Why Matrix?

2014-09-03 — General — Amandine Le Pape

Why Matrix?

Hi, I'm Amandine and I look after the businessy bits of Matrix.org. I have a technical background and have always had the need to see the bigger picture. My motivation in starting Matrix has mainly been to make my dream of ubiquitous real-time communications come true and fix what felt broken in the industry. Here is the story.

When studying telecoms I was fascinated by converging networks, the “Next Generation Network” as we called it. Wow, imagine! Having fixed lines, mobiles and computers able to communicate with each other? Call a number and have the ability to answer seamlessly on any device? And the capability to do video calls and share files? That was definitely Next Generation at the time! Especially given the best we could do with a mobile was bad GSM, MMS and WAP if you were lucky.... A decade later video calling is possible on any device; I can share anything I want with my contacts (pictures, videos, files, random stickers) thanks to hundreds of different apps; sometimes my history is even synced across several devices! And if I choose my mobile provider carefully I can even have a “One Number” service! :)

But still, we're far away from the ubiquitous dream of 10 years ago. None of my apps are talking to each other. One number is more often “one login per app”. My conversation history is scattered across all the apps (who never experienced the “Did you tell me on Facebook, Whatsapp, Skype or SMS???” question followed by 10 minutes of intense fiddling with your phone which of course is running out of battery?). My address book and profile data is stored everywhere by companies like Facebook, Google and random startups, but who knows how much they really value your privacy...

Is the tech not good enough yet? Only partially: most of the features, typically IM, video, VoIP,  are already available and widely used. However it is a reality that no tech has really imposed itself as an interoperability standard. What about economic blockers then? A better bet: what are the incentives for big companies and small startups to share their communities? Most of these corporations choose a business model that locks their users into walled gardens, directly linking their valuation to this user base. But ultimately this is bad for competition and bad for the users.

What about phone networks then? Why don't they do anything? Well, they have tried. It's called RCS (Rich Communication Services), or joyn. It's a good initiative designed by committee and implemented as a functionality deeply embedded in the network rather than a light over-the-top deployment and consequently very expensive and time-consuming to put in place. Similarly as per telco's historical positioning, RCS is more focused on quality of service than quality of user experience. But RCS is facing a few challenges: communications over IP must be free for the user to compete with the Skype & WhatsApp of this world, which limits a lot the return on investment of the deployment of an expensive network update, limiting the adoption of RCS by mobile networks. Besides quality of service is not necessarily what will trigger a success when competing with over the top apps which are 100% focused on providing the best user experience... And despite the GSMA's best efforts implementing interoperability between networks is proving very painful, limiting the growth of the ecosystem.

But ultimately we all know that today success is driven by users. This multitude of minds which decides the exact split of fun and usefulness that will define the value of a product and make it crazily successful overnight. So why are users not pushing for this ubiquity? I see two reasons: first they often don't realize how useful it could be and second: there is nothing to push! Indeed it can easily be considered as handy to have one app per group of people I want to communicate with: Facebook messenger with my school friends, Whatsapp with international friends, Skype with my family, Snapchat with my boyfriend, Voxer with my best friend... But why can't I have only one app, the one I prefer, to get in touch with everyone, whatever they are using? And if I want a fancy Tango-like video experience then I couldstill launch Tango for this scenario and have the whole chat history there. I truly believe that once fragmentation will be over everyone will wonder how we could ever live with it.

And what about privacy? Isn't it bad enough that the second I send an email to my friend asking if he's booked his flights to Madrid I get a flurry of airline adverts for flights to Spain? Even without going into the debate of whether governments should file every citizen, it's a question of principles - I'd rather have my communication history and my contacts stored by someone I trust and avoid useless adverts.  Some of you will say “Oh but you're French. ‘Vive la Révolution!' is your default motto...” - but think about it for a minute:

Imagine: only install the apps you want on your phone for communication. Use the ones you prefer because the UX is great or you love their smileys. Your whole address book is there, correctly merged. All the conversation history with your friends and family is there. And you don't care what app they're using. Or how they logged in: your app discovers them based on any ID (email, phone number, Facebook): you just need to have them in your address book. You know where your data is - perhaps stored by a new startup using renewable energy for their data center, just because you want to save the planet. Or by your geeky brother running his own server under his bed (using end-to-end encryption if you think he might be nosy!). You can still have many apps but each allows you to do different fun stuff: fancy video, crazy pictures, drawings, imaginative stickers. You control your communication.  You decide what to you want to use, who you want to trust. Welcome to Matrix.