Thursday, January 27, 2011

Kik Messenger: One Feature Pack Away From Perfection

I've found that I'm now splitting my time quite a bit between London (where I live) and New York City (where OpenGamma's second investor lives, and where we're opening an office). As such, I've started facing some of the major issues faced by modern, fully-connected individuals dealing with multiple countries on a regular basis.

In Which Americans Fear International Dialing

So let's start with one very simple fact: Americans, as a whole, have a dramatic aversion to ever, under any circumstances, dialing a foreign phone number. Partially this is because they can call the entire United States, as well as Canada, without having to ever learn how to dial properly internationally. Partially this is a reflection that every US carrier (landline or mobile) will shaft you if you dare to dial a foreign phone number without planning very far in advance. Partially this is because except for a few key, international industries and roles within those industries, Americans just don't have to do this on a regular basis. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that for a massively large cross-section of USAmerica, international phone numbers may as well simply not exist.

Europeans are far more used to dialing internationally: we have to. If you had to dial internationally to dial someone living in the next state, you'd get more used to it. If I try to give out a British phone number to a French restaurant to reserve a table, I just say "country code 44" or if typing, "+44" and they know what to do. In America, you start with "country code" and before you know it, someone's asking you if you have a US phone number. If you don't, they just don't bother.

So if you spend much time in the US, you need a US phone number. Which I now have.

In Which Mobile Carriers Shaft You

So let's consider all the ways in which mobile carriers will shaft you, the well meaning international traveller:

  • You'd like to place a call from your phone, physically located abroad, to your home country? That'd be an extortionate charge, thank you very much.
  • You'd like to place a call from your phone, physically located abroad, to somewhere next door to where you're physically located? That'd be an extortionate charge, thank you very much.
  • You'd like to receive a call on your phone while physically located abroad? That'd be an extortionate charge, thank you very much.
  • You'd like to do something as daft as call a third-party country while abroad? That'd be at least double the extortionate charges as the ones before.
  • You'd like to turn on data roaming and actually consume mobile data? Hold on to your wallet; you'd be shocked and horrified at just how much that's going to cost you. In fact, don't bother. For the price of a one-week trip, you can buy a throwaway smartphone and SIM if you're willing to use a second device.

For all those reasons, when I set out to get a US phone number, I made sure that it was on a smartphone (Android; separate blog post to come on a long-standing iPhone partisan learning his way around Android). This way I should, in theory, cover all my bases: iPhone + UK home number when in the UK (and phone/SMS roaming in case someone should call me from home); Android + US phone number when in the US (and phone/SMS roaming in case someone should call me from the US).

There was just one problem: trying to corral all my SMS conversations.

Enter Kik

Those of you on O2's shockingly horrifically bad (think: you have to get over the thought that your SMS messages will reach their destination in less than a few days, if at all) SMS service will feel me when I say that SMS rocks, but O2's provision of it is virtually unusable.

Given the amount of time that I spend abroad, and given how bad SMS is for O2 iPhone users here in London, I thought I'd give Kik a try.

Kik's a great service, in that it's Just Like SMS, with a few key advantages:

  • It's instant. I've sent Kik messages between two devices next to each other, and they're very often delivered within the 100ms that defines human reaction time.
  • You can see when they've been handed off to the recipient device, and when they've been read.
  • It uses your data allocation rather than SMS allocation, which in this world of millions of free messages a month isn't that useful, but when you're abroad and SMS-ing people all over the world, it matters.

Basically, the best way to explain it is that Kik is Blackberry Messenger for any smartphone device, which is why RIM kicked it off the Blackberry.

So I got excited, and convinced the majority of the people that I text the most to get Kik.

Aside: The Dataficiation of Primary Phone Functionality

One of the most interesting things that I find about Kik and Skype and all manner of other services coming to smartphones is the conversion of functionality that used to be specific and dedicated to the phone networks to pure data-only plays. Phone calls? Skype/VOIP over your data connection. SMS? Kik. MMS? Facebook photo upload. Video calling? Facetime/Skype. All these things that mobile carriers built very specific functionality for in their networks are being very quickly replaced by equivalent (but superior) functionality delivered over the data pipe. I reckon it won't be very long before the first iPhone/Android phone (or carrier plan) that only works with data, and doesn't have dedicated logic for phone calls and the like.

Kik Shows Its Limitations

So I'm prepared. I've got my iPhone for the UK, I've got my Galaxy S for the US, I've got a bunch of people on Kik, I'm ready to go.

And then I actually try to use it in the manner I was intending. It doesn't work as I thought it would. D'oh!

Kik only supports a one-device-per-account model. Log in using your Android phone? It now gets all messages, and your iPhone gets none. And it only gets new messages. History? Nope.

Log back in on your iPhone? Your Android phone gets logged off, and you lose all the old messages you already had on your iPhone.

This is not what I had in mind, and as a result (it took me a while to actually figure this out) I just went back to SMS on my most recent trip to the states. At least then I've got history (though of course it's not across devices).

The Ultimate Feature Enhancement

So let's get to the meat of this long-winded tale. What would make Kik really solve my instant-IM-on-a-phone conundrum? Better support for multiple devices.

What does that mean in practice?

  • I can log in from multiple devices simultaneously
  • When I log in from a new device, full history of conversations is downloaded
  • When a new message comes in, it's delivered to all logged-in devices (and the message has been read notification follows the first one on which I read it)
  • When I send a message on one device, the sent message gets delivered to all other devices.

Here's the thing: I'm actually willing to pay (and pretty handsomely) for an enhanced version of the application/service that does this. You want to make it a paid-for enhancement? 100% fine by me. Just say the word.

So Kik team, ball's in your court. Great service, 90% of what I want, highly recommended in general if you live on one device, just that last bit needed to satisfy the multi-device, multi-national crowd.


Turns out this problem has left many people I introduced to Kik leaving the platform. I raised it on the official Kik GetSatisfaction page. Let's see if they respond.

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