google and the like. Grouptime seems to completely anonymize your personal data and use secure encryption and transmission methods. In addition, the messaging app aims to provide an easy to use private messaging and sharing service by default, so the app has a simple privacy concept by design where no complicated settings are required. For further details read one of Grouptime‘s last blog posts how they protect your privacy and data.

Facebook Messenger and iMessage seem to have flaws 

One would think that Apple’s iMessage is generally safe. The recent SMS spoofing issues show that privacy flaws currently exist, and also there have been some other smaller security issues with iMessage in the past. I guess, since iMessage and iCloud are rather new services, these issues will be solved by Apple soon. And one of the good things of iMessage is, that data is transmitted encrypted. However, the question for me is, to what degree my messaging data is really anonymized in Apple’s iCloud? Probably it isn’t encrypted on iCloud.

The Facebook Messenger is also not a good reference for a secure and private messaging app. Well, Facebook alone has already enough flaws when it comes to privacy and data protection. Recently though, it became apparent that Facebook seems to regularly scan your messages for specific keywords.

There are lots of other messaging apps out there. In general, I would say that smaller messaging apps are more likely to have security flaws, that are yet undetected, and that European providers offer better data protection (like e.g. Grouptime). Anyway, SSL encryption (https) should be a standard for messaging apps to provide privacy and security for their users. I will do some more research, and will follow up with more news on that topic in the near term.

Best Group Chats in Messaging Apps

Today I want to write about the best group chats in messaging apps on iOS (iPhone) and Android. After last years group messaging trend most messaging apps have implemented at least simple group chats into their applications on mobile devices. Some messaging apps even offer great group sharing features on smartphones, and start to challenge social networks. Let’s take a look:

1. Grouptime (www.grouptime.com)

Grouptime – best group chat and sharing for mobile devices

With the focus on group messaging and sharing, Grouptime offers an easy to use and powerful group chat. You can start group chats very easily by simply entering the recipients, and sending your message. So you don’t even need a title for your message or set up a group.

The free messaging app actually operates with instant posts similar to social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The great thing about this approach, is that you can easily start different group chats (even with the same people) for different topics. In addition, if you want you can define your own group (more like a distribution list) for e.g. your family or best friends, and start group chats with one-click.

Since Grouptime allows you to send digital content like photos, links with previews, locations, voice messages, calendar dates, etc., this group messaging app is not only great for group chats, but for private group sharing as well. So, for example, you can attach and send multiple photos at once…I guess there is hardly a messaging app that makes group photo sharing easier.

Finally, the reduced and clean user interface of this group messaging app and the large content previews, make Grouptime the No.1 recommended app for group chats and sharing.

2. Whatsapp (www.whatsapp.com)

Whatsapp – simple group chats available

Whatsapp has been offering group chats for about a year now, and is slowly increasing the allowed maximum size of groups as well as adding features. Basically the group chats in Whatsapp are ok for simple chatting, and work like you would expect it from an instant messaging app. First, you need to set up your group by defining a name/title and selecting the group members. Second, you access that group, and can start chatting. Generally, there are use cases for these kind of group chats, however the limitations of this approach become clearly visible the more you use it:

If you have several group chats, sometimes it becomes hard to differentiate the groups. Then you always have to search for the groups among all the open chats. And the biggest problem is, that sometimes my friends have given their groups the same or similar names. So right now for example I have three groups “Best friends”.

If I want to share photos or my location with some selected contacts, I don’t want to have to set up a new group chat…this is just too complicated. Besides I find groups inappropriate for personal sharing.

And last, the speech bubbles, information tags and features make the group chats in Whatsapp too cluttered and a bit confusing. Also the content is only displayed in small previews. This is ok for 1:1 instant messaging apps, but for great group chats and sharing there are more beautiful and well-arranged user interfaces for iPhone and Android devices.

3. GroupMe

GroupMe is a dedicated group messaging app like Grouptime. However, GroupMe is more complicated and limited in use. The set up of group chats works the same way like on Whatsapp, and the messaging app has exactly the same flaws as described above with Whatsapp. I won’t judge the design of the app, but I can say for sure that some tabs in the app are not really required. And for those worried about their privacy, the mix of private and public groups might be of concern.

GroupMe – ok for group texting

A benefit of GroupMe is that it also works for group texting via SMS. On the one hand this is good because you can reach people without the app, and group chat in classical texting style. On the other hand this easily leads to confusion: Did the other person get my text message? What happens when I share content like photos or my location…do these things work in group texting as well?

Like Whatsapp, GroupMe is ok for simple group chats. Though, when you want easy and powerful group messaging and sharing, this messaging app is not the best service available.

4. ChatOn

Again the group chats in ChatOn have the same weaknesses as in Whatsapp (see above). With one exception, however: The group chats in this messaging app are quicker to set up.

