If you’re like me, you have family and friends dispersed throughout the country, maybe even the world. It used to be challenging to stay in touch when apart due to limited communication tools. The telegraph revolutionized long-distance communication back in the mid-1830s, but I’m thankful our options have evolved.
Fast-forward to 2019, there are an abundance of communication tools available to effortlessly keep in touch with our loved ones for free. While there are dozens of options to choose from, here are 13 that I find useful*.
FaceTime is a free program that comes standard with any iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad or Mac. At the beginning of 2019, Apple reported that there were 1.4 billion active iPhones in use. That number continues to grow as the iPhone evolves. With FaceTime, you can connect via video and audio calls. FaceTime allows one-to-one and group calls. An Apple ID is required to sign-in and users can be found by using their email address or phone number.
Google Hangouts is available for users who use Gmail. Google Hangouts allows users to communicate via video calls, phone calls or messages. It supports both one-to-one and group conversations. Google Hangouts requires a Google Account. There are rumors that the classic Google Hangouts app will be shutting down soon and is being replaced by Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet, but a definitive answer has not been shared and it looks like it may only impact GSuite users.
This is a standalone messaging app developed by Facebook. It’s free, but does require a Facebook account to sign in. With Facebook Messenger, you can send video and audio calls, text messages, send/receive money, and play games. It supports one-to-one and group interactions. If you have concerns over Facebook’s privacy policies or don’t like ads in your messaging app, you may want to stay clear of this one.
Signal is a free messaging app developed by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton after he sold WhatsApp to Facebook. Users can place video and audio calls as well as send messages. Messages can contain files, voice notes, images and videos. If you’re concerned with privacy, Signal offers end-to-end encryption to ensure your conversations stay private. You can even set timers to clear your conversation history. Signal allows one-to-one and group connections and is available for Android, iPhone, Mac and Windows.
Telegram is a similar messaging service to Signal and WhatsApp. It supports end-to-end encryption, one-to-one and group conversations, phone calls and messaging. Like in Signal, you can set messages to self destruct after a certain time period. Admittedly, I have only played around with it a handful of times. Most of my family and friends aren’t on it. Of my contacts who do use it, most of them either live outside of the U.S. or have a loved one who does. Telegram has been around since 2013 so it’s not new to this space, but has a lower monthly active user (MAU) volume compared to others in this space. In March of 2018, Telegram reported they had 200 million MAUs.
Similar to Signal and Telegram, WhatsApp is another end-to-end encrypted messaging application and offers many of the same features you’ll find in Signal and Telegram. What sets WhatsApp apart from the other two is its monthly active users. At the close of 2018, WhatsApp reported that it has ~1.8 billion monthly active users. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook so if you have concerns over Facebook’s privacy policies, you may want to stay clear of this app.
Messages is the newish name for Apple’s iMessage, which launched in 2011. Apple’s Messages app is the default messaging app on any iPhone, iPad or Mac computer these days and the app I use the most for communicating with family in friends. Apple does a fantastic job at making it easy to chat no matter which Apple device I am using. I have iCloud sync turned on so my conversations are synced to all of my Apple devices and if I close a conversation, it’s closed on all of my devices. If you turn iCloud sync off, you have to remove messages manually for each device (that’s a pain especially on the Apple Watch). Another nice feature is that I can send messages from my Apple Watch independent of my iPhone. You do have to have an active cellular plan on your watch to do this though. This is a nice feature for runners. Messages sent and received are protected by Apple’s end-to-end encryption.
My entire extended family uses iPhones and I’d say 95% of my friends do too. One of my favorite features of Messages is that I can easily add new contacts into existing conversations without starting a new conversation.
The contacts in your group ALL need to be using Messages. If one is using an Android or regular SMS text application, this feature won’t work.
There are three features I think are lacking with Messages. The first is the ability to mark a message as unread. There are a lot of times when a message comes through and I wish I could mark it as unread to remind me later. The second is set a self destruct timer to delete a message from a conversation and the third is to search a conversation for a certain word, phrase or image.
Google recently announced they are replacing the texting protocol on Android OS with RCS. You will now be able to see when someone has read a message or is typing a response. You can also chat over Wi-Fi, name group conversations and add/remove people from groups. These are features that have been standard on Apple’s Messages application for quite some time. This brings Android’s messaging app more to par with Apple, but not quite…
Two features are lacking from this update and I think they’re critical. Android Messages will not offer end-to-end encryption. I think this is a huge miss, especially in an age where privacy is top of mind for a lot of people. Additionally, it doesn’t impact how Android and Apple users interact with each other through Messages (i.e. you won’t be able to message an Apple user the same way Apple users can message each other). If you’re an Android user, I’d recommend using Signal, WhatsApp or Telegram over Android’s default app until they offer end-to-end encryption.
Gmail is a very common email provider offered by Google and is free to use. Gmail has been around for over a decade, launching beta in 2004. As of 2016, Google reported that there were over 1 billion monthly active users. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean there were over 1 billion users using it since a user can have more than one Gmail account. But, that’s still a lot of email accounts. Gmail is a very easy way to communicate with friends and family over email. Gmail does push ads into your inbox. Ad targeting is curated based on your history in YouTube, Chrome and other Google services (i.e. Google Maps etc). This is a new change after they received scrutiny for scanning emails to target ads. Worried about your privacy? Google says they do not read your emails, but some third-party apps may if you give them permission.
Yahoo Mail is another common email provider offered by Yahoo. It too is free to use. It’s very much like Gmail and has been around since 1997. In 2018, Yahoo reported it had ~227.8 million monthly active users; small in comparison to Gmail, but still a large user base. Expect to see ads in your Yahoo Mail inbox unless you upgrade to Pro for $3.49/mo + applicable taxes.
If you’re concerned about privacy and security, you may want to steer away from Yahoo. There have been multiple data breaches at Yahoo that have affected billions of Yahoo accounts. Yahoo Mail also scans your emails for ad targeting.
Communication Channels by Application
In addition to the 10 applications listed above, you can also utilize social media platforms to share life events with family and friends. Here are 3 of the most popular that are available for free:
- Facebook – In early 2019, Facebook reported it had ~2.38 billion monthly active users; 1.56 billion of them signing in daily. With Facebook, you can share photos and videos, send messages and get updates in a newsfeed. You can also setup a public or closed group.
- Twitter – Twitter reported it had ~330 million monthly active users; ~134 million of them active daily. Similar to Facebook, you can share photos and videos, send direct messages and get updates in a newsfeed. You can set your account to private and only grant access to family and friends. Doing so will require users to request access to your feed.
- Instagram – Owned by Facebook, Instagram is a great tool for sharing photos and videos. It also has a built-in messaging feature, but it’s pretty limited. You can set your account to be public or private and users need to “follow” you in order to view your content in their feed. In mid-2018, Instagram reported having ~1 billion monthly active users; 500 million active daily.
As you can see, there are a TON of applications and services out there to make it super easy to stay in touch with family and friends. The options I outlined in this article are just a few. As privacy and security continue to be top-of-mind concerns for many, it’s important to understand how your data is being handled and what privacy rights you are forfeiting.
At Memo we are building a new communication experience to enable users to communicate with the trust and control they expect. We’ve learned from a many Memo users that while privacy and end to end encryption (E2E) are important topics, many users don’t care if their data is shared or not fully encrypted as long as they are given the choice to opt in to sharing that data.
If you’re interested in getting early access to Memo to help us test, iterate and provide real user feedback so that we build something you’ll truly love and trust, we welcome you with open 🤗
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