Matrix wants to smash the walled gardens of messaging

Introducing Matrix, a new messaging standard that wants to make IM, VoIP, and video as interoperable and open as email.

There are too many messaging apps. If you're like me, you talk to your friends on Google Hangouts during the workday but Facebook Messenger at night, with the occasional Snapchat message -- not to mention that team CITEworld communicates over AOL Instant Messenger, which is actually a thing that still exists even though it's no longer 2002. It can be a real pain to remember who you talked to and on what chat network.

Enter Matrix, a proposed open source standard that wants to make instant messaging, voice, and video chat as interoperable as email and as slick as Slack. Matrix is still new --  it launched to the public two weeks ago, and not a single messaging service supports it yet -- but it has a grand vision for the open future of messaging.

To understand that vision, let's go back to the project's beginnings. Matrix's founding team works day jobs for Amdocs, a global software vendor, building messaging apps for mobile service providers. Recently, it occurred to Amdocs management that all of those apps that they were building ended up as walled gardens -- as in, users of one app can't talk to users of another app, with the net result that end users couldn't talk to the people they wanted to talk to. Which meant the apps would go unused. 

In May, a small team of around ten people, led by founders Amandine Le Pape on the business side and Matthew Hodgson as lead engineer, set about defining a set of standards, APIs, and reference architectures for a standard that would let users talk to anyone, anywhere, no matter what app they chose to use, with one consistent identity. The entire thing is covered by the Apache 2.0 open source license, making it accessible to anybody building a messaging app.

In short, Matrix wants an ecosystem of apps built on the standard, all of which can talk to each other.

"I have a favorite app," says Le Pape. "I want to talk to you on your favorite app."

The model for Matrix is email, says Hodgson. Whereas a Microsoft Lync user can't send an instant message or start a video call with a Google Hangouts user, you can  send an email from Microsoft Hotmail to Google's Gmail. And what's more, that Gmail user may be using an email client from yet another vendor, like Dropbox's Mailbox or even Microsoft Exchange. To the person sending the mail, it doesn't matter. 

"Email isn't great, but at least if I have your address, I can send you a message without knowing what app you're using," Hodgson says. 

On the backend, Matrix proposes to use a loosely federated system modeled on IRC: Chat data is intermediated by a matrix of trusted servers -- primarily run right now by the open source initiative's first wave of volunteer devotees -- in the same way any dedicated hobbyist can build an email server. Identity and message history are all intermediated by that backend of federated servers, meaning that your chat history is consistent across any app connected to the Matrix network, anywhere.

But where IRC has a high barrier to entry, requiring you to know exactly what server you're connecting to and configure accordingly, Matrix would let you associate with as many public identities as you're willing to share (phone number, email address, Facebook, Google, and so on), as long as they support the Matrix standard. Otherwise requires no setup -- it's just like if you were using any consumer messaging service. 

A major part of the potential of Matrix is as a platform, Hodgson says. At its core, Matrix is a system for sharing JSON/JavaScript objects across a shared database. As part of the core Matrix API, it supports basic functionalities like text, picture messaging, and WebRTC voice and video chat.

This gives Matrix a leg up on previous attempts at chat standards like Jabber, which are primitive and splintered by comparison. (Hey, Google Hangouts users: Have you ever done a group chat? Or messaged a Jabber-using Microsoft Lync user? No? That's because you can't.)

It could theoretically be used for other types of applications as well, such as simple Instagram clones. To demonstrate this, Matrix participated in the most recent TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, creating a riff on the film the initiative takes its name from: A virtual world where Matrix was used to send commands to virtual avatars. If nothing else, this kind of extensibility opens the door for apps like Slack, which combine a slick UX with tremendous ability to integrate with outside tools. 

Matrix's potential depends on the community it manages to build around it, which Hodgson says is a major focus of the initiative as it seeks to get the support of the critical Silicon Valley developer set. Right now, the best way to get a feel for what Matrix can do is just a reference application/chat room on the website.

"We really want to get as many people running their own Matrix servers as they possibly can," Hodgson says. 

Going forward, there's a lot of opportunity for enterprise applications as well. Imagine talking to friends in one chat room, with consumer-grade security, and another chat room for talking to coworkers that's layered with enterprise-grade security and archiving -- from within the same app. 

In short, new offerings like Slack and Cotap are great, but they're walled gardens. Matrix looks at the still-popular IRC and other open standards and thinks they can do better, but still learn from the past. The prevalence of companies building technical walls around their communications systems once they reach a critical mass of users may seem to argue against this, but the founders of Matrix are unbridled optimists.

"It's a possible new ecosystem out there on the Internet modeled after the old school of email and IRC," Hodgson says. 

This story, "Matrix wants to smash the walled gardens of messaging" was originally published by CITEworld.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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