5. iMessage

The group chat feature of iMessage, only works if other people also have an iOS device and have iMessage activated. Otherwise iMessage just sends a broadcast message (same message to several users) via SMS, and group chats are not possible (but sometimes you don’t know what it will be, before you press “Send”). Needless to say, this can be confusing for users (you always need to know or check who also has iMessage), and makes the group chat functionality and reach of iMessage very limited.

Summary

Overall, most group chats in messaging apps work similar. Only some messaging have group chats that are easy to set up, and offer great usability and powerful group sharing beyond simple group chats.

For good group chats I would recommend Grouptime. This messaging app is currently the best group messaging and sharing service available in the market.

Messaging Apps Trends and Innovations

As announced in my last post, today I want to take a closer look at important trends and innovation among messaging apps for iPhone and Android. If you analyze the competitive landscape of instant messaging apps, you will see that most apps innovate and move in a similar direction. Many apps are simply copying the market leaders and then there is not at lot of innovation. However, there are some pretty interesting innovations differentiating at least some instant messaging apps from the mainstream. Anyway here are the current trends among messaging apps:

Group Messaging and Group Chats

Last year the popular group messaging trend started with apps like Beluga (acquired by Facebook and is now the Facebook Messenger) and GroupMe (acquired by Skype). By now most messaging apps offer at least group chats. Sometimes the group chats could be easier to set up, and often the existing functionality and user interface of an instant messaging app are simply not enough for good group messaging. I believe the group messaging trend is still young and we will see more innovation in that space. Grouptime for example is a relatively new group messaging app that behaves like a private social network, and combines instant messaging and group sharing. With an app like Grouptime you can already easily group chat and share with private groups.

Better Photo Sharing

Photo sharing with messaging apps is a very common and popular use case. Several apps now give users an overview of all the shared photos in a chat (e.g. Whatsapp, ChatON). To enable users to more easily share photos, messaging apps like Grouptime allow users to select and send multiple photos at once. This approach not only saves time, but more importantly shows the shared photos in a beautiful, nearly full-screen photo story view in the chat. Thus this is a great way to quickly share the photos from a party or event with friends and family, without the need to create a dedicated album on Facebook or a photo sharing app.

Enhanced Attachments

The attachments you can send and exchange with instant messaging apps on iPhone and Android are becoming more enhanced and comprehensive. So several messaging apps allow you to send new types of attachments like files, calendar dates, animations and locations from extensive third party databases (e.g. Foursquare or Google Maps). File sharing seems not very popular so far. Location sharing and calendar sharing of dates (with Grouptime or ChatON) however, are becoming interesting use cases. Some messaging apps (e.g. Moped) have started to integrate third party services like dropbox. The user interest in these kind of services remains to be seen.

Grouptime location sharing with an extensive venues database

Calling, Walkie-Talkie and VOIP Capabilities

Many messaging apps currently add calling, video chat and walkie-talkie capabilities. Users can thus simply call other users who are also using the app. Sometimes the connection is unstable, and often users require a WiFi-connection for a good quality transmittance…especially for video calls. Prominent examples for instant messaging apps with calling features are Viber, TuMe, TextMe and Kakao Talk, while Voxer is currently the most popular walkie-talkie app.

Differentiated Messaging Inbox Design

Most messaging apps simply have an inbox with rows for the different chats and always showing the last message. This is pretty much the standard design for the inbox. Some newer messaging apps are taking ideas from social networks and make the message inbox more visual. Grouptime for example has instant posts for real-time group messaging and sharing. So Grouptime will show you posts with photo and link previews in the inbox like a you are used to it from social networks. Another advantage of this approach is, that you can start new messaging threads for different topics. Another app, Touch, mixes shared photos and chats in the inbox. I find this approach a bit confusing, but maybe other users like it.

Simplicity

The better messaging apps for Android and iPhone try to get rid of unnecessary screens and tabs. Simplicity is key for ease of use, and many apps have just one core screen. All unimportant stuff should be hidden in settings or in tabular sidebars. Good examples for simplistic messaging apps following this trend are Kik Messenger, TuMe and Grouptime (especially for group messaging and sharing). Some examples for rather complicated user interfaces or unrequired tabs are PingMe, eBuddy XMS, AppMe and even Whatsapp.

Outlook

Generally I expect more messaging apps to innovate around the user interface in the next months. Also the attachments and group messaging will be further improved, and we will see more an more integrations into third party services. Besides it is quite likely that some messaging apps are going to target specific user segments and industries. The messaging market is so competitive, that differentiation and target user focus is the only way to success – for the user and the messaging app.

