source-codesource codeauthorDavid PierceNoneWant your finger on the pulse of everything that's happening in tech? Sign up to get David Pierce's daily newsletter.64fd3cbe9f
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

People

Beeper built the universal messaging app the world needed

It's an app for all your social apps. And part of an entirely new way to think about chat.

Beeper app

Beeper is an app for all your messaging apps, including the hard-to-access ones.

Image: Beeper

Eric Migicovsky likes to tinker. And the former CEO of Pebble — he's now a partner at Y Combinator — knows a thing or two about messaging. "You remember on the Pebble," he asked me, "how we had this microphone, and on Android you could reply to all kinds of messages?" Migicovsky liked that feature, and he especially liked that it didn't care which app you used. Android-using Pebble wearers could speak their replies to texts, Messenger chats, almost any notification that popped up.

That kind of universal, non-siloed approach to messaging appealed to Migicovsky, and it didn't really exist anywhere else. "Remember Trillian from back in the day?" he asked, somewhat wistfully. "Or Adium?" They were the gold-standard of universal messaging apps; users could log in to their AIM, MSN, GChat and Yahoo accounts, and chat with everyone in one place.

Migicovsky has spent the last two years building a modern equivalent. It's called Beeper, and it pulls 15 different messaging services — including WhatsApp, Slack, Instagram and iMessage — into a single app. The app launched this week, and will cost $10 a month for anyone who wants to use it. Migicovsky said roughly 40 people have been using the app for the last few months, and that he's come to rely on it completely. "Beeper went down for me a couple of weeks ago, and I had to fix it," he said. "And for the hours I was fixing it, I had to open up Slack, Telegram, Signal, everything. It was like going back to the Stone Ages."

To explain how Beeper works, and why Migicovsky thinks it's valuable, you have to understand the protocols. In the early days of online messaging (otherwise known as The Adium Era), many messaging services were based on a protocol called Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, or XMPP. When it was designed, XMPP intended to make all kinds of communication on the internet, from text to video to file transfers, into decentralized systems. For a while, it worked: From AIM to Google Talk to the early days of Facebook Chat, some of the biggest messaging services used XMPP.

A few years later, Google and Facebook — and soon others — decided to stop supporting XMPP. Some argued XMPP was too complicated a protocol and simply didn't work; others said they could develop features more quickly by keeping everything in-house. "Today, group conversations, sharing your day with stickers or emojis and messaging across multiple devices have become second nature to many of us," Google product manager Mayur Kamat wrote in 2015 announcing the switch from Google Talk (which supported XMPP) to Hangouts (which didn't). Whatever the reason, messaging apps soon became walled gardens, with everything run — and stored — in one place.

In the last few years, though, a group of developers has been building a new protocol, one they hope can offer all the openness and decentralization of XMPP but with all the modern features people need now: encryption, voice and video, integrations with other apps and the like. It's called Matrix. "Matrix is our effort to right the balance" after decades of great tech being turned into walled gardens, said Matthew Hodgson, Matrix's technical co-founder. "If you were going to build the holy grail of messaging," the team asked themselves several years ago — a service where anyone can participate, where everything is encrypted, where nothing is locked off from the ecosystem — "what would it look like?" Some of this tech has been built in the past, but always inside a single company or service. They wanted to build it and give it to the internet.

Ultimately, Hodgson said, Matrix is more than a messaging protocol. "It's a real-time database for any kind of information," he said, from financial tickers to drone flights to VR streams. "Matrix just gives you the building blocks to synchronize it between different deployments." Messaging just happens to be something with which Hodgson and his team have plenty of experience. Not to mention, it's kind of a killer app. Matrix-based messaging can support a whole ecosystem of apps, the way email protocols do. It's all end-to-end encrypted, and it's resilient by virtue of not being housed in a single data center.

"When Slack goes down for six hours," Hodgson said, "or Signal goes down for 24 hours, people realize, 'hang on, all my eggs are in one basket.'" There are already decentralized, harder-to-kill apps like Slack or Signal running on Matrix, where there's less security risk or possibility of downtime. He added: "The narrative is swinging in our direction." Millions of users use Matrix messaging tools already, he said, including the entire French government, which uses a Slack-like tool called Element that is built by the Matrix team.

Beeper chats Beeper tries to wrangle lots of messaging apps into one. Eventually, that might not be necessary.Image: Beeper

Matrix is key to Beeper, but in a slightly different way. Migicovsky isn't trying to build a brand-new chat service to compete with WhatsApp; he's trying to wrangle all the services people use into a system that feels more open. So he's taking advantage of a Matrix feature called Bridges, which pulls other apps into the Matrix ecosystem. Sometimes this is easy: Migicovsky said IRC and Telegram have great APIs, making it easy to send and read messages from other apps. Most others are a bit hackier, though Migicovsky said it's rarely impossible: "If you can open something in a browser, we can get to it."

One of Beeper's most enticing integrations is with iMessage, which would mean users could access their iMessages on Android or Windows through the Beeper app. This one is stupendously hacky. If a Beeper user has a Mac that's always on and connected to the internet, it's easy; Beeper just connects to the same relay that delivers messages to all your Apple devices, and sends them to Beeper. But if you don't have a Mac that fits the description, there's only one way in. "We wrote an app for jailbroken iPhones that acts as a relay," Migicovsky said. "There's a database on the iPhone called sms.db. And so we just read and write to that."

