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.
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