Signal is Dropping SMS Support on Android

… and that kinda sucks

Today, Signal users everywhere (or at least this Signal user), were greeted by the following message on sending an SMS message,

You will no longer be able to send SMS messages from Signal soon. Invite REDACTED to Signal to keep the conversation here.

This is unfortunate. I have been using Signal for years now, and one of its major selling points for me has been the fact that it is a “one-stop-shop” for my messaging needs. The only two messaging services I use are Signal, with those who have it, and SMS for everyone else.

Upon further reading, Signal has listed three major reasons for this change,

  1. Prioritizing Privacy and Security
  2. Ensuring people aren’t hit with unexpected messaging bills
  3. Creating a clear user experience within Signal

Reading a little more into it, it would appear that these three reasons actually collapse down to one: Users have trouble knowing whether a given message is going out over the Signal protocol, or over SMS.

I will admit, that in the current build of the app, it is quite easy to miss the little padlock indicating that the message is encrypted. So the reasoning makes sense. But, if the actual reasons are truly the ones above, I would put forward that a better solution might be to update the interface to make it clearer when a given message will go out over SMS. But, I don’t think that the listed reasons are necessarily all that is going on. Based on the discussion I’ve seen online, it seems to me that there is also some degree of “technological purity” at play.

I do get it. From a purity standpoint the decision makes a lot of sense. SMS is a terrible technology, and it deserves to be phased out. I’ve seen a number of commentators on the Internet making this point, and using it to label the removal of functionality from the app as a “good thing”. I find this annoying; it’s a bit like the arguments used for the removal of headphone jacks from phones and USB-A ports from computers. They’re old technology, better and more modern alternatives exists, so why not get rid of them?

The problem with that argument, as users of modern laptops can attest to, is that the old and inferior technologies still have a lot of market share. A laptop can have 1800 USB-C ports on it, but that won’t help you if your mouse uses a USB-A connector. And most mice still use USB-A, even years after Apple started the trend of dropping USB-A ports from laptops.

The same can be said of SMS. If you want to contact somebody, and all you have is a phone number, you’ve got only two options: call them or text them. And we all know how appealing my generation finds the former of those two options. This is a situation that I don’t see changing anytime soon.

Still, it isn’t as though dropping SMS support from Signal removes the ability to use SMS at all–it merely requires clicking a different icon on your home screen. So why is the removal of SMS such a big deal for me, beyond the already implied “it is inconvenient for me because it changes my workflow”. After all, in practice all this change really does is bring the Android app to feature parity with the iOS one, which has been doing just fine all these years without SMS support.

The problem here is that SMS support has, at least in my experience, been a major selling point of Signal. Because it does both, the friction for an Android user to switch is virtually zero. Said user need only open the one app, and then encryption will be transparently applied to messages that it can. They hardly need to know what is going on, and can still see some benefit from the app! I have successfully migrated several people onto Signal specifically because of this.

I do know that this is “bad”, because said Signal user might not fully understand what is going on, the implications of using one technology over the other, etc., etc. But let’s be realistic here: not everybody cares. Most people probably don’t care. You cannot assume that, just because you are a technical minded person, that everybody else experiences technology in the same way that you do.

Without SMS integration, Signal becomes a slightly larger ask. “Hey there friend, can I ask that you install this whole new messaging app just for messaging me?” Dropping SMS creates yet another obstacle to the adoption of the app.

I will admit that I am a bit of an antiquarian where technology is concerned (I’ve been known to wander the halls raving “my kingdom for a POTS line”), and it is possible that I’m simply out of touch with how people use their phones right now. I’ve seen a lot of comments out there about how nobody uses SMS anymore, and that Whatsapp (or insert app X) is the standard mode of communication now anyway. That has not been my experience, but my experience may well be skewed.

In any case, while philosophically appealing, I fail to see how dropping SMS support will help improve Signal’s market share. The group that finds the lack of SMS support to be a selling point are likely already using Signal, or will never use it because it isn’t good enough for their needs. I think that dropping this feature is placing purity over practicality, and will turn out to be a bad idea. But who knows? I could be way off base here. Time will tell, I suppose.