Faecebook Messenger, WhatsApp still not better than a real phoneBaltimore Post-Examiner

Texting Apps: What are the best choices?

When you get up in the morning did your alarm clock get you up? Or did the alarm on your phone wake you (probably the latter, since 60 percent of us sleep with our phones).

unnamedDo you check your phone for status updates from friends and family on social sites over breakfast? How about messages and email? Don’t fib. Statistics say most of us do.

Do you consult with your phone about traffic conditions and weather before leaving the house? Most likely. Do you get your morning news from the Baltimore Post-Examiner or Los Angeles Post-Examiner or some other online news service? Again, statistics say you do.

Do you connect your phone to your car’s Bluetooth receiver to listen to your music during your commute? Many people do. If you’re on a bus or subway are you idly fiddling with your phone, maybe giving that presentation you’ve labored over for work one last check before delivery at the office? You certainly could if you want to.

Or maybe you’re reading a book on your high resolution five-inch screen (that would be me).

Or you’re watching a movie, or texting your friends, or playing a game.

Hush

It seems the only thing we don’t use the phone for anymore is actually using it as a phone. Voice calls have been declining since 2010. We make less than half the phone calls today we made just four years ago. Our phones have become so smart we forgot they were phones.

People don’t converse vocally anymore. Text messaging, chat apps and email are the order of the day now. People who do make a phone call are usually shunted to voicemail, and who checks their voicemail anymore? Practically nobody. Why? Some say it’s too much trouble to wade through menus to bring them up. And they are usually empty anyway.

Remember just a few years back when you’d pass people on the sidewalk talking to themselves in public? Your first impulse was to step around the air talker as quickly as possible, until you spotted that leech-like Bluetooth speaker and microphone perched behind their ear. These have nearly vanished, not because of any lack of utility, but because nobody talks with anyone any longer.

facebook-messenger-620x287I’m not trying to make any judgmental point here, merely an observation. Older people like me are more likely to talk on their phone than younger people. The younger they are, the less likely they are to talk. I see this among my own children. The grown ones will return calls and talk, the youngest, just 15, mumbles monosyllabically when forced to converse, though she’s loquacious in her texts.

So many phone plans cap the number of text messages, or restrict them to US numbers that a plethora of versatile and ingenious stand alone chat and text programs have been adopted by a wide user base. Even I use them when I’m speaking to friends overseas. They are Internet-based, of course–as opposed to the cellular-based text program that you have built into your phone.

I admit I make little use of most of these apps, but here follows a round-up of the most popular and widely used.

Many choices

If you own an Android it comes with a newly revamped texting service, called Hangouts, recently redesigned to communicate with non-Google SMS and IM text apps. It also allows sending video, images and recorded audio messages, as do most of these chat programs.

Facebook has recently gotten into texting in a big way. It has surgically removed its message feature, added it as a self-contained text app. But it’s been the subject of controversy lately as the permissions for the app include the right to read your phone contacts, read and edit your text messages, take pictures and record audio.

Facebook has addressed some of the concerns, saying for instance that when a user wants to send a video or audio message the app turns on your camera or activates your audio controls for you, and that they would never do so without the user initiating the process, but it’s still a little creepy and overreaching for a chat program.

whatsapp1The most popular standalone chat service is the venerable WhatsApp, recently purchased by Facebook for $19 billion. It may be no coincidence that it’s no longer completely free either, charging you $0.99 cents a year after a first free year. It too supports sending text, pictures, video and voice messages over your internet connection, so there are no international charges or monthly text caps. It links to others using the service via their phone number, eliminating the need for usernames, passwords and pins. It also supports group chats.

Kik, another popular messaging app with 80 million users, touts all the features of WhatsApp, but remains free. Its main advantage is that it is more personal and private, requiring neither a phone number or email address, rather just a self-chosen user name. It also handles text, video, audio and video messages, as well as downloadable emoticons, and the ability to search YouTube. Its main advantage is its relative privacy, needing no personal information.

i.1.snapchatFinally there is Snapchat. It is a relative newcomer, and is very popular with younger users. Its primary draw is that it allows the sharing of pictures and video clips, quickly and privately, which after being viewed delete themselves. Though the receiver can take a screen shot to retain the image, doing so triggers an automatic message to the sender.

There are other message programs, including video chat service Skype, IM+, Twitter, Go SMS, but the ones described above are the most widely used.

My choices

I find I use Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp most frequently, for my frequent international conversations, though I’ve just set up both a Kik account and a Snapchat account, the former to chat with friends spooked by Facebook Messenger and the latter for my children.

But I still miss real phone calls and vocal communication. It could be said that text messaging is good for young people, in that it helps improve their writing skills, but this is just not so. Texting has spawned a new language of shorthand phrases such as LOL and BRB and BTW as well as the use of short phrases and lack of such needless niceties as salutations and fond farewells, harking back to the days when the SMS was the only game in town, which restricted the sender to 122 characters.

Digression

I lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia for many years, site of seven major battles. The battlefields are mostly well preserved and there are several excellent museums. Many of these contain displays of personal correspondence between the mostly young and by today’s standards uneducated soldiers and their families, sweethearts and wives.

The quality of the writing of the vast majority is very high, very vivid and often lyrical and felicitous. The museum curators explained that letter writing back then was more than just simple communication; it was the sole form of communication over distance and as such much value was placed on one’s skill in the use of vivid, expressive, and artful command of language.

Such graceful use of the written word is lost today. I don’t blame the technology, but writing with skill and style is mostly a lost art. I blame the schools, which have largely abandoned the teaching of grammar, vocabulary and writing in general.

It is indeed ironic that as there is growing use of the written word to communicate once more, there is so little value placed on doing it well.

But this is merely a personal observation, which my editor may cut from this piece as irrelevant to the subject of chat programs.

The ones I’ve described here are actually all equally competent at texting; they vary mostly in their privacy provisions and their ability to handle nonverbal content. I would recommend all or any of them equally, depending on your personal needs and the importance you place on privacy.


About the author

Paul Croke

Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology. Contact the author.
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