Tag Archives: WhatsApp

Why I choose not to use WhatsApp, Viber et al

There are many messenger apps these days that have very similar features, and are widely used. I’d usually describe them as “modern” messengers. I choose not to use them. I sometimes get into discussions about why. I’ll update this post if I get new perspectives or if I find better ways to clarify my opinions.

Here are some anti-features from my perspective, widely (but not universally shared), that make me strongly prefer not using these messengers:

  • Uploading all contacts. Many modern messengers use your phone’s addressbook as the primary source for the contact list. This is, in principle, laudable. One source of contacts is a good idea1.

    However, to enable the distinction between contacts that do not use this messenger and those that do, the clients have opted to query their servers for this piece of information. To do so, they upload all your contacts, and see whether the phone number is connected to the service or not.

    Despite not having a signal of whether a contact is ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ (occasional and mainly formal interactions vs daily friendly interactions), messengers can use this to form social graphs. I don’t have a reason to believe they are doing this or exploiting this information, however, I’d prefer a smaller number of companies to have access to my contact list. I’m sure my contacts would prefer that as well.

    For this reason, I’ve chosen that the primary company that’ll have access to this is the one that already syncs my contacts and sees all my email: Google. This means I get restricted to Hangouts (which is mid-way between ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ messengers) or Allo (which is slick, but underused, and has other flaws from this list).

    • Workaround: Messengers, please let me choose not to upload all contacts. Please don’t tell me I cannot block iOS and Android from you grabbing all my contacts. Please let me share only some contacts with you, or manually enter the phone number I want to reach out to.
  • Phone numbers only, please. I use many devices. Counting off the top of my head, I use 82 ‘smart’ devices regularly and 43 sporadically. This is not counting all the operating systems I have on them: both my desktop and my old laptop have 3. How about browsers? Anything with OS X has at least Safari and Chrome.

    I change environments multiple times a day. I’ve changed countries. I could change my phone number. It’s not unreasonable that I expect my conversation to continue from one environment to the other. If I’m on my desktop, I strongly prefer not to have to take out my phone just to see that Jack has said “hi” without any other followup. And doing this while I’m dealing with a page or writing or updating a very convoluted test is very distracting. It could be an important message — should I really have to decide between 15s to get the phone and see the “hi”, making me distracted for the next 5-10min, or leaving a possibly important message unseen?

    Tying a messenger to one phone number and thus one device is ridiculous.

    • Non-workaround: Browser-based solutions. I could receive and send messages from my desktop — hurray? While I do want a web-based client to be available when I’m on a Chromebook, due to e2e they’re usually convoluted and require messages to go through your phone, only to go back through the provider’s servers (presumably re-encrypted) and to be presented in a web UI. I object to this convoluted solution on moral grounds. 🙂

      I also don’t expect I get to integrate with my desktop environment that well.

    • Non-workaround: Wearable devices. While I can see the messages quickly, I have to actually own one. My Moto 360 broke down long time ago, and I’m still waiting for a decent, affordable Android Wear 2.0 device to become available in Ireland. (If I need to get a new one, why not get a proper upgrade?)

    • Counter-example: iMessage. Yep, in place of a workaround, I’m giving a specific “modern messenger” solution. I can not only tie multiple phone numbers, but also multiple email addresses, all on multiple devices, to the same account. Messages.app (formerly iChat), an OS X feature which integrates with iMessage, is a desktop, non-browser solution that neatly integrates with the OS as well.

      I would use this messenger much more if iMessage was available on non-Apple devices and on the web.

  • Ubiquitous e2e. In principle, I like encryption. It does come with huge costs. Most messengers that implement it (well) become terrible with syncing message archives, and become terrible storing them for prolonged periods of time.

    They also have to decide where to store the keys. To keep the whole contraption secure, they often choose a storage mechanism that makes it hard to exfiltrate the keys. This is a good thing — except it prevents sync from working, and it makes it hard to introduce new devices (or browsers!) into the mix. And as I said, I use many, many devices.

