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Which Messaging App Should You Use?

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The hottest topic in the town – as a faithful user of Signal for last one year, I wanted to state my case for and against each app.

Like everyone else, I started with WhatsApp and installed Telegram back in 2015 to try it out. Soon I started seeing the posts of friends I most interact with on WhatsApp top my Facebook feed, confirming my hypothesis that Facebook paid $19 billion to acquire WhatsApp for a reason – user data.

A year ago, my friend introduced me to Signal. WhatsApp was getting bloated again, with new features like Status etc. – a feature I am not a fan of. Signal was simple, does its job, without any other annoyances. I’ve had only one friend on Signal – until 8th January 2021 – for 3 days, my phone kept buzzing with messages as mine was the only contact most people found as they joined Signal.

Before we begin, let me clarify one thing: the present scare that WhatsApp will snoop into your chats is untrue – as WhatsApp clarified, they cannot read your messages, only user data like whom you chat with, other data in your phone like contacts and apps installed will be tracked. It’s nothing new – they have been doing it for ages, and Facebook was using it to enhance ads in Facebook/Instagram all these years. The only change is that the data will be shared with other advertisers now.

Without much drama, let me enter the comparison – starting with Signal. The parameters comparison in the order of preference are:

  1. Privacy
  2. Security
  3. Focus on Key Feature
  4. Ease of Use
  5. Customisation
  6. Learning Curve
  7. Backup
  8. User Base
  9. Additional Features

Along with these questions, I’ll also be looking into for what purpose I’ll be using each platform.

Final Scorecard

Most of the times I read a software review, I have to scroll down to see the conclusion before the content. I thought I’ll save you the trouble! Here’s the verdict in a nutshell (Ranked 1,2,3 – 1 / Best, 2 / Neutral, 3 / Bad):

SignalTelegramWhatsAppNotes
Privacy133Two 3’s? Did I mark it wrongly?
Security132
Focus132
Ease132
Customisation312
Learning Curve132Highly depends on the focus to the core functionality.
Backup312
User Base211Two 1’s again!
Additional FeaturesManages SMS/MMS, Secured BackUp.Bots, Infinite Groups, Data Saved in Server.Statuses to enhance Social Features, BackUp in Google Drive.

I’m not a huge fan of UI customisation, and do not mind remembering a 4-digit pin to recover my messages – hence, my obvious choice is Signal. Now with more people on Signal, it’s more ideal these days.

Detailed Description

Signal

  1. Privacy: Not a question on it. OpenSource (means no one can inject a malicious code as each line of code is reviewed by many others and you can do it yourself if you want!), donation driven (not ad/profit-driven), developed by the privacy-focused foundation – the situation is Utopian when it comes to privacy!
  2. Security: Each chat is end-to-end encrypted by default. Your data stays on your phone/tablet and is highly encrypted between the sender and receiver. Disappearing messages exists and is highly customisable than other platforms.
  3. Focus on Key Feature: Signal is a messaging app, unlike the other two. It can be used to message – that’s it! The only other feature in it is SMS/MMS management, reliability of which is time-tested! Prevents the need for a separate app to manage Messaging! There are no bots, there’s no channels or broadcast messages, no games or statuses.
  4. Ease of Use: If you have sent an SMS on your phone, you are all set. The only difference is that you have to long-press the send button to switch between Online/SMS modes. Other than that, it’s straightforward! Calls logs are a part of the chat, making it more intuitive and UI less cluttered.
  5. Customisation: Least beauty conscious! There’s a Dark Theme if you want. You can change the colour code for each user, too. There’s nothing to tweak in the UI, it’s minimal.
  6. Learning Curve: Nada. As I said earlier, if you’ve sent an SMS, you’re all set to start using Signal! But they will make you set a pin to your backup files – which they will keep verifying to assure that you don’t forget that pin. You can switch off those reminders in the settings.
  7. Backup: When it comes to the safety of Backup vs. Ease of Recovering messages, Signal gives the first priority at the cost of ease of use. The PIN you set is everything – if you lose it, you lose your backed up messages. That’s justified – WhatsApp trusts your backup files if you re-register with the same number, Signal adds a layer of security.
  8. User base: Has a rapidly growing user base after Elon Musk’s two-word tweet: “Use Signal”. For example, I had one friend on Signal till 8th January, it’s nearly 80-100 in a week. All of them agree that it’s nearly zero work to learn to use the app.
  9. Additional Features: They’ve Kept It Simple but not Stupid. SMS/MMS management as mentioned earlier is the only added feature, as mentioned earlier. This minimalist approach attracts me the most of Signal.

