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In defense of mobile messaging apps

Chat apps are popular, but some folks still prefer good ol’ SMS. If you’re one of those still sticking with SMS, here are a few points that might convince you to go for chat apps instead.Young adults using mobile phones

Last week I was texting with my brother who lives across town. Given my interest in mobile chat apps (and because I often used Hangouts and a mix of other apps to talk to my parents and other siblings), I asked him what mobile chat app he preferred. Being a so-called millennial, and likewise an Android junkie like myself, I expected him to be using Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber or even Hangouts. The answer surprised me. He just used SMS.

My brother told me he had unlimited SMS anyway, so he just prefers to text everyone instead of having to install chat apps. He would rather not have these apps take up space and eat up resources. It’s kind of ironic, given that he has a more powerful flagship Android smartphone than my own. Of course, my response was an indignant “Why not?” Even if one has unlimited texting, SMS is not always good enough. And even “unlimited” does have its limitations (more about this later).

This got me to come up with a few reasons why I think chat apps trump SMS messaging by a mile.

Presence indicators. Here’s one thing I believe SMS is sorely lacking in. You’re basically sending messages on the blind. Once you hit send, you won’t know whether the recipient has received or read the messages. Sure, SMS was designed with a “delivery receipt” feature, but this is iffy at best. Not all networks support it, even.

Most modern chat apps have the BBM-inspired indicators that tell you whether the network has delivered the message, and whether the recipient has actually read it. Some would even have “typing” indicators that tell you the recipient is composing a response. Some may consider this intrusive and turn off indicators, but it’s certainly a more interesting experience knowing your correspondent is actually interacting with at any given time.

International texting. Another limitation of SMS is coverage. Sure, most carriers offer unlimited texting plans, but these are limited to within the country or a few select international destinations. Send a message outside of this coverage, and you get charged a pretty hefty fee per message. With IP-based chat apps, you are not bound by geography. Both you and your correspondent only need to have a data connection in order to chat.

This is even the premise offered by purely WiFi-only carriers like Scratch Wireless: you can be anywhere in the world and still make calls and texts using the same number.

Cross-device compatibility. With SMS, you’re bound to your mobile device. Chat apps like Viber, Skype, Line and others offer desktop compatibility, so you can use other devices to continue your conversation. Some are even web-based, like Hangouts and Facebook Messenger (through the Facebook site). Some networks support third-party apps, and you can use the likes of IM+ or a Jabber client to chat. Because conversations are in the cloud, you can access your chats from anywhere.

There are tools that enable you to sync SMS messages with a computer, such as Mighty Text. But these are still mostly device-based, and therefore dependent on your phone having enough battery power to send messages.

Security. Text messages are very insecure, because these are not encrypted. The mobile network can easily keep tabs on your conversations, and carriers are known to hand over SMS logs to the authorities when given adequate legal cause (such as a warrant or subpoena). Certain chat apps like Telegram and even Apple’s iMessage offer end-to-end encryption of messages. Telegram even includes a self-destruct feature, which deletes messages after a set time. Hey, I don’t condone using your device to commit illegal or immoral acts, but if you ever need privacy features, these chat apps have it.

Rich features. SMS is limited to text. Even with MMS, features are limited; your mileage will vary across carriers, in terms of support and charging. MMS messages usually mean extra cost on top of SMS allocation. IP-based chat apps let you send photos, sound clips and stickers and other multimedia content. Some apps also offer VoIP and video-conferencing, like Hangouts and Skype.

These come in handy in both consumer and enterprise settings. Hangouts, for example, can be used by teams spread across cities or countries. These are, of course, great for chatting with friends and family.

Community and social features. Chat apps today are not only messaging services, but also social networks. You can set up groups on your chat app and talk to several friends at once. Some chat apps also have the same feedback mechanism as one-on-one chats (so you will know who has read your message). SMS is basically limited to one-to-one correspondence.

There are other reasons why chat apps are better than SMS. Of course, the basic premise here is that mobile users will gravitate to where their friends are. If most of your contacts — friends, co-workers or family members — are using Facebook Messenger, then you’re likely to use that app, as well. If you need to support as many device types as necessary, or if you simply need to send one-off messages to an acquaintance or business contact, then SMS is probably still your best bet.

If you’ve stuck with SMS so far, do these reasons appeal to you enough to try mobile messaging apps?