New Messaging Apps and Important Updates

In this post I want to give an overview of newly launched or updated messaging apps for Android and iPhone. The current market leaders among messaging apps innovate rather slowly (which might be related to their huge platform reach). While most competitors simply copy the messaging features and sometimes the complete UI of market leaders, the innovation in the instant messaging space only comes from some new or majorly overhauled apps. Even if texting, chatting and instant messaging are mainstream market applications nowadays, there is still room for differentiation, innovation and improvement, but the good examples are rare. Let’s look at some recently launched and updated messaging apps:

grouptime (www.grouptime.com)

grouptime – a private social networking app for great group messaging and sharing

grouptime is a good example how someone tries to innovate and create a differentiated offering among messaging apps. I guess, one unique thing about grouptime is, that this free messaging app works with instant posts. Thus you can post status updates, group messages, photos, locations and much more to individuals and groups you choose. Basically the goal of grouptime is to offer users a real-time, private social network to instantly and privately share with family and friends. The app comes with some cool features like sharing multiple photos at once (which is great to exchange pics with a group of friends), sending links with previews (like in social networks) and share locations from Foursquare’s venues database (with cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, etc.).

The focus of grouptime is clearly to offer a great group messaging and sharing app. It is less for 1-to-1 instant messaging, chatting and texting. However, even for classic 1-to-1 communication the messaging app can be very interesting, if users look for an application to start different threads for different topics (like an email).

Whatsapp (www.whatsapp.com)

Whatsapp – the market leader among messaging apps

Whatsapp is the market leader of messaging apps and available for all major mobile operating systems. Probably only SMS and email send more daily messages than Whatsapp. The last updates of Whatsapp have been rather incremental: Mainly group chats have been improved with more features and an increased size of maximum chat members (still I think for group messaging other apps like e.g. grouptime are far superior). One of the biggest news is, that users are now finally able to upload profile pics. Overall, the speed of innovation of the market leader  in messaging apps remains slow, and all recently added features were no surprises at all.

The question is, if Whatsapp is working on a bigger release. Most competitors have launched calling and video chat features to their messaging apps, and it would be a logical step for Whatsapp to enter that space, too. At the same Whatsapp’s security issues remain its weakness: No hashing of numbers, no text encryption, no SSL transmittance, etc. The user’s privacy should be better protected by a leading messaging app. However, these are no easy issues to solve and huge migration problems: Whatsapp has hundreds of million users and many different mobile operating systems to deal with. Before Whatsapp solves these issues, we might see a new player in the messaging space.

Text Me 2 (go-text.me)

Text Me 2 – a newly launched messaging app combining texting and calls

Text Me 2 is a recently relaunched messaging app that unifies texting and calling/video chats. The app is available for iPhone and Android. While you can send normal text messages (SMS) to any mobile phone number, you can as well chat for free with other users who also have the app. Calling and video chats are cheap, but not for free, and the app comes with ads. Most other features and ways to exchange digital content are pretty much the standard functionality among messaging apps.

The interesting thing about the app is its clean and simple UI. Something Whatsapp and other messaging apps could take inspiration from. Basically all irrelevant screens have been deleted or moved to the settings. In addition, it is easy to swipe between screens and directly access the most important functions.

Viber (www.viber.com)

Viber – instant messaging and calling

Viber is basically the Skype for mobile phones, and available for most mobile operating systems (iPhone, Android, Windows, etc.). Interestingly in the recent updates of the app, better texting and group messaging features were added. Still, the focus of the app remains the calling capability. So when it comes to exchanging digital content the app is pretty weak. The design of the UI has also been slightly updated and the tabs remind one more of Instagram now. However, that is about it.

ChatOn (www.chaton.com)

ChatON – Samsungs’s instant messaging service

With ChatOn Samsung launched a messaging app that tries to challenge Whatsapp. The updates for the app in the recent months regularly added new features. By now I hardly now a messaging app that allows to attach more content types than ChatOn. The app allows even to send animated messages/drawings and attach files. Besides it is the only messaging app in addition to grouptime that enables users to easily exchange calendar dates. For 1-to-1 instant messaging and chatting with friends, ChatOn is a good app. And I also find the UI of ChatOn more reduced and better than Whatsapp. So overall, ChatOn is on a pretty good way.

Tu Me (www.tumeapp.com)

Tu Me – a messaging app with calling capability and an interesting UI approach

Tu Me is Telefonica’s Whatsapp challenger. From a functionality and UI point the app levels pretty much the standard among messaging apps these days. However, there are two exceptions:

  1. The chat UI takes inspiration from Path. The user taps a single button, and then several options pop up for the user to choose from. While this looks nice at first, I question the usability of that approach, because the user needs more clicks to get to the desired action.
  2. The messaging app comes with free calling capability. A user can call other users, who are also using the app, for free.

I doubt that these two features are enough to make the app stand out in the crowded messaging apps space. Besides the app is yet a bit buggy (but this is quite normal for a new app). Also it will be interesting to see how Telefonica plans to monetize the app.

Summary

As we can see most messaging apps move into the same direction, and only some players (like e.g. grouptime) try to innovate and differentiate their apps. If the slow pace of innovation of the market leaders will be enough to keep the competition at  distance, remains to be seen.

To get a better understanding of the competitive landscape and trends, in one of the next posts I will take a closer look at important trends among leading messaging apps.