Signal Messenger - A cure for WhatsApp?

It doesn’t matter if you like it or not, chances are you’re using WhatsApp at some level. It’s almost impossible to avoid due to digital peer pressure and so one of the worst messengers from a technical standpoint has taken over the world adding yet another to the Facebook world domination puzzle.

One alternative trying to compete is the Signal Messenger. It’s essentially a clone of WhatsApp with all it’s killer features. However it does increase privacy by not logging who’s communicating with whom, it’s code base is open source and it has a native desktop client for text only messages.

Why signal rocks

It’s open source software

In 2019 there’s no reason for closed source messengers to exist. We don’t know what’s happening to our data, security holes may only be patched long after smart attackers exploited them for months or even longer and there is no room for improvement. WhatsApp misses many pro features I’d consider essential to any application.

I haven’t built my own signal app but it’s not impossible. The code is there for the taking, make it better.

The desktop app

What is it with messengers and their iOS/Android only approach? Phone keyboards are simply awful. It takes forever to write anything on them (even with a lot of practice) and they constantly try to be smarter then you. Speak more then one language and your life just got a lot harder. So why don’t they come with Desktop clients?

To be fair, WhatsApp comes with some strange web app but I never really understood that. It’s made to be off putting. Another way would be a remote controlled Android device (I use scrcpy but even that is pretty horrible as these apps clearly aren’t made for full on hardware keyboards but sausage fingers.

Signal comes with a bunch of desktop clients for Linux, Mac OS and Windows. They can be matched with your phone running instance. So a phone is still needed (why?!) but it makes life a lot easier.

Yet the desktop client is limited to text only. You can’t make or receive calls. Personally I don’t mind but it’d still be nice to have the same feature set on all devices.

Better privacy

Signal promises increased privacy over it’s competition. Messages and calls (including video calls) are encrypted. In addition Signal doesn’t track who’s connecting with whom which is something Facebook does with WhatsApp.

Some of my contacts living in countries that suffer the occasional governmental shutdown (you know, gotta keep the power … erm peace in times of crisis) reported that Signal gets through these blockades. It’s simply not something on their radar. I’m pretty sure however that would change if Signal experienced mass adoption.

It does everything well

Text messages, phone calls, video calls. It all works just like with WhatsApp. It has clearly been designed for those looking for Alternatives.

It works out of the box and so far hasn’t let me down.

Why signal sucks

Centralization

As far as I understand (more research in progress) Signal servers are not free but run by the people behind Signal. They themselves are a non profit organization.

This means your user account is with them. You depend on their services to work. You can’t expand the network starting your own nodes. You can’t have your own user base. And if Signal shuts down, the project is dead along with all it’s apps.

There are alternatives on the horizon. Personally I’m excited about developments like Matrix and the Riot IM built on top of Matrix. And that’s without even considering future blockchain developments. I don’t think centralized services are the future.

Only one instance at the same time

I once had the smart idea to run Signal on my phone to go and on a Raspberry Pi. Setting up the raspi worked great and installing Signal wasn’t a problem either. Sadly however you aren’t allowed to run more then one instance of the mobile app.

Limited desktop clients

For some reason completely unknown to me only five desktop clients may be matched with the phone app. Once you do more, others will disconnect.

This is royally annoying for power users using multiple workstations, laptops, OS, etc. And I don’t understand why there’s a limit at all. It’s an online messenger. IRC, for all it’s shortcomings, never had a client limit. Why do we need one now?

Why does it need a phone?!

One of my biggest issues with all these Messengers is that they are not only mobile first but mobile only. Signal helps with the desktop client but without installing the phone app they don’t work on their own. I find this to be very poor design.

Just like WhatsApp a phone number is required when creating the user account. Another thing I’ll never understand. Again, it’s an INTERNET messenger. Phone numbers are 1980s tech that should die out by now, not become a required feature of apps working otherwise completely online. What’s the thinking? It’s terrible.

Oh and of course it want’s to read your address book. sigh

It’s made for dummies

Signal comes with a few extra features I really like. Subtle stuff like the ability to enable/disable notifications properly, even on a per user basis.

But overall it’s aimed at dummies. It’s a clone of WhatsApp which itself doesn’t shine by offering a great many features. Signal can be just as annoying in many ways as the messenger it competes against. There’s no advanced switch giving you control over every variable imaginable. There’s nothing much at all to be honest.

Signal’s UI just follows the ever more present trend of dumbing down everything. The fewer options the better. I don’t think that should be the only option. Hide advanced settings behind a switch and have a panic button for those who really mess everything up.

No shutdown option

Just like WhatsApp there aren’t any ways to shut down Signal. It’ll just be as annoying as WhatsApp. It’s advanced notifications menu eases the pain but it’s really only a drop. Why are there no offline switches in these apps? Why can’t we just be unavailable for a while?

Sure flight mode will do it but in many cases I’d rather shut down the comm apps but keep the stuff likes maps or the browser running. How many times have I tried to find a place on the map and one of these messengers just decided to jump right into my main screen because of a phone call.

Tip: One way to shut down unwanted apps is to disconnect them. I use No Root Firewall to do this. It’s a pretty nasty attachment to the system and the UI isn’t worthy of song and glory but it is a decent way to disable internet access on a per app basis.

Call in call …

Talking about calls at bad times, Signal has an incredibly annoying tendency to call right into any other ongoing call.

For example, you’re in the middle of a Skype call holding the phone to your ear. All the sudden Signal switches to ring mode, blasting your eardrums with it’s annoying ringtone. And of course the other person will be totally confused as well.

Fix it!

Limited userbase

Last and least the user base. WhatsApp gets you because people will not talk to you unless you use that dang Messenger. Signal has barely any users in comparison. I moved personal contacts over to it. It works well for them but really you have to build your contact list yourself.

It’s not really a problem but of could of course be considered a downside.

Yet if you want to use Signal simply make others use it. Problem solved.

Bottom line

The overall state of messengers is abysmal. They are dumbed down and limited shadows of what IMs used to be able to do. Signal is no exception. It lacks advanced features and comes with just as many annoyances as WhatsApp and others.

Still I use it as it gives me more privacy. So far I’ve converted many of my personal contacts to use Signal and they use it on a regular basis.

Overall however, I’m leaning more towards exploring other, even more open alternatives to Signal. Signal simply doesn’t do anything better then WhatsApp and that’s where I see it fail to receive mass adoption.

Should you use it? If a dumbed down messenger that’s just like WhatsApp is your thing, go for it. It’s indeed simple and it works reliably on all levels.

For more demanding users I’m still researching usable options.

In the end, Signal is always a better Choice then Facebook’s WhatsApp. This tumor of a messenger won’t fall for a few users choosing alternatives and to be honest, Signal wasn’t able to replace it completely for me but the less data you feed into Facebook’s data miners the better for you and probably anyone on your contact list.