Welcome to the third generation of Instant Messaging! Part 2/2
by Nicolas Verite
CC by-sa, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 international
This is the second and last part of my “Welcome to the third generation of Instant Messaging!” post, you can read part 1 here.
The first generation was lead by ICQ and followed by all its clones and is characterised by multi-window desktop software, with through sporadic internet connection, all centered around the concept of ‘presence’.
The second generation was triggered by the multi-touch smartphone revolution and includes was lead by WhatsApp and followed by all its clones, with the main focus on making chats less synchronous.
This is the third generation.
3rd generation: group messaging
The group messaging revolution began around 2015-2016, with the advent of Slack and HipChat. Other services in the third generation are Zulip, Otalk, Kaiwa, Mattermost, Let’s Chat, Rocket.Chat. Since the third genration revolution is still ongoing, observing and understanding what is happening is much harder. We don’t yet have any strong long-term feedback, and the race is ongoing. But again, a new generation, a new disruption is evolving.
a. Continuous computing experience
The context evolved once again. Mobile have overtaken sales of other forms of computer. People use smartphones as their first (sometimes only) device. But, overall, the smartphone revolution calmed down a little. Many companies now practice “BYOD” (“Bring Your Own Device”), allowing employees to use their personal smartphone and laptop for work. People generally use a laptop at work, a tablet on the couch, and a smartphone on their commute, coffee pause, and lunch break, not to mention parties, family dinners and toilet breaks.
b. Presence makes a shy comeback, but remains a secondary feature
We learned that in the 2nd generation presence was missed by users when removed from apps, or still used as a secondary feature. When it comes to presence, there is continuity between 2nd and 3rd generation, but with a slight come back: although presence does not always comes as a central feature, it is only one click or tap away.
c. Mobile AND desktop in the real world
The 3rd generation IMs come in different flavors: the app is available on one or two (or more) mobile platforms and on one or two (or more) desktop platforms. These software pieces may not come with feature parity due to all these apps’ lifecycles, but the overall user experience is mostly there already. On desktop, software is often available in the web browser. And when it comes as desktop software, it is often just the web app that is delivered into a packaged software working on web technologies.
d. Single window mode, for simplicity, and flat design
All the 2nd generation IMs that now provide some desktop experience offer single window software. Not because of the web technologies they are based on, just because multi-window is far too complex for massive user bases.
The responsive design of the few desktop apps and websites of the 2nd generation has been generalised, and consequently brought about the 3rd generation. If you resize your desktop app window to a tiny size, you have a UX close to that of the mobile app (minus multi touch input), when you resize it to average size, you get a tablet-like experience, and when you really enlarge it, you have the full blown desktop experience.
Flat design is the default of the 3rd generation, whether it is done in Apple style, Material design by Google, Metro-style by Microsoft. This is a minimalist UI design genre or language, getting away from the skeuomorphic paradigm, that immitates previous generations’ interfaces. Even 2nd generation apps are now phasing out non-flat design.
e. Group chat is the main core feature
Group apps of the 3rd generation IM naturally prioritise group chats, or at least do not relegate them as a secondary feature. Conceptually, in group apps, the chat rooms or channels are not just an extension of one-to-one chats, but rather one-to-one chats are a downsized version of group chats. That is one very small technical difference from 2nd generation that makes for a totally different user experience.
Other more obvious differences are groups having persistent files and links and stars/favorites, and room/channel notifications. And let’s not forget full text search, but more on that in a bit.
Some may argue that the 3rd generation IM is a return to what IRC was: a group chat at the core. Indeed, but it undeniable that the 3rd generation IM is much more user-friendly and technologically advanced than IRC clients.
f. Continuous devices synchronisation
The 3rd generation is multi-device by default, by nature, and because it is an extension of the 2nd generation which was mostly mobile-only (at least at the beginning), as it completes the devices’ scope with desktop apps. The idea is to offer continuous flow, not only with message sync, but also with unread and file sync, outside the app.
The 3rd generation is still as asynchronous as the 2nd generation, but it adds email notifications. These are slightly delayed notifications (non real-time), for when you can’t participate in conversations. These emails tell you what you have missed, via a bulk of messages at a time. It might not seem like much, but it fills a gap and underlines the missing parts of asynchronicity.
g. Persistence of in-chat files
In-chat media files have stayed and the 3rd generation brought some improvement, with persistent files directories, often materialised in sidebars. This is an advancement over the in-app galleries of the 2nd generation, which only allowed you to scroll through pictures.