    Situations where I actually, genuinely care about e2e enough to break message sync, message archiving, and make provisioning new devices for the same account difficult or impossible — those situations are very rare. I can think of maybe 5-10 cases over the past 3 years, and I can’t even recall the specifics. Cases where I wanted to find details of an old conversation, or where I wanted to continue an old discussion, those are far more frequent.

    • Counter-example: iMessage as a service is doing somewhat well here again. I am just guessing, but it seems like, once provisioned, a message will be encrypted for a particular device’s key in addition to all other devices. If a device is under-used, the key gets phased out. Messages get synced while a device is provisioned.

      Where it’s not doing so well is in-browser support. Apple recently introduced Business Chat and iCloud syncing for messages. It seems to let third-party providers create integrations with iMessage, including web based. It’s for businesses only, from what I can tell!

    • Counter-example: What about, say, WhatsApp’s web UI? Link to your phone, and have all messages go through it; a secure solution, but which I object to morally. I was going to say “I have no idea how message sync interacts with e2e with WhatsApp”, but for me it would be a non-problem with WhatsApp, as either I’d use web UI (which would presumably fetch messages from the phone), or I would not have message sync (as only one phone has a particular phone number). Possibly the key and messages get backed up to Google Drive on Android, but that solves the problem of “I’m changing the phone”, not “I’m using multiple phone numbers and non-phone devices concurrently”.

    • Workaround: What I’d really like to see happen is optional e2e. At the very least, let users agree not to e2e, and reap the benefits of message sync, nice and slick web UI, easier provisioning of new devices. When I use XMPP, I don’t bother at all turning on OTR, OMEMO, or OpenGPG (mechanisms supported in Conversations, top of the line messenger for Android) — but I strongly care about support for Message Carbons (“deliver messages to all online clients”) and Message Archive Management (“archive messages on the server and let clients request the archive”). I own my domain, so I get the benefit of not being tied to a single provider. Friends who use my secondary domain are also welcome to request archive export should they choose to spin up their own server — I’ll gladly spend the time providing them this data. (I’ll also delete the data from their archives on my server, as well, but otherwise I’d expect that I can keep my own records of these chats.)

I could also simply not worry about these problems.

For example, my personal social graph is not going to be important or even a useful source of information to sell me things4. That said, I don’t know what all the contacts in my addressbook are up to. Do I want everyone to tie me to them? It probably does not matter, but I choose to draw the line there.

I could also choose to use the messengers only on one device, and ignore notifications that come while I am focused. I could choose to accept e2e and all the downsides it brings to the sync table. I could choose to use iMessage with my Apple-toting buddies (hint: there aren’t many!). I could choose to install Facebook Messenger, tolerate battery drain, and tolerate having an additional company have access to my communications.

All that said… I don’t get that many benefits from any of these messengers. I can easily reach people I care with XMPP, Hangouts or even SMS. If SMS fails, I can, occasionally, even reactivate the Facebook account and reach out to people using Facebook Messenger on the desktop. I don’t have a good reason to compromise, or to figure out a workaround such as setting up an XMPP transport for WhatsApp. People who happen to be using WhatsApp — I can reach them through SMS as well, and often through Hangouts as well.

  1. Android allowed the apps to do it the other way around, too; applications should integrate with the Contacts app. In practice, social network apps, even if they integrated with Android’s contacts, chose to remove the integration many years ago. This is disappointing. 
  2. Phones: Nexus 6P (personal), iPhone 7 (work). Tablets: iPad Air (personal). Computers: desktop, Macbook Pro 2016, Digital Ocean VPS (personal), workstation, HP Chromebook (work). Other: Nvidia Shield Android TV, Samsung 6400 TV, QNAP TS-509 NAS w/ debian (personal). 
  3. Phones: Nexus 5, Jolla (personal). Tablets: original iPad w/ iOS 5.1.1 (personal), Nexus 7 (work). Computers: Macbook unibody late 2009, Chromebook (personal). 
  4. I mean, I rarely buy exactly the same product just because a friend has it.