My dreams of Core Messages

Was it last year that Mark Zuckerberg introduced the new Facebook message system? Back then, I was so interested I barely remember it happened. What I do remember is that this new system was supposed to be the cat’s pajamas when it came to function and desirability. Quicker than e-mail (yet compatible with it), as informal as text messages (yet, supposedly, cheaper, because tied to the data plan—there would be much to discuss about this), and overall better because centralized within the Facebook experience.

Zuckerberg was making a lot of assumptions, some possibly correct, and some quite misguided, in my opinion. I can’t judge the demographic assumptions about e-mail versus SMS desirability, specifically the idea that kids think texts are more informal than e-mail, which is seen as the domain of old farts—which is funny, since I’m often complaining about the fact that most people (grownups! Old farts!) seem to use e-mail in a way that’s quite more informal than I would like it to be, so figure that out.

One thing I think he got right is the idea that we’re being overwhelmed not only by the number of message systems we end up dealing with on a daily basis, but also with the fact that we need to keep track of what the preferred system is for each of our contacts—not to mention our own. Some people are SMS-only, and will refuse to move past 1995. Some will insist on responding via e-mail to any kind of communication. Others have been captured by Facebook and have started using your wall as a very public form of SMS (which is why I decided long ago that only I can pee on my wall—but I digress). And let’s not mention all the people we meet on Twitter, some of whom we might have almost-daily interactions with, but who may not have any other way to contact us—not an e-mail address, let alone our cell number.

So, yes, that’s a lot to keep track of. However, what’s misguided is Zuckerberg’s idea that this tangle of messaging systems can be tamed by the efforts of a single provider, which would act as a switchboard. I won’t be so naïve as to pretend not to know what Facebook’s ultimate goal is, considering its user-as-a-product philosophy, which is exactly what’s behind this year’s “frictionless sharing” announcement. (If I’m not that naïve, Facebook isn’t either, so drop the act, Zuckerberg.)

I’m not saying that the single provider isn’t strong enough to become this sort of switchboard (Facebook definitely is, and so is Google), but that it wouldn’t be good for the user. The switchboard should, rather, be in the hands of the user himself. And when I say hands, I mean cellphone, or computer, or tablet—possibly all of them.

My favorite feature in Apple’s iOS 5 is the notification center, which finally puts some order in incoming notifications, and although there’s always room for improvement, we’re several steps ahead of what we used to have just a couple of months ago.

I obviously don’t know what Apple has in store for the future of iOS or Mac OS, but when it comes to message systems it should be braver than it has been with iMessages. iMessages is definitely interesting, but it’s limiting. To be truly useful, all the people you normally exchange texts with should be using iOS 5 (isn’t that Apple’s goal?), but as cool as that would be (I’m a fan, after all) it will never happen.

Instead, what would be more practical is if my phone (whatever the brand and the operating system) had a message system as centralized as the notification center in iOS that would receive, send and store incoming and outgoing messages. Message apps would tap into this system (I imagine it could be called something like Core Messages in Apple’s OSs) just as they do with notifications. I think we’re seeing just a hint of that in iOS 5’s Twitter integration.

Of course there would still be the issue of feeding the system the right information on your contacts’ preferred medium (although the system could simply learn from experience), but it would simplify many lives. Instead of checking e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, or just having to open different apps to respond to different kinds of messages, these tasks would be performed by a single interface, by a single app that would be hooked at the system’s level to all the different services. The switchboard would be the device, not the provider. And the whole system should be open, so that moving all your switchboard to a different device should be as easy as moving your address book (which I also hope will become increasingly easier).