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The European Union’s groundbreaking announcement to prevent specific companies from acting as internet “gatekeepers” to basic services, such as social networking and messaging, has been received with some skepticism.
A critical part of this announcement requires organizations to provide messaging services that work across a variety of platforms. Those who don’t comply with the new rules could face heavy fines and even an EU regulatory investigation.
While interoperability in messaging would be welcome by many parties, there are still major questions about whose current system should be adopted as the standard. How can it be done while retaining company IP, and how would messaging platforms differentiate themselves in a crowded market?
What interoperability can look like
There’s been a push for interoperability by the communications industry for nearly a decade.
Pushed by Google, defined by the Mobile World Congress (MWC), and being slowly adopted by users, Rich Communication Services (RCS) is a messaging standardization protocol that has been in the works for years. It brings text messaging into the 21st century with protocols that include read receipts, writing indicators, group messages, reactions, large file transfers and, of course, encryption. While these are commonplace today among popular messaging applications, they lag behind on Android’s text messaging service, which accounts for over 133 million active smartphones in the US alone.
Beyond easier messaging across mediums, with more room for smaller and alternative players to enter the game, the effort to create cross-platform, universal messaging standards could be expanded to address additional pain points in the industry.
Rather than letting companies fend for themselves when it comes to compliance after the rollout, optional modules for governance and control could be part of the new standard. This could be implemented via phone numbers and social accounts owned by enterprises.
Third-party interconnection hubs could play a critical role in easing the complexities of interoperability. These hubs would be highly trustworthy and secure by design, and create an easily accessible, single source of truth that allows stakeholders, from enterprises to developers, to gain greater control over messages and an ever-expanding plethora of platforms.
Interoperability also opens up interesting business models for this massive segment of communications. Will tech industry titans pool together their resources in order to streamline adoption and implementation? Will third-party interconnection solutions end up filling some of the gaps when it comes to development, and serve as a replacement for devops teams in certain contexts?
While the potential is exciting to those in the data capture and governance industry, the dream of interoperability has a rocky road ahead. Companies don’t necessarily agree with all aspects of the standard, let alone their resistance to complying with a rival’s idea on what is proper protocol. Just recently, during the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike encouraged Ukrainians via Twitter to avoid Telegram, claiming it has no encryption and is easy for governments to spy on.
A step forward, but is it realistic?
Implementing the regulation will likely remain a pipe dream, at least for the new feature. Widespread adoption simply cannot happen until there are solutions for the following problems, which have prevented the creation of such a standard up until now:
The creation of an extensible federation standard, which all industry players would agree on, is almost impossible.
There are countless moving parts, differing regulations and expectations by industry and region, and such a rich diversity of outlooks and ways of doing things that it’s extremely difficult to imagine all the major players coming together in consensus on any number of logistical, technical and policy issues.
For example, XMPP — which has been around for 23 years, a lifetime in the tech space — has been trying to create an industry standard in this way for years and hasn’t made much progress. There’s no reason why such an attempt will end differently this time.
Security and privacy issues are always of paramount concern to enterprises, especially as more and more businesses find themselves under intense regulatory scrutiny, thanks to a number of high-profile cases of noncompliance.
Companies spend enormous amounts of time and money on ensuring that their E2E and B2C messaging is secure. Any potential interoperability requirements could deem their current practices and policies obsolete, throwing years of development out the window.
- Rich media
Interoperability sounds great on paper, and at first glance, it doesn’t seem like setting an industry standard for text messages exchanged via mobile messaging platforms is mission impossible.
However, it’s important to point out that the new regulation focuses explicitly on messaging, but leaves out the bigger picture: Most people use WhatsApp or Facebook messenger for more than strictly text communications. For true, 360-degree interoperability, it would need to include other (wildly popular) features on these platforms, including but not limited to voice calls, audio notes, file sharing and more. This poses serious testing issues and is far more complicated than simply aligning messaging standards.
- Feature parity
Feature parity (or lack of thereof) is also a concern.
Consider how Android treated iDevice messaging reactions up until recently. Users of iPhones could send hearts, confetti and other playful animations as a response to a message. The animation would briefly appear on the recipient’s screen, then fade away. But due to entirely different backends and structures, Androids were ill-equipped to display the reactions, presenting them as a separate message altogether, which quickly cluttered up users’ inboxes and proved to be a source of frustration.
Although Android has recently fixed this issue, it’s a perfect example of how challenging it can be, even for tech giants, to handle feature parity. With forced interconnection, this problem is sure to grow exponentially bigger.
Consumer benefits and risks are very real
Although we are likely years out from widespread interoperability across messaging platforms, the accountability promoted by the new regulation is crucial. A passage in the legislation that says tech companies are required to “ensure the interoperability of their instant messaging services’ basic functionalities” is groundbreaking, in and of itself.
It marks the first time that these industry titans won’t have a choice in providing messaging services that are accessible across multiple platforms — they will have to comply or face the consequences.
On the other hand, governments will also be playing a role in the implementation. While this can ensure standardization, making it easier for regulated B2B companies to better comply with data capture and governance of client communications, it also raises concerns. One of which is the procedure, if any, for accessing personal messages from privately owned devices.
Regardless, with more consumers pushing regulated businesses in the financial, legal, medical and other sectors to provide communication via Whatsapp, iMessage, WeChat, and other chat platforms, this creates an opportunity for businesses to give consumers what they want without waiting for regulators to catch up. This regulation will make it easier for companies to go to third-party companies such as LeapXpert to capture chat data, providing real-time service while gaining insight into customer needs, all without storing any data on an employee’s personal device.
Ultimately, the growing pains of implementation will pay off for businesses and consumers alike. When there’s a financial incentive for all involved, there always seems to be a way.
Dima Gutzeit is founder and CEO of LeapXpert.