Home & Office

Texting: Worst messaging platform, ever

Why are we so reliant on an outdated technology like SMS for interpersonal communications, in an age of cloud computing and web services?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

If you've been following my column for the last few years, chances are that you have seen any number of my rants about why I feel an over-reliance on mobile technology and social networking services may be harmful to the development of "soft skills" in our emerging millennial workforce, and those of the even younger generation that is going to end up inheriting it from them.

My opinions on this matter have not changed. Short form bursts of communication do absolutely nothing to improve human interaction. If anything, they make it harder to convey matters of real substance, or nuances that can only be expressed either in long form or in vocal communication (i.e., an actual phone call).

I'm even further convinced that millennials must really suck in the interpersonal communications department due to the prevalence of "Unconscious Bias" training that is making the rounds at all of the tech companies lately.

If you're not familiar with Unconscious Bias, basically it can be all boiled down to "Don't judge a book by its cover." Don't make assumptions about people based on pre-defined notions of sex, orientation, religion, culture of origin, et cetera. Don't be an a-hole. Be inclusive and listen.

You'd think this kind of thing would be obvious and second nature to most of us that have been in the workplace for 20-plus years, especially for those that were raised during the 1970s on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers.

Heck, I even expect this basic skill set even from someone who was raised on Barney the Dinosaur, as much as I can't stand that purple, jiggly Cretaceous bastard.

But millennials have so little experience with basic face-to-face human interaction in the workplace that they actually need training for what most of us already learned from years of watching Big Bird, Grover and the denizens of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

This week, the results of a recent study from SUNY Binghamton were released that concluded that the use of certain forms of punctuation in SMS and other types of of short form, text-based communications can radically alter the intended meaning or perceived sincerity of the message.

In summary: If you use a period at the end of a sentence, you're a jerk.

What kind of society have we evolved into where we have to watch our periods? Where the laws of grammar and proper communication have been so mutated that we have to distill our interactions with people into short snippets that can be misconstrued so easily by the use or omission of a punctuation mark?

Some disclosure here is required -- I am not a texter. I think the main reason why I am not a texter is because I'm 46 years old, I have no children that are millenials, and that's their preferred form of communication with their parents nowadays.

Still, I get random texts from younger folks that I work with, because they have my phone number which is published in the company directory. And my wife has started texting because she has joined a coven (ahem, sorority) of younger women that she hangs out with that use text extensively.

So while I'm not a willing participant in texting, I get dragged into it anyway.

I hate SMS. For a number of reasons. Texting is strictly an unreliable point-to-point technology, its implementation is antiquated, and that carriers can get away with murder in charging you for text overages if you don't have unlimited texting as part of your wireless plan.

What I do like is email. Despite the fact that email is an even older technology than texting, it is considerably more advanced, and it has improved and gotten more features with age.

Why? Well, for starters, modern email systems permit threaded conversations, and it is relatively easy to remove or add recipients/participants at any stage of the conversation or to branch out.

Not so with SMS. Once you get added to a chain it's hard to be pulled off, so pile-ons are common.

But my biggest beef with SMS is the point-to-point and unreliable nature of the technology. Texts are initiated on one device and are sent to another. There is no client/server approach, and there's no way to centralize or archive texts if you use multiple devices, unless you use something like Google Voice.

I use Google Voice for phone number and voicemail consolidation. It's the only phone number I give out, and it simultaneously rings and texts all the devices I have.

Currently, I have two smartphones, an iPhone and a Windows Phone. But I also like to access my texts and voice mails on my tablets and PCs, where I can use VOIP services that have virtual phone numbers, such as Skype for Business.

Google Voice is useful because it forwards texts to my email in case I miss them, and where it can be searched and archived and responded to within the GMail client, read or searched or responded to within the Google Voice app, or forwarded to any email account I choose.

But as good as Google Voice is, it is not a foolproof service. If I make outgoing calls from my iPhone or Windows Phone, sometimes the recipient gets the actual phone number of that device, and they text it directly. If I'm not carrying that device on my person I might miss that message for days. Weeks, even.

And even if they text Google Voice, I have no easy way of identifying the sender. Unless that person's cell number is in my contact list, it's just a message from a phone number. I can make a good guess as to who it might be by area code, or if I remember the number, but otherwise, it's like having covert communications with your CIA or KGB handler.

So for short-form text based communication, what should we use instead? Well, my recommendation would be to use a system that has some kind of identity and contact management and message searching/archival built into the platform.

There are several platforms that have many millions of users and already do this. Skype, Skype for Business (Formerly Lync), Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp and BlackBerry Messenger all fit this bill nicely.

The only problem is that there is no common protocol or federation service that would tie all of these together.

There were attempts to do this in the past using Jabber/XMPP, but it required that each of the services run their own Jabber servers and do native XMPP implementations.

Unfortunately none of the major cloud service providers were committed enough to interoperability to actually make progress with a many clients, single IM protocol approach.

XMPP also has architectural limitations, such as lack of QoS, higher overhead due to its use of XML, a dependence on in-band binary transfer which makes transmission of large files and data difficult to handle, and most importantly, no support for end-to-end encryption as part of the base standard.

Instead, companies like Trillian,im tried running Jabber servers with specialized clients that could talk to various IM services, such as AOL, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, MSN and a number of other minor ones. But these were heavyweight apps that were really only suitable for personal computers, not mobile devices.

Thankfully, we have seen enough industry consolidation of IM systems over the last five years that it is a worthwhile effort to re-visit the idea of cross-IM service interop. But only if the industry really wants to make that effort.

Otherwise, we'll be stuck in the SMS stone age forever.

Is SMS the worst messaging platform in existence? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Editorial standards