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by Christopher Tozzi, Jan 09, 2018

Written on the Ledger: How Blockchains Can Build Better Live Messaging Platforms


Messaging

Could blockchain technology drive the next round of innovation in live messaging platforms?

Several indicators suggest that it already is, as companies in the instant messaging and communications business work to integrate distributed ledgers into their products. Live messaging platforms have evolved significantly over the past several decades. Long gone are the days of dial-up bulletin-board system chatrooms and AOL Instant Messenger. Today’s messaging platforms offer voice messaging, video chat and AI-powered chatbots for automating tasks. 

The context in which live messaging platforms are used has also expanded over the past several years. Once a medium reserved mostly for socializing, chat services are now widespread in professional settings as well.

Live Messaging Challenges

For all of the advances in live messaging technology over the past several years, significant shortcomings exist in many modern platforms.

A major flaw is the centralization of data. Most chat services rely on centralized servers to connect parties. In most cases, platform users have no control over the data that travels through those servers. It may be stored permanently against their wishes. It may be redistributed to third parties. It could be stolen by attackers who exploit vulnerabilities in the messaging platform.

In cases where users do wish to store data permanently, existing platforms are less than ideal, too. By requiring message logs to be uploaded permanently to centralized servers, the platforms expose message data to the possibility of being modified or corrupted without the knowledge of users. In other words, there is no good solution for storing message data immutably. 

Identifying users reliably on modern messaging platforms is also a challenge. Most messaging services lack strong systems for ensuring that the people you are chatting with are the people you think you are chatting with, or preventing accounts from being hijacked.

Finally, existing chat services suffer from interoperability problems. Although the introduction of open chat protocols such as XMPP have increased compatibility between different messaging services and tools, many still remain very proprietary, especially those that provide more than text messaging. For example, you can’t talk to someone on Apple’s FaceTime service unless you use an Apple device with FaceTime installed. Similarly, the Skype protocol can’t be used with applications other than Skype. This lack of interoperability makes innovation more difficult and forces users to subscribe to services that they might prefer not to use, as they have no other options.

Blockchain-Based Messaging Solutions

All of the above represent challenges that blockchain technology is well suited to solve. Using a blockchain, decentralized messaging platforms can be constructed. Data can be stored on a blockchain in an immutable way, rather than on central servers. Identities can be secured through the blockchain, too.

In addition, with all of this decentralization comes more interoperability. Decentralized messaging networks are controlled by decentralized organizations, rather than companies that resist open protocols in the interest of competing in the market.

Live Messaging Services Using the Blockchain

Not all of these innovations have yet been implemented. However, some messaging platforms are already leveraging blockchain technology to solve the challenges discussed above or related ones.

For example, the Mercury Protocol uses the Ethereum blockchain as the basis for building communications networks. The Mercury Protocol is not a specific messaging platform itself but is a foundation on which any group can build a messaging network. Messaging data is secured by the blockchain, and the Mercury Protocol uses digital tokens to incentivize participation in the network.

Block.chat leverages the Ethereum blockchain in a similarly way. It uses the blockchain to provide an encrypted transport protocol for communications — although the platform is more of a programming experiment than a serious blockchain project and it is unclear how complete it currently is.

A third example is e-Chat. Part digital wallet and part social network, the platform supports video calls and voice conferences. ECHO is a similar example of a digital wallet with built-in peer-to-peer communications, although it appears to store messaging data in a central location in the cloud.

The use of blockchain technology to improve messaging platforms remains in the early stages, but some projects are already achieving innovations. In the future, it is easy to imagine how the blockchain can help to make messaging networks everywhere more secure, reliable and decentralized.