The great Signal migration

Earlier this month, WhatsApp announced a new privacy policy that users would have to either accept or stop using the app. The new terms dictated that WhatsApp would be allowed to share data with its parent, Facebook. Tech companies not being the most popular right now, there was a sizable backlash, at least amongst the internet’s geek population. Signal went from niche to mainstream practically overnight, reaching downloads in excess of 1M/day. This was largely thanks to WhatsApp backlash, but also with a little help from Elon Musk.

The situation was a little overwrought given that there didn’t seem to be anything to suggest that WhatsApp would take it a step further and start reading messages (end-to-end encryption will still be in place), and it’s likely that about 99% of WhatsApp users who were aware that Facebook owned the app already assumed to it was sharing metadata, including me. Still, I don’t have a shred of loyalty to WhatsApp, which I installed under duress as seemingly the only viable alternative to SMS for communicating with Android users, so I installed Signal enthusiastically.

I was curious to see what would happen next. Signal notifies you when someone in your address book joins the App, and over the next few weeks there was a noticeable increase in Signal installations amongst people I knew. A few new names would pop up every day. One of my group chats made the executive decision to try and fully migrate over to Signal. For weeks the predictable happened – it was less of a migration and more of a bifurcation as the two groups were both active independently, but as of today, the last two people migrated to Signal. Success! But that said, most of the active WhatsApp users I know made no attempt to move. Most people outside the tech industries were probably unaware that anything was even changing.

Signal’s encryption design is impressive, but that’s its best feature. It has an Electron-based macOS app which is largely the same as WhatsApp’s, but a bit worse. Its design is rough, its layout uninspired with about three parts whitespace and extras for every one part message, and it forces users through the same painful QR-code-via-phone login flow as WhatsApp. Syncing message history between devices seems to just … not work. Its functional enough, and that’s about the best one could say for it.

Inevitably, moving to Signal didn’t actually let me drop WhatsApp, it just added Signal. Any of us who are tech adjacent seem to have just accepted that we must be citizens of the world when it comes to chat. By my count I now use five chat clients every day of the week: Google Hangouts, iMessage, Slack, WhatsApp, and now Signal. I even have others installed like Facebook Messenger and Discord, but thankfully don’t have any regulars on there.

A whole bunch of chat apps

Remember Trillian, Adium, and Bitlbee? Not only did they bridge that platform gap, but they took up only a little corner of your screen and used screen real estate efficiently. Those were the days. I used Bitlbee until maybe five years ago, but eventually fell off as protocols continued to trend more closed, small compatibility problems started adding up, and mobile became so much more an important part of the total equation. All these problems still exist, but even so, I’m seriously thinking about trying again.

The great Signal migration

January 23, 2021

Find me on Twitter at @brandur.

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