Messaging's mission impossible: One inbox to rule them all

My phone buzzes. I glance at it and see a text message from my husband, who wants to know if I can pick him up from work. Later that day, my phone buzzes again. This time, it's a Facebook Messenger notification from my mother, who wants to chat about an upcoming trip. At the same time, a friend pings me using Twitter's Direct Messages. Next, a colleague strikes up a conversation on Google Hangouts. Realizing it would be easier to handle all of these with a computer, I flip open my laptop so I can chat with everyone simultaneously. Within the span of a few hours, I've chatted with four different people on four completely different messaging platforms. And the juggling doesn't stop there.

It used to be that sending an SMS was enough. Now there's a seemingly endless number of ways to stay in touch with someone. And it's not just dedicated messaging apps like WhatsApp or Line either. Instagram added direct messaging this past December; Vine followed suit earlier this April; and even Pinterest joined the bandwagon recently by letting pinners chat with other pinners. And, of course, Twitter has had direct messaging for almost eight years now. While variety and choice are generally good things, all of these messaging services introduce a perplexing problem: We have too many inboxes.

Being able to send messages within different applications isn't all bad, of course. If I think of an interesting photo or video I want to share with just my friends on Instagram, I can do so within the app easily. The same with Pinterest -- I can continue the collaboration process of pinning designs and planning a home remodel, for example, without having to use another messaging service. And, of course, messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are a lot cheaper to use than traditional SMS -- for US users at least, there's no need to fork over exorbitant messaging fees every month or, if you're on a limited plan, cough up pennies with every text.

But the problem is all of these messaging services and apps are siloed experiences. Messages can't be shared outside of their respective ecosystems. Worse still, I have an obligation to use all of them because different people in my social circle use different apps. When I travelled to Malaysia earlier this year, WhatsApp was the app of choice amongst my friends. A couple of my other pals use Snapchat, so I have that installed on my phone too. A few other early adopter friends (most of whom are admittedly tech writers like myself) use Slingshot, Facebook's Snapchat alternative, so I've got that as well. I also installed Path's Talk app and Line to chat with a few people, though they were mostly to exchange fun stickers. I even downloaded that silly Yo app, even if I only ever use it in jest.

Forrester researcher Thomas Husson said in a report on messaging apps entitled "Messaging Apps: Mobile Becomes The New Face Of Social" that the "fragmented nature of the social media ecosystem is inherent to the fact that individuals have multiple identities." Basically, people use different apps and networks for different reasons. For example, people tend to use LinkedIn to talk with potential business partners, while they might use Facebook Messenger only with friends or family. Further, some messaging apps tend to be more popular in certain parts of the world -- Line, for example, has a stronger following in Asia -- which, if you have friends all over the globe, would mean you're constantly switching between services.

What's the big deal, you might ask? Our smartphones and computers are certainly more than capable of handling these disparate systems, and besides, it's not that difficult to switch between apps, right? Well, sure, but that doesn't make it any less annoying. I shouldn't have to have a dozen different messaging apps on my phone to talk with all the people in my life. Chris Heuer, a longtime social media user and CEO of Alynd, a social business startup, expresses the same frustration over too many apps: "I think what's missing in this whole discussion on messaging now is that the messaging is now often done within the context, instead of messaging being the context." It's the reason why he dislikes the fragmentation of Facebook Messenger away from the core Facebook app. "Now I have another app I have to open and that will waste more time I don't have ... I've got enough apps. I want less, not more."

Several years ago, there was a similar problem with too many instant-messaging protocols. I used all of them -- AOL, Yahoo, MSN, GChat and, yes, even ICQ. I remember installing all of these apps on my computer and keeping them all logged in at the same time because, for some reason, my friends and coworkers just couldn't agree on the same IM platform. Then, something wonderful happened. All-in-one apps like Trillian and Adium came along to unite most of the disparate IM services under one program. At last, I could launch just one app to chat with everyone.

What we need, then, is an equivalent universal inbox for messaging. No, not just for all your email and text messages. For everything. We need a smart inbox that'll sort messages by service, label them appropriately and will let you continue conversations within just one app.

There are a few solutions out there that come close to solving the problem. The Hangouts app for Android, for example, is able to handle both Google's IM system and text messages. If you're a loyal BlackBerry fan, you already know that the OS from Waterloo has a unified inbox that can house emails, texts and messages from Facebook, Twitter and other social networks in one place. is an Android app currently in alpha that promises to combine SMS, WhatsApp, Hangouts and Facebook messaging in one place as well. There's also an app called Messages+ that promises to do the same thing, though it seems to fall short -- it doesn't support incoming messages for WhatsApp and we weren't able to use it to send a message on Facebook.

BlackBerry's Hub comes the closest to being that universal inbox, and after numerous emails and comments from users, I agree that the Hub does do a lot of what I'm asking for. But not every messaging app is available for the BlackBerry OS and it doesn't quite fit the model of a Trillian or an Adium -- I don't need to buy a specific phone to use them. Ideally a real universal inbox would be a solution that would work with all platforms and with all apps, regardless of what phone you have. Which is, sad to say, probably more fantasy than reality. Not only because most of these apps are walled gardens, but also because some, like Snapchat and Slingshot, are based around messages that are meant to disappear after you've read them. Further, new messaging features and apps crop up all the time, making it tough to keep something like a universal inbox up-to-date.

The alternate solution, of course, is to insist on just one communication method for people to contact you. You probably won't be able to keep in touch with as many people in your life, and it might be harder for people to reach you. But, perhaps, that's the price to pay for sanity.

Hold on, my phone's buzzing again.

(UPDATE: We've included a bit more information about BlackBerry's Hub in the post. Thanks for the comments!)