Signal Messenger - A cure for WhatsApp?
Signal is a privacy respecting, free and open source messenger very similar to the more widely known WhatsApp messenger. It's developed and maintained by the Signal Foundation and Signal LLC.
Several years ago - when I wrote the first version of this article - finding other Signal users was a rare event. This changed dramatically. Signal in 2023 boasts quite some adoption. Names I would not have expected to see suddenly appear in my contact list without any encouragement from my end.
So let's look at Signal in 2023. What makes it such a strong alternative and where does it fall flat compared to other alternatives available.
Speaking of clients. Signal is a phone first application. This means you are required to install Signal on your phone and verify yourself with a phone number similar to WhatsApp. Contacts may or may not be imported. The option to deny Signal access to your address book is a huge win for Signal.
Once installed it's possible to add more clients. Those may be tablets or desktop clients. Other phones will not work. The number of those slave clients is limited to five (5).
All of your communication via signal is encrypted. It supports all modes of communication that's expected by modern phone users. Text messages, voice & video calls as well as voice messages. Those also work on slave clients like the desktop.
Anyway you look at it Signal is a complete, reliable and stable messenger platform. It's very easy to use for anyone. I haven't met anyone so far who couldn't handle the app straight out of the box. So it's save to give to your granny too.
The native desktop client is essential to me. Much more so then the phone. But that's just personal preference.
Signal is extremely privacy focussed. When subpoenaed for user data Signal repeatedly made the news for not being able to provide more then the user's account identification (which is likely already known) and the last login in Unix milliseconds.
This is a strong indication of the teams focus on privacy and it makes Signal one of those rare tools that I feel more confident to recommend as time goes on. Usually it's quite the opposite.
Some issues remain however. My biggest gripe is the requirement of a phone and a phone number. Why? At no point does Signal use the regular phone network (to my knowledge). The number is just an identifier. Why can't users simply sign up with an email and a username?
Fun fact: None of the old school messengers that existed decades before WhatsApp, Signal, etc. needed a phone number to work perfectly fine. So why would we regress to this antique concept?
Having to run it on a phone first before I can add a limited number of clients is also very strange to me. Phones are popular. I get that. But why are they required when a desktop version exists?
Also having a limited number of additional devices is annoying. Last but not least, other phones may not be connected devices but require a separate account.
I'm sure there are reasons for this. However I wonder if they are any good ...
A regular complaint I hear is backup. Messages are not stored on Signals servers and the client does not have any default backup enabled. Users have to specifically enable backup and find a way to sync their (encrypted) backup off the phone.
Pro tip: On Android use Syncthing to sync backups to my computers cloudlessly.
Many people don't know that and are annoyed when finding their messages deleted after setting up a new phone.
However Signal has addressed this issue quite well. Transferring messages from an old phone to a new one works painlessly and without a backup file as long as you didn't whipe or otherwise lose the data on the old phone. Where it hurts is when you lost a phone and have a full copy of your data on let's say a tablet but that data cannot be synced for some reason.
It's not a perfect messenger but Signal does get very close. With a reasonable adoption you won't be the total oddball for using it instead (or alongside) WhatsApp.
I like it's completeness and consistent development. Many of my previous issues with the app have been resolved. Others may just be so deeply baked into the design that they are here to stay.
Overall however there is no reason I'd see not to recommend and use Signal. It works and everyone can use it without issues. It respects the users privacy and has prove time and time again that they have no valuable user data.
The only thing I worry about is how Signal will continue into the future. Being a centralized service they have cost for infrastructure. Development isn't free either and at this point I see no business model for Signal. I can only hope that it will live on valuing the same principles of user protection as it did in the past.
Other then WhatsApp, Signal faces serious competition from other messengers. I'll skip the commercial ones like Apple, Facebook, Liner, etc. as they have different goals.
Telegram comes to mind. It has many of the same features but falls short on the end-to-end encryption front. Encrypted chats are only possible on the device of origin as explained in this support article.
Something much closer would be Threema. I did not use it myself but it seems to be an interesting platform. What I like here is that the company behind it also focusses on a business option securing an income other then donations.
A hardcore alternative would be Briar. This app is right for you if privacy and anonymity are your primary concerns. Even at the expense of usability and reliability.
It works in a P2P manner leaving as good as no footprint online. Check out their explainer to see how this works. It's seriously cool but I doubt that it has any chance of catching on as a mainstream replacement.
What messengers do you like and recommend to your friends and why?