Goodbye to All gchat

As some of you may know, Google is killing gchat (aka Google Talk) and moving users to Hangouts after June 26th.

Talk users within Gmail will receive a prompt in the next few weeks, inviting them to switch to Hangouts. After June 26, users will be automatically transitioned to Hangouts, unless contractual commitments apply. For users that preferred the Google Talk look, there is a Dense Roster setting in Hangouts that provides a similar experience.

Some folks aren’t happy about it. As Sarah Emerson writes:

[At its debut] Hangouts was slow, heavy, and intrusive. It was, and still is, an aggressively worse form of Google+, the company’s failed social platform….[Gchat] was minimalist, discreet, and intimate– values that are hard to come by in an age where everything must be scalable, social, and platform-ized.

(Other tech sites like Select All just reported it straight.)

I think I agree with Emerson in my preference for gchat over Hangouts. Hangouts feels uglier, and I understand that it’s a bit more restrictive with regard to third-party applications like Adium and Pidgin, though I could be wrong– Google’s blog post says, “Third-party XMPP clients will continue to work with Hangouts for 1-on-1 chats,” but continues, “XMPP federation with third-party services providers will no longer be supported starting June 26.” It’s not a huge shift, but it doesn’t feel great to be rolled over to something automatically.

And all that aside, more broadly, both gchat and Hangouts are pretty shitty instant messaging services. From my experience neither allows for easy file transfers or reliable group chat, not to mention mobile access (especially for iOS) or video calling. And of course niceties I’ve gotten used to on Slack like inline GIFs, furled-out URLs and tweets, easy :emojis:, and editable messages aren’t there. I think we deserve a better instant messenger in 2017.

The Network Effect

Of course even if you agree with that sentiment, most of your friends may just roll on over to Hangouts and not even notice. Or maybe they’ll have to keep using Hangouts for work anyway. (Hell, maybe you’re already using a different service that you like.) The problem here isn’t as simple as just downloading a new instant messaging app; barring interoperability with Hangouts (lol), you’ve got to get at least some of your friends to switch too.

My first instant messenger was AIM, and then sometime early in college everyone seemed to just switch to gchat, I assume because we had soon emailed each others’ gmail addresses and that added them to our lists. So if you’re like me, you’ve only switched instant messengers once– and it was to a service that came with a gmail email address (if you’ve also used Facebook Messenger or Twitter DMs a lot, those are obviously other examples of messengers that came bundled with something else entirely). Notably, I don’t remember needing to be encouraged to switch to gchat, nor do I remember having to ask others to switch. I remember it just sort of happened.

Most of the options I talk about below don’t have any external benefit to installing on beyond that chat client itself (which I think, other things equal, is a good thing). And none allow you to easily message someone using Hangouts.

Plus, considering that I don’t imagine my friends will abandon gmail anytime soon, and that when they’re automatically rolled over, Hangouts will still work in their gmail browser tab, to ask friends to “switch” is effectively to ask them to set up and be on a second (if not third) messaging service. Plus when they get there, you might be the only contact they have on the new service.

All this to say this is an uphill battle. But hey, maybe this Talk-to-Hangouts shift is the push you need to take on this network effect and have a look around (it was for me). What are our current options that aren’t Hangouts? You and your gang may already be using something like Facebook Messenger or Slack or Skype or WhatsApp and be all set. If so, congrats! But I don’t have more than one or two contacts on any of those platforms, so none of them had an advantage on the network effect. Plus none of them had some of the features I’d want if I had my pick of service.

My Criteria

Let’s say I could make a switch to something else. For this new service, I’d want something that (A) worked well on the desktop (since that’s where I use gchat) and (B) didn’t require a cell phone number, and, unlike gchat, (C) was relatively secure. It also had to be super easy to install and use, and hopefully run in as many environments as possible (a solid desktop app at home, in any browser at work, on Android or iOS, etc.)

By “relatively secure”, I was hoping for a feature called end-to-end-encryption, which means that even the service can’t read your messages. Wikipedia, citing Wired, defines it as such:

End-to-end encryption (E2EE) is a system of communication where only the communicating users can read the messages. In principle, it prevents potential eavesdroppers – including telecom providers, Internet providers, and even the provider of the communication service – from being able to access the cryptographic keys needed to decrypt the conversation

(The Electronic Frontier Foundation also has a definition.)

If you don’t care about encryption that’s fine of course.

Alternatives

There are a lot of ways to send text messages to other people these days. And I’d bet that in a given week you use 5 to 10 of them– some days I use Slack, Hangouts, iMessage, GroupMe, Twitter DMs, Facebook Messenger, and Signal. But let’s try to pick one here.

There are a couple of services that meet some or all of the requirements I list above:

  • Slack: Lots of features, but I’m writing it off because it’s too entwined with my work persona, which turns me off but I also think it would turn others off.
  • Signal: Arguably the most secure option, but it requires phone number, and its desktop apps are a little funky.
  • WhatsApp: employs end-to-end encryption, but, like Signal, it seems to be pretty mobile-first– the desktop app seem a bit lacking. Plus, it’s owned by Facebook, which has implemented a data sharing scheme that the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote about and later highlighted as a concern about the service in a blog post in October 2016. Plus, currently, I don’t use it to talk to anyone.
  • Facebook Messenger: Interestingly, its display is the most gchat-like in that it can run in a browser tab with the messages are all housed in small discreet boxes starting from the bottom right. And likely everyone I’d want to talk to is on it already. But the last thing I want is Facebook knowing more of my personal information.
  • Cryptocat: Solid encryption, allows large file transfers, and has a very AIM feel, but no mobile app. And I don’t know anyone who uses it.
  • Ricochet IM: One of the wilder pieces of software I’ve found– it uses the Tor network to hide the metadata of messages. However, connecting to the Tor networks is a bit of red flag, especially at work. Also, no mobile apps, and doesn’t handle multiple devices very well. And like Cryptocat, I don’t currently use it to communicate with anyone.
  • Discord: I didn’t really look into Discord, but it seems to be a Slack clone aimed at gamers. And I don’t think it has any encryption.

