While the bulk of all this activity has been in enterprise communications, it looks like mainstream consumer platforms might now also be taking notice.

View from above hands holding mobile phones Image Credits: Malte Mueller / Getty

Anyone who has ever sent an SMS or email won’t have considered for a second what network, service provider, or messaging client their intended recipient used. The main reason is that it doesn’t really matter — T-Mobile and Verizon customers can text each other just fine, while Gmail and Outlook users have no problems emailing each other.

This trend permeates the enterprise realm, too. If your work uses Slack, good luck sending a message to your buddy across town forced to use Microsoft Teams, while those in human resources shoehorned onto Meta’s Workplace can think again about DM-ing their sales’ colleagues along the corridor using Salesforce Chatter.

But despite all the hullaballoo and hype around interoperability spurred by the Twitter circus in recent weeks, there was already a quiet-but-growing movement in this direction, a movement driven by enterprises and governments seeking to avoid vendor lock-in and garner greater control of their data stack.

Element founders and Matrix co-creators Matthew Hodgson and Amandine Le Pape Image Credits: Element

Element itself is open source and promises end-to-end encryption, while its customers can access the usual cross-platform features most would expect from a team collaboration product, including group messaging and voice and video chat.

Element in action Image Credits: Element

Element can also be hosted on companies’ own infrastructure, circumventing concerns about how their data may be (mis)used on third-party servers, ensuring they remain in control of their full data stack — a deal maker or breaker for entities that host sensitive data.

“The pendulum has been clearly swinging towards decentralization for quite a while,” Hodgson explained to TechCrunch. “We’re now seeing serious use of Matrix-based decentralized communications across or within the French, German, U.K, Swedish, Finnish and U.S governments, as well as the likes of NATO and adjacent organisations.”

“We believe that the value of any messaging platform grows based on its ability to connect with other platforms,” a Rocket.Chat spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We put a lot of effort into connecting Rocket.Chat with other platforms. We don’t have to worry about what client we use when emailing each other, and the same should be true when we’re messaging each other.”

Rocket.chat Image Credits: Rocket.chat

What’s perhaps most interesting about all this is that it runs contrary to the path that traditional consumer and enterprise social networks, and team collaboration tools, have taken.

Slack, Facebook, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Twitter, and all the rest are all about harnessing the network effect, where a product’s value is intrinsically linked to the number of users on it. People, ultimately, want to be where their friends and work colleagues are, which inevitably means sticking with a social network they don’t particularly like, or using multiple different apps simultaneously.

Open and interoperable protocols support a new breed of business that’s cognizant of the growing demand for something that doesn’t lock users in.

“Our goal is not to force people to use Rocket.Chat in order to communicate with each other,” Rocket.Chat’s spokesperson continued. “Rather, our goal is to enable organizations to collaborate securely and connect with other organizations and individuals across the platforms of their choosing.”

Element One subscribers can bring different messaging apps together Image Credits: The Matrix Foundation

This is enabled through publicly available APIs created by the tech companies themselves. However, terms of use are typically restrictive with regards to how they can be used by competing apps, while they may also enforce rate-limits or usage costs.

Bridging as it stands sits somewhere in a grey area from a “is this allowed?” perspective. But with the world’s regulatory eyes laser-focused on Big Tech’s stranglehold on online communications, the companies perhaps don’t enforce all their T&Cs too rigorously.

The DMA came into force in Europe last month — though it won’t officially become applicable until next May — and it has specific provisions for interoperability and data portability. At that point, we’ll perhaps start to see how the Big Tech “gatekeepers” of the world plan to support the new regulations. In reality, what we’re talking about are open APIs that “formally” permit smaller third-parties to integrate and communicate with their Big Tech brethren. This doesn’t necessarily mean that such APIs will be slick and easy-to-use with clear documentation though, and we can probably expect some deliberate heel-dragging and hurdles along the way.

WhatsApp and Facebook application displayed on a iPhone Image Credits: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“I understand the value of instant communication that something like WhatsApp can bring, particularly during the pandemic where officials were forced to make quick decisions and work to meet varying demands,” U.K. information commissioner John Edwards said in a statement at the time. “However, the price of using these methods, although not against the law, must not result in a lack of transparency and inadequate data security. Public officials should be able to show their workings, for both record keeping purposes and to maintain public confidence. That is how trust in those decisions is secured and lessons are learnt for the future.”

“Finance, ultimately, depends on trust,” SEC Chair Gary Gensler said at the time. “Since the 1930s, such record keeping has been vital to preserve market integrity. As technology changes, it’s even more important that registrants appropriately conduct their communications about business matters within only official channels, and they must maintain and preserve those communications.”

Maintaining an accurate paper trail, and ensuring that politicians and businesses are accountable for their actions, is the name of the game — a level of control that something like the Matrix protocol promises. However, mandating that every company over a certain size — as the DMA regulation does — has to make their software interoperable with others raises a bunch of questions around privacy, security, and the broader user experience.

Concept illustration of “elephant in the room” Image Credits: Klyaksun / Getty Images

WhatsApp can control — and therefore promise — end-to-end encryption on its own platform. But if billions of messages are flying between WhatsApp and countless other applications run by other companies, WhatsApp can’t really know what’s happening to these messages once they leave WhatsApp.

Ultimately, no two services deploy their encryption identically, a challenge that Hodgson acknowledges. “End-to-end encrypted platforms have to speak the same language from end-to-end,” he said.

“Imagine a world where Signal and Snapchat would have to interoperate — what would that look like?” Muffett asked TechCrunch rhetorically in a Q&A for this story. “Specifically, which features from one needs to be presented on the other, and what are the differentiators surrounding those features? And how would conflict in functionality be reconciled?”

The Matrix Foundation also proposed converting communication traffic between encryption languages in a “bridge,” though this would effectively mean having to break the encryption and re-encrypt the traffic safely somewhere.

“These bridges could be run client-side — for example, the Matrix iMessage bridge runs client-side on iPhone or Mac — or by using client-side open APIs to bridge between the apps locally within the phone itself,” Hodgson said. “Alternatively, they could be run server-side on hardware controlled by the user in a decentralized fashion, ensuring that the re-encryption happens in as secure an environment as possible, rather than on a vulnerable centralized server.”

There’s no escaping the fact that breaking encryption is far from ideal, irrespective of how a solution proposes to reconcile this. But perhaps more importantly, a robust solution for addressing the real encryption issues introduced by enforced interoperability doesn’t truly exist yet.

Despite that, Hodgson has said in the past that the upsides of the new EU regulations are greater than the downsides.

In many ways, the ground has never been so fertile for Matrix to flourish: it’s in the right place at the right time, as the world seeks an exit route from Big Tech’s clutches backed by at least a little regulation. And Twitter, too, has played more than a bit part in highlighting the downsides of centralized control, playing into the hands of all the companies banging the interoperability drum.

“The situation at Twitter has been absolutely amazing in terms of building awareness of the perils of centralization, providing a pivotal moment in helping users discover that we are entering a golden age of decentralization,” Hodgson said. “Just as many users have discovered that Mastodon is an increasingly viable decentralized alternative to Twitter, we’ve seen a massive halo effect of users discovering Matrix as a way to reclaim their independence over real-time communications such as messaging and VoIP — our long-term user base in particular is growing at its fastest ever rate.”

Inside Matrix, the protocol that might finally make messaging apps interoperable by Paul Sawers originally published on TechCrunch