But wait, it gets hackier! There's no way to get everyone to jailbreak their iPhones, so Migicovsky found a workaround. "I buy used old cracked-screen iPhones for cheap," he said. "I jailbreak them, and send them to people with the app installed. And they just set it up and leave it somewhere connected to Wi-Fi." There's a box full of semi-busted iPhones, all the way back to the iPhone 4, on his desk right now. The plan works, though it doesn't exactly scale. "We tried a lot of different things," Migicovsky said. "It might not be like this forever."

There's one part of this setup that Migicovsky actually quite likes. "You control the phone," he said. All the code is open source, and Beeper encrypts all messages; only users have their passwords to access them. But if you really don't want Beeper getting your texts anymore, just unplug that jailbroken iPhone, and you're done.

Migicovsky has lots of ideas for how to improve Beeper as a product, and messaging in general. "No one has really innovated in chat in the last 10 years," he said, before allowing that maybe Slack and Discord get a little credit. But that's it. He's not sure what better looks like, though. He's intrigued by new ways to sort and organize messages, even how threads could look. "I'm really just excited about having this ... not a blank canvas, a malleable canvas," he said.

The list of places people message seems to get longer every day, and Migicovsky wants Beeper to support them all. "I want to build LinkedIn and Snapchat, and I'm not dating but a lot of people want Tinder messages on this," he said. He's not trying to replace those apps entirely, though. "Discord's amazing," he said, by way of example. "It has cool animations, you have the audio chat that's really good, it's got this social element." For Discord things, people should use Discord. But texting with friends or sharing photos shouldn't be a Discord thing. Or an Instagram thing, or a WhatsApp thing, or a Signal thing, or a Slack thing. It definitely shouldn't be all of those, separately.

"It would be wonderful if we didn't have to build what we built," Migicovsky said. "And you could just look me up, like in a phone book or something, and say, 'I want to talk to Eric.'" In the long run, Matrix might help make that possible — already, it appears some of Twitter's decentralization work through Project Bluesky is being done on Matrix, and Hodgson said he's had conversations with a number of big players in the tech world about build a more open and interoperable messaging ecosystem. For now, the best anyone can do is put everything in one place. It's hacky, but it's progress.
People

No editing, no hashtags: Dispo wants you to live in the moment

David Dobrik's new photography app harkens back to the days of the disposable camera.

Dispo turns the concept of a photography app into something altogether different.

Image: Katya Sapozhnina, Diana Morgan, Amanda Luke

Instagram was once a place to share Starbucks cups and high-contrast pet photos. After Facebook acquired it in 2012, it has turned into a competition of getting as many likes as possible (using the same formula over and over: post the best highly-curated, edited photos with the funniest captions). More recently, it's essentially become a shopping mall, with brands falling over themselves to be heard through the noise. Doing something "for the gram" — scaling buildings, posting the same cringe picture over and over — became the norm. Pop-up museums litter cities with photo ops for posts; "camera eats first"; everything can be a cute Instagram story; everything is content.

And to be clear, Dispo — a buzzy new photography app that just came out of beta — is still a place for content. It probably isn't going to fix our collective online brains and their inclination to share everything about our private lives with others online. It's still an app, and it's still social media, and it encourages documenting your life. But it runs pretty differently than any other image-sharing app out there. And that might be what helps it stand out in an oversaturated market of social networking apps.

Keep Reading Show less
Jane Seidel

Jane Seidel is Protocol's social media manager. She was previously a platform producer at The Wall Street Journal, creating mobile content and crafting alert strategy. Prior to that, she worked in audience development at WSJ and on digital editorial at NBC Universal. She lives in Brooklyn.

Sponsored Content

Building better relationships in the age of all-remote work

How Stripe, Xero and ModSquad work with external partners and customers in Slack channels to build stronger, lasting relationships.

Image: Original by Damian Zaleski

Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

Keep Reading Show less
People

Citizen’s plan to keep people safe (and beat COVID-19) with an app

Citizen CEO Andrew Frame talks privacy, safety, coronavirus and the future of the neighborhood watch.

Citizen added COVID-19 tracking to its app over the summer — but its bigger plans got derailed.

Photo: Citizen

Citizen is an app built on the idea that transparency is a good thing. It's the place users — more than 7 million of them, in 28 cities with many more to come soon — can find out when there's a crime, a protest or an incident of any kind nearby. (Just yesterday, it alerted me, along with 17,900 residents of Washington, D.C., that it was about to get very windy. It did indeed get windy.) Users can stream or upload video of what's going on, locals can chat about the latest incidents and everyone's a little safer at the end of the day knowing what's happening in their city.

At least, that's how CEO Andrew Frame sees it. Critics of Citizen say the app is creating hordes of voyeurs, incentivizing people to run into dangerous situations just to grab a video, and encouraging racial profiling and other problematic behaviors all under the guise of whatever "safety" means. They say the app promotes paranoia, alerting users to things that they don't actually need to know about. (That the app was originally called "Vigilante" doesn't help its case.)

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Power

Libby is stuck between libraries and publishers in the e-book war

Readers love the Libby app, but its newfound popularity is costing librarians more than they can afford.

Librarians depend on Libby, but they also worry that its newfound popularity could seriously strain their budgets.

Photo: Alfons Morales/Unsplash

On the surface, there couldn't be a more wholesome story than the meteoric rise of the Libby app. A user-friendly reading app becomes popular during the pandemic, making books cool again for young readers, multiplying e-book circulation and saving public libraries from sudden obsolescence.

But the Libby story is also a parable for how the best-intentioned people can build a beloved technological tool and accidentally create a financial crisis for those who need the tech most. Public librarians depend on Libby, but they also worry that its newfound popularity could seriously strain their budgets.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Latest Stories