An alternative I like: Wire

The alternatives that I like best and have already converted some friends to is Wire.

Wire for Mac desktop screenshot

Wire sports a lot of the features you get with something like Slack: you can transfer files (up to 25MB), host group chats, do voice/video calls, send GIFs that display inline… all that good stuff. It’s also free (from their privacy page: “Wire is financed by Iconical and will introduce paid business features in the future”, and a Quora answer from their Head of Marketing that’s similar in tone.)

Wire also has good, standalone desktop apps, as well as mobile apps for all major operating systems (Mac, Windows, iPhone, Android, etc., even Linux). It also can run right in your browser, which can be nice for being discreet at work.

Like gchat and Slack, you don’t need to provide Wire with your cell number, even if you want to use it on your phone (you’d just use a username, like gchat). Though you can add a cell number to your Wire account if you so choose.

But unlike gchat or Slack, Wire also offers end-to-end encryption.

A smattering of good security things about Wire

Wire’s end-to-end encryption is turned on by default (as opposed to something like Facebook Messenger or Google’s Allo, which is not great) and just works– normal users don’t have to think about it. But if you’re interested, below I write out a few things I’ve slowly learned about Wire’s security.

Wire’s apps and more recently some of its server code are open source (under the GNU General Public License), meaning the code is published publicly on the internet. This is generally a good thing for software, especially software that promises strong security, since the code can be reviewed and investigated by experts outside of the company. The code base is being updated frequently– for example, the webapp is being updated sometimes 10 or 15 times per day. Relatedly, Wire was audited by an independent security firm in February, and the discovered problems have apparently been fixed. They also do a lot of helpful customer support on Twitter, as well as a “Wire Community” Twitter account and even a subreddit. Also, their marketing director video-called into a Harlem Cryptoparty, which is pretty cool.

Wire recently got the coveted Snowden recommendation on a “Pod Save the People” episode (in which he highlights the fact that you don’t need to give Wire you phone number), and he’s tweeted about it since then.

What about metadata?

I should note that Wire stores more metadata (as reported by Joseph Cox on Motherboard) than something like Signal. Cox writes:

[Wire] has decided to keep a list of all the users a customer contacted until they delete their account… To be clear, this isn’t necessarily a security concern everyone needs to worry about: it depends on your own threat level, Wire users don’t have to use a phone number to sign up, and clearly Wire has made a decision to store customer data like this. But, for some users, it may be something they want to bear in mind.

Wire’s CTO told Cox “We are specifically exploring alternative ways to handle connections between users in the context of multi-device messaging.” (For completeness sake, here’s Wire’s sort-of response to these metadata revelations.) My understanding is that Wire stores the contact lists of users unencrypted for as long as the account exists, which isn’t good if you want the fact that you’re communicating with someone to be a secret.

I think this is fine for everyday conversation between friends– it’s certainly more privacy-respecting than Google Hangouts– given that it does make for better usability. For a gchat replacement that offers end-to-end encryption of the contents of my messages, I’m OK with that.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

I’ve been using Wire on my laptops and iPhone for a few weeks now. Honestly I haven’t found many faults with it, but here are some in case any of them completely turn you off.

One thing I don’t love is that Wire’s desktop app can only get so small on my desktop. On my 13” MacBook Air, Wire’s minimum size is almost exactly one quarter of the screen. Something like gchat in your Gmail tab or even Adium is a bit more discreet. This might get in the way of your other work, or make you feel weird about using Wire’s desktop app in the office. Of course you can have it running in a browser tab and just switch away from it when your boss walks by (Command + shift + [ and ] ftw!).

Also, most times when I’m using the desktop app, I’ll get a notification on my iPhone that I’ve received a Wire message, even though I’ve already read the message and could be in the process of responding to it on my laptop. I’ve gotten used to this though, and it probably could be fixed through code somehow in a future update.

I’ve sometimes, rarely, gotten duplicated messages from a contact, though this usually only happens when I’m away from my computer. It happens rarely and never when I’m actually in a back-and-forth conversation. Similarly, a month or so ago I noticed a slow-down in message delivery when using Wire in a browser. I group these two complaints together because I’d categorize them as bugs that will likely be noticed my many users and fixed quickly, if they haven’t been fixed already.

Lastly, if you’re looking for something more secure, I’m pretty confident that you’d be better off with Signal.

How to get Wire

Sold? Getting up and running with Wire is super easy. Go to https://app.wire.com/auth/?connect#register and create an account. You can then use Wire right in your browser or download the desktop app (here’s the macOS one). That’s it!

Afterward, if you so choose, you can download the iOS or Android app (search your app store and look for the Wire logo) and log in with your new account there. You can then search for others on Wire by username or phone number. Or you can gchat them, scare them a little about the June 26th date, and then send them to Wire. That’s basically what I’ve been doing.

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