Possible Use: If you’re someone who wants to message, and prefer security and privacy over anything else. If you’re using it for official business. Other two are ad-driven, profit-minded apps known to snoop into your data.

Telegram

  1. Privacy: Telegram claims not to read your messages. Telegram claims that your data is safe. Are they?
    1. There’s no proof beyond the claim. Their funding so far is questionable.
    2. Secure-chats are like Signal’s. End-to-end encrypted. Unless you start a Secure-chat manually, default chats are NOT encrypted. But 90% of the users are tricked into believing that it’s secure.
    3. Bots need permission to read your messages and those bots can be used to snoop into your group chats. Aka, it’s not just the profit-minded makers you have to worry about, it’s random users too!
    4. Telegram has plans to monetize some features and generate profit. So far, monetization is synonymous to compromises to data privacy of users!
    5. 90% (all messages except secure chat) of your messages are stored in their server – is it safe? Servers are distributed across the globe, but still, the thought of a copy of it, not end-to-end encrypted sounds scary.
    Bottom line: Can we trust a corporate because they claim they’re secure and keeps boasting about it / seems to have links with the Russian Government? History says no.
  2. Security: 1. Telegram has open user director which is ON by default. That means it’s not just the people with your phone number who can reach you, random users can search and find you. It can be switched off, but that involves digging deep into the settings.
    2. Bot-platform is not foolproof
    3. Telegram claims to support free speech. No wonder it was used by ISIS as their primary medium to spread the propaganda. Open user directory adds to the damage. Also, the main tool used to share pirated content – with an immunity pin from the Russian Government, nobody can put a cap to it.
    4. Telegram is also a protocol. Too many clients out there based on the protocol and they can all read your messages if activated.
    5. Disappearing messages exist, especially in Secret-chats.
    Bottom line: Secure the way it’s built, but with tonnes of loopholes!
  3. Focus on Key Feature: The least among the three! Telegram’s developer does not call it an Instant Messaging app, rather, a Social Media. It’s a beast! It has public groups, and integration of bot-network makes it most suitable for businesses. Infinite member groups are attracting a lot of businesses to Telegram, given WhatsApp limits the number of users to 256. Channels in Telegram are more sensible than Broadcast messages in WhatsApp.
    Bottom line: It’s least focussed on chat, though it’s built around it.
  4. Ease of Use: Bloated. Too bloated. You can’t run away from the features you don’t want, they come searching for you. You can’t turn them off either, and they keep adding new features every now and then! They plan on adding many more features like CryptoCurrency trading, ads etc. to the platform to make it more confusing.
  5. Customisation: The heaven when it comes to Customisations! You can fine-tune many features in the app in the settings! Many components of UI can also be tweaked, with multiple unofficial clients which lets you use many more features.
  6. Learning Curve: Worst. As a new user, you’re shown the tip of the iceberg – the chat features. Even if they wish not to explore further, the advanced features come haunting the users once they try searching for a friend (and find a thousand “John Does” listed in results).
  7. Backup: Not a question here! All data is saved on the server except Secure-chat. Secure chat cannot be backed up, will be removed if you re-install Telegram.
  8. User base: It’s got a strong user base around the globe! Mostly used to download pirated movies etc. around this part of the world, though. Many leave it as a dormant secondary chat application.
  9. Additional Features: It’s not an IM, it’s a Social Media. It’s bloated! You can delete a message without leaving a trace (unlike WhatsApp and Signal, which leaves a note that a message was deleted. Is it a good feature or bad? Say, I told someone to say “I killed John Doe” and he did so. I delete my message, leaving no trace of my request to tell him to do so. Lowers the credibility to a great extent, though gives bonus points for privacy.