The Ffile transfer of the old days might be missing now, for file exchanges in fire-and-forget mode (out-of-chat propose+accept UX), with no archive, and no search. The common workaround is using external, third party file sync services such as DropBox, Box, Google Drive.
h. Voice and video: stagnation or regression
Since 3rd generation apps focus on groups, multi-party VoIP is the target, the Holy Grail that the 2nd generation has not achieved. This is very difficult to achieve, which may be why implementors are taking their time. The goal might be not to disappoint high expectations.
i. Specificities: full text search, stars, integrations’ craze, ChatBots
One of the most prominent - if not the most prominent - features of 3rd generation is full text search of messages and file. One can finally search old messages and conversations, same as you can do with emails. In a multi-device context that can be very useful, for example when you recall the general idea of a conversation but not all the details. Some seek to monetise the archive, by limiting a free user’s searches.
One can also star/favorite or pin almost everything! It started shyly in the 2nd generation, but the 3rd generalised it. Starred/favourited content generally features in sidebars, sometimes adding unnecessary clutter to the overall appearence and UX.
After group focus and search, the integrations’ craze is possibly the most important trait of the 3rd generation. Integrations are hooks or links to third party apps and services. They help fill the gap between these apps and the chat system. It helps avoiding disruptions between chat and other apps: team mabers always have to switch between apps, now they have all in one place and in real-time. It increases retention and engagement on the chat app.
ChatBots are also becoming huge, since they can help with some serious tasks, and even with some fun, unproductive (ahem procrastination) ones, and the underlying AI is evolving rapidly.
Integrations and ChatBots are tightly linked to the ChatOps movement. ChatOps is “everything of the business process on chat”. Integrations and ChatBots progress and refine together, enabling more team fluidity.
Integrations are huge, not only because everybody jumps on the bandwagon, but also because it enables apps become a real marketplace. The 3rd generation IMs are generally selling subscriptions for teams (with free tier), and integrations and ChatBots enlarge their capacity to monetise.
The third generation made the IM a continuous flow between all your devices, where nothing is ever missed. 3rd generation IM defining traits include: group chat first, full text search, email notifications, integrations and ChatBots.
As it is an ongoing process, the usages will refe during the coming period.
Generation 2.5: specialisation, segmentation
While the 2nd and 3rd generation IMs want to reach the mass market, some 2nd generation apps have chosen more specialised markets. This is the generation 2.5, which sits between generation 2 and generation 3.
Ephemeral messaging is about self-destructing messages. These could be photo-only or photo-first apps, but also disapearing text messages. Snapchat is the best known example.
Encryption is at the core. Sometimes, expected features such as multi-device are missing. Encryption is evolving so fast that some apps become obsolete rapidly. Recent, highly publicised concerns surrounding privacy and transparancy will not be resolved quickly, easily or on a supra-national basis.
Mesh networks use no central servers, rather using mostly the cell network, bluetooth, and wifi. They are used for co-located and synchronous events such as festivals or protests.
Here are some general observations, that might not obviously fit in one generation or another.
Account creation and contact management are features that have evolved a lot. And there is no clear pattern shaping up that enables the discerning of a general directions tied to a specific generation.
Message receipts (such as sent, received, read/seen) appeared around the 2nd generation as these imitate the SMS experience, but then disappeared from the 3rd generation. They may yet make a comeback as auditability is clearly important in corporate and regulatory contexts.
Speaking about monetization: the 1st generation was all around ads, and interestingly enough around avatars in Asia. The 2nd generation is about gathering user data for big data and profiling/targetting, and interestingly enough around mobile-local-social marketplaces in eastern countries. The 3rd generation is about building subscription platforms, with integrations and ChatBots marketplaces.
Another interesting trend are the apps adding IM to their core functionnalities, despite not being IM apps. Indeed some apps add basic to complete IM features, in order to generate acquisition, engagement, and retention. To give an example, IM is a helper for the main focus of photo sharing and dating apps.
The adoption and social impact of IM is different: the 1st generation was about reaching a mass market, and is now dead (some zombie apps are still walking around). The 2nd was about the generalisation of IM with an initial focus on mobile, but still with disjointed networks, and incompatible apps. The 3rd generation will probably not take over the 2nd generation since the focus is on groups and collaboration. So 2nd and 3rd generations are here to co-exist for a while, and will probably feed off each other in features and usages. Of course the 3rd generation is still in its infancy, so expect more to come at a fast pace.
As usages and technologies evolve with upcoming generations of users, the experience will continue to evolve rapidly and massively.
Most of these apps offer absolutely not interoperation: you have to create an account to chat with a contact with that app. Of course, the only open standards protocol XMPP enables federation, much like email does: you can send a message to a contact on another service.