We're launching a new series on the Essentials of Mobile Instant Messaging (MIM). There has been a lot of innovation in this space and it continues to change the way brands connect with their followers and how people communicate with each other. We're here to uncover what, how, and most importantly, why MIM matters. We will also touch on the future of messaging and the role of Artificial Intelligence in chatbots.
Prologue: The Half Life of Knowledge
The Evolution of Instant Messaging (IM)
Chat rooms of the 1990s were like a school assembly. Filled with noise and excitement, nobody understood what the commotion was about – but it was captivating. Instant messaging enabled people to communicate and collaborate in real-time over the Internet. Back then, chatrooms and IM was not a serious medium of communication. Critics argued that chat rooms created the illusion of intimacy and would never replace the sound of a human voice or the hand of a letter.
To understand why IM achieved broad network effects (virality), we need to understand how it began. Before chat rooms existed, there were pen pals. We used to exchange physical letters (aka snail mail) bundled with trinkets (a la 3D printed emojis) and paper smeared with the latest Calvin Klein fragrance.
"First comes mail. Then comes e-mail. Then comes IM in a baby carriage."
Suddenly, postal mail was taken over by electronic mail (remember AOL) as the preferred method of messaging because it was simply quicker and cheaper. Back then, It was exciting to receive emails. Nowadays, email has become a checklist of things to do. Because of spam, we've seen a resurgence of Instant Messaging. It is quick, specific, and targeted. As long as you are online, you are in touch.
Then the telephone became mobile.
Mobile phones changed the way we communicate with each other because it allowed us to be accessible anytime, anywhere. Using Short Messages Services (SMS, a.k.a. texting) started gradually since mobile phones were originally designed for ears, not thumbs. The cost and usability (no QWERTY keyboards, till Blackberry) were a barrier. Telecom carriers would cap text messages at 35 messages/month (at 160 characters/message) with additional text messages available for the affluent.
There were also physical limitations of the keyboard. To type "hello" on an alphanumeric keypad would involve 17 keystrokes (without capital). It's akin to morse code. Now we simply swype – like Harry Potty to a wand.
Back in 1995, the average American user sent 0.4 text messages a month. But our insecurities got the better of us. We needed to feel needed. Receiving a message is thrilling. It meant that someone somewhere was thinking of you. And yet, the opposite is just as enslaving.
The bond we have with our phones would arguably qualify mobile phones on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. We feel disconnected when we don't have our phones with us. It's our digital security blanket. But not all messages are the same.
The Difference Between SMS and MIM
Since messages went from hard copy to digital, it was only a matter of time before messages took over our phones. In 1993, Nokia enabled their phones to send SMS. Fourteen years later (2007), the number of texts sent per month overtook monthly phone calls. Our thirst for messages on the phone became insatiable.
Texting was popular because it allowed us to communicate when the receiver was both available and unavailable. The shortcoming of calling over messaging is that the intended audience needed to be present. Without an audience, a conversation cannot exist.
Messages sent over mobile phones can be sent asynchronously. That is, the receiver does not have to be available when messages are received. This allowed conversations to traverse time and flexibility in responses.
Mobile Instant Messaging (MIM) is the next generation of IM. Originally coined by Deloitte, MIM combines the ubiquity of the Internet with the convenience of the cell phone. While SMS and MIM perform similar tasks, the difference is in the methodology. On one hand, SMS transmits messages through a telecommunication carrier. Whereas MIM transmits messages through the Internet.
At first, the method of transmission may seem insignificant, but it has major repercussions on performance, cost, and volume.
Early IM, (e.g. AIM) was built on HTTP. Attempts to build low-latency real-time messaging used a technique called polling. Thes technique pings the client (mobile device, browser, etc.) server on a predetermined interval (e.g. every 5 seconds) to check for any new updates. The HTTP polling model was effective at small scale, however, soon it becomes cost prohibitive as the demands grown. On top of that, polling is significantly taxing on mobile device’s battery and network access. The image (below) by WebSocket illustrates how polling compares with Web sockets:
Another common model based on request/response are RESTful and SOAP. However, it does not perform in real-time. Due to its nature of the protocol, it creates latency by going back and forth between server and client with its request and response.
An enhanced approach is to use WebSocket to maintain an always-on connection between server and client. The design allows data to be pushed to the destination over an established connection, instead of making a pull request that requires making a new communication request all over again. Which dramatically reduces the relay frequency and latency by cutting down on the repetitive overhead in the communication channel.
Hyphenate, a MIM platform for app developers, takes a step further by introducing MSYNC. MSYNC provides reliable one-to-many file distribution over a multicast link.
Since SMS is transmitted through telecom carriers, a fee is usually involved for the sender and, at times, for the receiver. Although this may be fractions of a penny, it adds up with volume. On the other hand, MIMs are transmitted via the Internet, so there is virtually no upfront cost involved. The battle for user's thumbs has sparked speculation that SMS is on a steady decline. SMS's projected decline in revenues by 19.4% has been attributed to the use of Over-The-Top messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
While SMS use has fallen globally from 9.0 trillion to 6.7 trillion messages, MIM seen growth of 31.6% in 2015. According to Deloitte, MIMs (50 billion messages a day) doubled in volume compared with SMS (21 billion messages a day). According to PEW, mobile messaging apps are especially popular among young adults with half of smartphone owners using messaging apps. Could this indicate the peak of SMS texting?
Ever since homo sapiens have been carving premojis in caves, we've been sending messages to express our thoughts and ideas. From paper and pen to chatrooms, from SMS to MIM, we are seeing a surge in both volume and speed of interactions. Below is a great visualization of the history of Chat Services created by Sameroom. If the internet was the information superhighway, MIM is the High Occupancy Vehicle. MIM gets your point across – Faster, Cheaper, Better.
Now that we have identified Mobile IM and explored the differences between SMS and MIM, we will venture into the advantages and disadvantages in a future chapter. In the meantime, checkout Hyphenate's MIM features.