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Text Messaging Is Cool. But Where Are Its Boundaries?


The text-messaging app has at all times been the most-used app on my phone. It’s fun and efficient, and it’s often a quicker solution to get a response than sending an email or making a phone call.

Yet, whilst Apple delivered a slew of recent text-messaging features in a software update this week — and as Google has made improvements to its Android messenger app over time, like adding colourful emojis — texting still leaves much to be desired.

Apple’s latest software system, iOS 16, which was released on Monday, includes enhancements to its iMessage app. Texts can now be edited after they’re sent to wash out embarrassing typos; a message can be retracted. Google’s Messages app for Android has tools that robotically generate responses to texts.

These changes help us sidestep awkward situations and save time, but they don’t address a bigger societal problem: Texting is distracting, demanding and, not less than at times, stressful.

The professionals of text messaging can easily turn into cons. Since texting typically takes only just a few seconds and is widely considered essentially the most urgent, attention-grabbing type of digital communication, it’s difficult to set boundaries around texting with our colleagues and friends. Texting invites us to intrude on other people’s time.

“Where does your work end, and where does your personal life begin?” said Justin Santamaria, one in every of the iPhone engineers who developed the iMessage app greater than a decade ago. “That’s something over the past three years everybody has struggled with, and it’s playing out on your own home screen.”

Texting can be not essentially the most secure type of communication, especially in a post-Roe era when privacy is more necessary than ever, said Caitlin George, a managing director at Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group.

“It ought to be something that everyone must have and never must worry or take into consideration,” she said of the necessity for a universal private texting service.

The brand new messaging features are easy to make use of. On iPhones running iOS 16, holding down on a sent message opens options to edit or retract it. Android users can open Google’s Messages app, enter the settings and toggle on “Enable chat features” to make use of the brand new texting technology, called Wealthy Communication Services.

Here’s my wish list to enhance texting.

To attenuate the likelihood that we might be bombarded by texts, Apple and Google have added layers of settings to inform others once we are busy. Yet the tools are ineffective.

Apple’s iOS includes Focus, a tool released last yr to administer how phone notifications appear in various facets of our lives, including at work, at home, once we’re driving or heading to bed. In a piece profile, for instance, Focus might be set as much as let text and phone notifications arrive only from colleagues; anyone not on the approved list gets a message that notifications aren’t being received.

My problem with Focus is that it’s overly complex. Organising each Focus profile is time-consuming, and it requires effort to schedule a Focus to activate at certain times, or to recollect to toggle the feature on or off. In my experience, even when my Focus setting tells those who I’m not receiving notifications, they text me anyway.

Mr. Santamaria, the previous iPhone engineer, now runs Future, a messaging app for people to seek advice from fitness trainers. He said that he understood the intent behind Apple’s Focus but that he agreed it was too cumbersome to establish.

“I don’t want my friend on the East Coast to not send me some funny meme because I’m asleep if it’s not going to wake me up,” he said.

Yet every notification for a recent text message adds to a to-do list to answer someone. “This red dot grows,” he said.

Google’s messaging app has a so-called Smart Reply tool, which robotically generates possible responses to a text message, including one that claims you’re busy. But you continue to must manually select a response.

Apple’s and Google’s text messaging apps would profit from a much simpler tool: the away message.

America Online Quick Messenger, one in every of the earliest online messaging services, from the Nineties, had an easy autoresponder with a memo that users could use to inform people why they were unavailable. Slack, the chat app for workplace collaboration, has the power to display an away status like “on vacation until Monday.” It’s effective at stopping people from sending a message.

One in every of the beauties of text messaging is the power to share something — like an idea or a photograph — immediately. However the iPhone messaging app still lacks a straightforward solution to avoid pestering people at unreasonable hours: the power to schedule a message to send later.

Here is where Android’s messaging app has a transparent advantage. Last yr, Google added a scheduling tool. After composing a message, hold down the send button. A “Schedule send” button appears, letting you set a time and date for the text to be sent. That’s useful because we regularly send texts at unreasonable hours for fear of forgetting to send it later, and a scheduling tool solves this problem.

The dearth of interoperability between the iPhone and Android messaging services makes photos and videos look pixelated when sending them between Androids and iPhones, a dreaded digital phenomenon often called the “green bubble” effect.

At a tech conference last week, an audience member raised this issue with Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive. In a question-and-answer session, Mr. Cook was asked whether Apple would consider making the iPhone’s messaging service work with Google’s Wealthy Communication Services in order that the questioner could send clearer videos to his mother, who had an Android phone.

“I don’t hear our users asking that we put lots of energy in on that at this point,” Mr. Cook said. “Buy your mom an iPhone.”

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

Ms. George of Fight for the Future said Mr. Cook’s comment was elitist because not everyone could afford an iPhone. The incompatibility between Apple’s and Google’s messaging apps also posed an issue to digital privacy, she said.

Apple and Google encrypt their messaging apps to make messages indecipherable to anyone however the sender and the recipient. However the encryption works only when Apple phones text Apple phones and Android phones text Android phones. When users of various mobile operating systems text one another, their messages lack encryption, making the content readable to other parties like phone carriers.

While third-party texting apps like Signal offer encrypted messaging between Apple and Android phones, those tools are usually not as widely used because the default texting apps that arrive on our phones.

A Google spokesman referred to a series of tweets by Hiroshi Lockheimer, the Google executive overseeing Android, stressing the necessity for Apple to support Wealthy Communication Services to strengthen privacy protection for Android and iPhone users.

“By not incorporating R.C.S., Apple is holding back the industry and holding back the user experience for not only Android users but in addition their very own customers,” Mr. Lockheimer said.

The content of text messages has turn out to be much more sensitive after the reversal of Roe v. Wade, Ms. George said, now that law enforcement agencies can seek data from tech firms and phone carriers to prosecute women who seek abortions. That is one reason it could serve a greater good if Apple and Google found a solution to work together on their messaging apps, she said.

“At a time when half the country must be concerned about how they’re communicating about their bodily autonomy, there’s an ethical obligation to see your marketing through should you’re telling people they will trust you,” she said of Mr. Cook, who has staked his repute on digital privacy.

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