Group Messaging: Huh?

Shit, I took 2-3 months to write this blog post. Since then I’ve done a handful of techy things worth blogging about.

Recently, I’ve seen surrounded by a swarm of messaging confusion, especially with the release of iOS 5. I’ve been so accustomed to traditional SMS, which costs nothing to network carriers, and has limitations expected of a 20-year-old technology. Sprint doesn’t offer tiered texting, and is free/required with a data plan (thus no need for text-over-data workarounds)

iOS5 introduced a new concept called iMessage. Apple knows whether or not the user on the other end is using an iOS device. If he/she is using an iOS device, the input field will show “iMessage” in a light shade. If not, it will show “Text Message” (or possibly other things I have not seen, as I cannot test this myself)

If the message is sent over iMessage, it is sent over data through Apple servers, bypassing the carrier. Most people pay for enough data to field this; these messages don’t take up much bandwidth anyways. However, it is arguable that one with an unlimited SMS/MMS plan may prefer to send messages through that channel instead of iMessage over a limited data plan. Generally this is not the case, because iMessage should not use enough data for you to even care.

I hate SMS. It’s limited to 160 characters, doesn’t support Unicode, takes up to 30 seconds for end-to-end transmission when working properly, and the carriers charge you for it when it costs them nothing (it’s carried inside a field of the packet that’s sent from your phone every so often anyhow.)

I also hate MMS. It requires you to be on 3G so if your smartphone is connected to WiFi, it usually falls back to 3G to receive the MMS, but I have seen cases where it doesn’t. And if you are in an area with good WiFi and no 3G, you’re SOL. I also use Google Voice full-time, which does not work with MMS (and does not return an error message if someone tries to send my GV number a MMS…)

I am a fan of third-party messaging apps like WhatsApp and KakaoTalk, for various reasons. These apps popularized the concept of device push messaging over data, long before Apple integrated it into their iOS. And that’s why iMessage is so popular.. it’s integrated into the OS. It’d be interesting if Google implemented something similar in Android, after all of the copying/stealing Apple has done.

iOS5 also introduced a concept called “Group Message”. This confused the shit out of me at first because of iMessage. At first I thought Group Message was just an iPhone/iMessage circlejerk. But I noticed that when this circlejerk included an Android phone (or, to be specific, a non-iOS5 phone) that some strange behavior happened.

The non-iOS5 phone received the messages as MMS. This made less sense to me. If an iPhone user sends a message to three other people – 2 iOS and 1 non-iOS, I thought 2 of those messages would be delivered over iMessage and the third over SMS. But that was not the case.. The last one was over MMS.

This is because MMS “extends” SMS capability by a bit. It is a completely different type of message, but it supports long messages, (obviously) media, and the recipient list is sent in the message. This is how phones recognize that a group conversation is happening: threading multiple MMS messages with the same group of recipients.

Now we have another problem. A phone can read that a MMS was sent to multiple recipients, but

  1. it usually doesn’t do anything to show the user that it happened.
  2. when a reply is composed, it may address it only to the original sender, via SMS, which breaks the chain.

The recipient data is in the MMS message, but dumbphones and many smartphones seem to ignore it. The native Messaging app for Android (as of 2.3, Gingerbread) ignores it. Handcent for Android recognizes it, but sends replies as SMS unless you attach a dummy image which would make it MMS/work “properly”.

My coworker looked into this issue for a while as he uses an Android phone and communicates with some iPhone users. For Verizon, there is an app called “Verizon Messages” which behaves properly with “Group MMS” threads when it sees them. I have yet to find solutions on other platforms, but I haven’t really searched.

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