Possible Use: As a teacher, Telegram is my most favoured platform for teaching. Though at the cost of privacy, features like in-line Wikipedia search, timed quizzes, bots to render latex/mathematics, to search Wolfram Alpha – it’s feature-rich. So, if to teach, this is my most favoured platform, but not for personal messaging.

WhatsApp

  1. Privacy: Facebook-owned, profit-driven company. Need to say more? They already use your statistics to enhance services in Facebook/Instagram, now want to ‘help’ their friends – the reason it is in question.
    WhatsApp collects data like the people you chat with, groups you are a member of, Businesses you reach out to etc. to enhance their services/ads on platforms like Facebook/Instagram.
  2. Security: It’s secure. Each chat is E2E encrypted, unlike Telegram. They read everything else on your phone, including app usage stats, but not the chat messages you send. Your data is handled wisely, too. WhatsApp recently introduced disappearing messages, with a fixed 7-day lifespan per message, unlike others, where it’s customisable.
  3. Focus on Key Feature: Statuses are a double-edged sword. For a user, it’s way to engage their friends, keep them posted about what’s happening with their life.
    For WhatsApp on the other hand, it’s a mode through which they addict the users to the platform. Facebook with its infinite NewsFeed has learned the trick to make users not leave their platform: give them something to scroll/swipe/click with no consequences and gives them a fake impression of interaction with the person who posted it.
  4. Ease of Use: 4 tabs, with Chats as the default tab. Switch between tabs with a swipe. To give Statuses the prime focus, they introduced the “Call Log” tab. There’s no way to switch off the Status tab whether you need it or not. Your only option is not to swipe left or right (camera) by mistake.
  5. Customisation: No UI tweaks like Telegram. You can change chat background, use dark/light themes. That’s almost it.
  6. Learning Curve: UI is intuitive, Chat, Call, set Status/see other’s status. Other things like Broadcast list/Groups won’t bother you unless you go searching for them.
  7. Backup: Set it once and forget. Google Drive (Cloud) backup is a key feature – but if your backup is > 500MB, it mostly fails to recover even over a 50mbps connection. Backups are not well-encrypted on uninstall. Simply re-install and reactivate with an OTP, WhatsApp will recover your messages. It gives bonus points to Ease of Use, but at the cost of security. Signal’s approach is more sensible – the 4-digit pin over the OTP activation method.
  8. User base: Has the biggest user base among the three. Had its trust before Facebook acquired it, but a bit devious after the overpaid acquisition – casting a shadow of mistrust.
  9. Additional Features: Statuses and heavy user data tracking with no hint on how they are used are the only additional features. Wait. Cloud data backup too, in Google Drive. That’s something unique to WhatsApp.

Possible Use: Most of your friends are still in WhatsApp and they haven’t moved to Signal yet. Work/School groups are in WhatsApp and they refuse to move. You like the attention Statuses bring, just like Instagram.

BUT try not to use it for business/official communication. Not worth the risk, given that the tracking platform is still evolving with NO option to opt-out of it. Signal is your only go!

So, the answer is, it completely depends on you! I prefer Ease of use even more than even privacy and security, therefore on Signal and completely purged personal WhatsApp two days ago.

As for official WhatsApp, it runs in an isolated Sandbox, giving it no access to my personal contacts and/or data – I switch it “on” only when needed (a click away). Hopefully will discuss the trick with you someday soon.

There’s another honourable mention called “Confide” but I would suggest that only for corporate communication. It’s not usable otherwise.

What’s your take on it? Leave your opinion in the comments!

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