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Facebook, WhatsApp outage shows danger of relying on one company for messaging

Commentary: This week's massive outage is a reminder that you should have a few backup chat apps ready to go.

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Facebook's worldwide service outage included all three of its texting apps, effectively cutting off communication for anyone who relies on them.

Angela Lang/CNET

Facebook's worldwide outage this week of its key services, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, was annoying for some -- and a cause for celebration for others -- but it represented a breakdown in a critical line of communication. 

WhatsApp, with more than 2 billion users on its service, serves as a primary form of communication, especially for family and friends across borders. It's widely available because it works on everything from an iPhone 13 Pro to a Nokia flip phone, functioning in areas of the world with limited internet access. Yet the service was out for more than six hours on Monday.

Facebook did not comment when asked specifically about the effect of the outage on its messaging platforms, but did detail in its engineering blog how it was likely routine maintenance at the company that managed to disconnect Facebook's global data centers. Let's emphasize that: Not any form of an attack, but simply a glitch in day-to-day procedures that effectively shut down a worldwide communication platform.

The outage demonstrates how much of a hold Facebook, with its three chat platforms, has over how people communicate around the world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has faced challenges from lawmakers regarding that dominance, part of closer scrutiny of the power of Big Tech, which includes multiple calls to split up the company

It's also a reminder that you shouldn't rely on just a single messaging platform to stay in touch with family and friends. These services, by design, want you to use them as your primary mode of communication. You often set them up with your phone number, have them scan your contacts to match up with people who already have the app, invite others who do not, set up group chats with fun names, and in some cases even double as your wallet.

But remember, you do have options. 

Apple and Google, with iMessage and Google Messages respectively, each have a communications service accessible right from their texting apps -- but it's limited substantially by the type of device you own. Microsoft has been working to make Teams a platform for social connections as well as corporate ones. And when you move away from the bigger tech companies, you find so many other texting platforms including Signal, Line, Telegram, Snapchat, WeChat, Kik -- the list goes on, but is limited by who you know that actually uses them. 

Yet despite all of these options, when Facebook's outage took down its messaging platforms, it became apparent for a host of reasons why the most obvious backup options have their own obstacles. Let's run through several ways you can put together backup services for keeping as much of your communication intact in the event your favorite service has a major outage, noting at the same time the roadblocks that come with those alternatives.

Why isn't SMS, RCS better?

The most convenient fallback plan when your messaging app of choice fails should be regular ol' original-recipe SMS text messages. Except that, whereas WhatsApp, iMessage and the many, many other chat apps that exist get frequent updates, most standard texting is littered with the same limitations that flip phones in the 2000s had, such as a lack of typing indicators, better photo-sending capabilities or delivery confirmations.

Rich Communication Services, loudly championed by Google, has been designed to bring many iMessage-like features to all phones through the standard texting app, but its hampered rollout becomes especially visible on a day where several major chat app services fail. RCS only works on Android phones that have Google's Messages app installed -- and there are some exceptions. T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon in the US only agreed to make Google's Messages app the default texting app on their Android phones this year. And iPhone support of the standard is nonexistent.

If your phone doesn't support RCS, you do have SMS, as previously mentioned. But if your goal is to speak with friends or family who are in other countries, your cell phone plan might not support international texting or worse, charge exorbitant fees for those texts. Since Facebook's messaging apps are free, many users make use of them to avoid fees and other carrier limitations. 

Avoiding overload

Another reason that many of us end up sticking to a single messaging app is to avoid the juggling act of figuring out how to best reach someone. Is it WhatsApp? Is it Signal? Is it something I've never heard of and don't want anywhere near my phone? I get it, and so do a few friends of mine who were a little too happy once I could use iMessage with them.

Instead of worrying about having too many chat apps, you're better off taming notifications. Apple's iOS 15 is making some moves in this, letting you move less-pressing notifications into a digestible summary while letting you also mark more important pings from a friend or family member to instantly be delivered. We're still waiting for Android 12's release, but within the beta version, Google gives you access to recently dismissed notifications should you swipe away something you still need.

But I'm surprised there aren't more services that further consolidate multiple services. Back in the 2000s I was a heavy user of programs like Trillian and Meebo, which let me combine services like AIM, Yahoo Messenger and others into one program that sat in my PC, web browser or iPod Touch. Fast-forward to today and there are still a plethora of chat apps, but very few solutions to unify them. The biggest player trying to do that is Facebook itself. But many of these apps do support end-to-end encryption now, which, by creating that level of privacy, would also make it difficult for a third party to collect messages to enable that convenience. 

You might already have a backup

Chatting has found its way into apps you wouldn't even consider to be a chat app. In a quick glance of just my health apps, I found messaging features inside Fitbit and, if I really wanted to, I could text a friend in my Lose It calorie tracking app.

More socially acceptable backups could include Twitter DMs, Snapchat, Discord and maybe even Skype? While I poke fun, some of these apps are ones you may already use with friends or family for special purposes -- or even regularly. As a bonus, each of these are operated by a separate company, so if one goes down, the rest are probably still online. 

Yet each of these apps is limited by the very reason Facebook's outage is so massive, your family and friends need to actually be on them in order to be useful. And as outlined earlier, many communication apps make a point of locking you in with your group chats and texting history, meaning it's possible that there are no other reasonable backups. You can certainly ask your social network to also install Signal, Telegram, Line or another app, but whether or not they do is up to them.

Were your messaging habits affected by Monday's Facebook outages? And do you already have some backup chat apps, or another app that you might be able to use in a pinch but probably never would? Tell us in the comments.