The recent furor over Apple’s iMessage purgatory—ie. when you stop using iMessage in favor of text messaging your friends’ devices will continue to try to send messages to you over iMessage causing you to miss a lot of messages and your friends to think you’re a jerk—is very justified and yet another example of the importance of distributed systems and open, standard protocols in the development of internetworked communications.
This illustrates why our platforms of communication matter: it also explains why WhatsApp was worth so much to Facebook. In essence Facebook bought a global communication platform the size of text messaging and iMessage combined. It put Facebook in a powerful position for owning a large part of one-to-one digital communication.
That’s dangerous for the user. The iMessage purgatory is just the latest incident in the history of closed platforms biting users in the ass. SMTP (email) ranks near the top of my list of humanity’s greatest inventions (behind the wheel, electricity, and modern sanitary practices) because it’s so open and passably-standardized. Ownership of a domain and a server (or just a few dollars a month to a provider like FastMail) gives one access to that entire platform and network, and—thanks to ICANN—one isn’t locked in to their domain registrar or provider. That’s pretty good freedom in my book.
This isn’t the case with iMessage, WhatsApp, and to a lesser extent SMS, and it’s worth remembering what that means for our freedoms as users and the long-reaching effects using a service can have on one’s ability to communicate with others in the digital space. I’m betting this won’t be the last of the purgatories.