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Breaking down walls in a world of siloed communication

Wed 17 Mar 2021 | Amandine Le Pape

The original world wide web was an open and decentralised system. Over the next few years, will we see a full circle return to an open standard that revolutionises real time communication?

Products from gatekeeper tech giants, such as Facebook’s WhatsApp, have been put under the spotlight recently for locking message app users into their services. These ‘walled gardens,’ and the proprietary technology stack behind them, are able to collect and harvest users’ data for profit; a business model which is increasingly opposed by businesses and consumers.

They also rely on the network effect, becoming big enough to force people to adopt them. If you have two billion users locked in a tech silo, others end up with little option but to join.

The European Union (EU) has recently started to hone in on this anti-competitive behaviour. In an effort to constrain tech giants’ market power, new legislation is being introduced. The Digital Markets Act (DMA) aims to ensure the openness of important digital services by preventing users from being locked into a particular service.

The move is a significant win for consumers and businesses as they will now be able to choose a messaging app based on what it offers, not who it offers. They can choose whichever app they prefer and communicate with anyone, no matter which app they choose. This type of silo-busting interoperability brings multiple benefits.

Islands of conversations, in different languages

As the world has become more digital, collaboration tools and messaging apps have seeped into the workplace; some officially sanctioned (mainly on the collaboration side), but the majority as unauthorised and uncontrolled shadow IT (especially messaging apps).

Traditional messaging apps and collaboration tools, such as WhatsApp and Slack, use problematic centralised systems which operate as isolated islands of communication.

Therefore one of the biggest problems faced by businesses is colleagues and clients can’t message each other unless both parties use the same service. This means businesses have to communicate over multiple collaboration platforms, usually paying eye watering licence fees. As for consumer-grade messaging apps, the problem is even worse. The workplace gets fractured according to message app preference, and those siloed conversations – internally and externally – take place with no oversight or auditing.

This is why we still see such a heavy reliance on email; due to its universal nature, organisations can contact anyone on any service with a clear audit trail of communication. It is a fundamental requirement for an organisation to ensure consistency and auditability across an ecosystem that encompasses internal staff, freelancers, contractors, partners, stakeholders, suppliers, outsourcers and customers.

Dirty linen conversation leaves companies out to dry

Workforce conversations are some of the most sensitive data for an organisation. It’s at least as sensitive as financial and customer data; it’s in-the-moment discussion, reflecting daily pressures and ‘what if’ scenarios. That such data takes place on consumer-grade messaging apps – where the data is potentially not encrypted, and stored on servers belonging to companies that won’t share it back with the company – is a huge liability.

Within collaboration tools, such as Slack and MS Teams, those conversations are also stored by the service provider and aren’t even end-to-end encrypted. Email fares little better, given its security flaws.

The benefits of real time communication really should make it a more attractive alternative to email. But collaboration and messaging need to be as universal as email before it’s a viable alternative. Combine that with end-to-end encryption, and real time messaging is the clear winner.

The most security-aware organisations – such as governments and regulated industries – will also need to be able to host their own messaging systems (be able to run it on-premise) so that they retain complete ownership and control.

The need for more effective, interoperable real time communication is clear. The challenge is a marketplace that’s reluctant to change.

Resistance will give way to acceptance

The owners of successful proprietary collaboration and messaging apps don’t have much appetite to open themselves to new competition.

Those that make their profits by exploiting user data will have to think about how they make their products more attractive if they can’t rely on locking users in. Those that distinguish themselves on security will be left standing if they can’t interact with others beyond their own walled garden.

Expensive collaboration tools will have to figure out how they can compete when interoperable alternatives offer missing functionality, such as end-to-end encryption.

But the change will come. The EU has warned if gatekeepers do not comply with the DMA, they could face billions of dollars of fines or even be ordered to break up their businesses.

A combination of regulatory pressure, customer demand and emerging competition will force traditional collaboration and messaging apps to consider how to best knock down their own walled gardens and interoperate with other services. WhatsApp’s privacy announcement debacle has already shown that consumer sentiment is changing.

With interoperability inevitable, the question is how?

An open standard for real time communications

Open source, open standard technology, such as Matrix, is the most obvious way to bring interoperability to real time communications. Matrix-based apps will interoperate, and the Matrix protocol can bridge to proprietary stacks as well. That offers traditional apps an instant route to interoperability; with a logical progression for the likes of Facebook Messenger, Signal, Slack and WhatsApp to have their own apps migrate to become Matrix native.

Being decentralised Matrix can be used transparently as on-premise or SaaS deployments, allowing users to truly be in control of their data. Matrix also supports end-to-end encryption and cross-signed device verification, and is in the early stages of offering peer-to-peer operations, which also work on mesh networks for areas with no communications infrastructure. A feature which empowers users to have absolute, total autonomy and ownership over their conversations as they only exist on the devices they own.

The original world wide web was an open and decentralised system. What we’ll see over the next few years is a full circle return to an open standard that revolutionises real time communication.

Experts featured:

Amandine Le Pape

COO
Element

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