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Text Messaging Is Cool. But Where Are Its Boundaries?

The texting app has always been the most used app on my phone. It’s fun and efficient, and it’s often a faster way to get a response than emailing or calling.

But even as Apple delivered a slew of new texting features in a software update this week — and as Google has made improvements to its Android Messenger app over the years, like adding colorful emojis — let’s text. still a lot to be desired.

Apple’s latest software system, iOS 16, released Monday, includes improvements to the iMessage app. Texts can now be edited after being sent to remove embarrassing typos; a message can also be withdrawn. Google’s Messages app for Android has tools that automatically generate replies to texts.

These changes help us avoid awkward situations and save time, but they don’t address a bigger social problem: Texting is distracting, demanding and sometimes stressful.

The advantages of texting can easily become disadvantages. Since texting usually only lasts a few seconds and is widely regarded as the most urgent, high profile form of digital communication, it is difficult to set limits on texting with our colleagues and friends. Texting invites us to disrupt the time of others.

“Where does your work end and where does your personal life begin?” said Justin Santamaria, one of the iPhone engineers who developed the iMessage app more than a decade ago. “That’s something everyone has struggled with for the past three years and it plays out on your home screen.”

Texting isn’t the safest form of communication either, especially in a post-Roe era where privacy is more important than ever, said Caitlin George, director at Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group.

“It should be something that everyone should have and not have to worry or think about it,” she said of the need for a universal private texting service.

The new messaging features are easy to use. On iOS 16 iPhones, holding down a sent message opens options to edit or revoke it. Android users can open Google’s Messages app, enter the settings and enable “Enable Chat Features” to use the new SMS technology called Rich Communication Services.

Here’s my wish list to improve texting.

To reduce the chances of being bombarded with texts, Apple and Google have added layers of settings to tell others when we’re busy. Yet the tools are not effective.

Apple’s iOS includes Focus, a tool released last year to manage how phone notifications appear in various aspects of our lives, including at work, at home, when we drive or go to bed. For example, in a work profile, Focus can be set to only receive text and phone notifications from colleagues; anyone who is not on the whitelist will be notified that they will not receive notifications.

My problem with Focus is that it’s too complex. Setting up each Focus profile is time consuming and requires effort to schedule a Focus to activate at specific times, or to remember to enable or disable the feature. In my experience, even if my Focus setting tells people I’m not getting notifications, they text me anyway.

Mr. Santamaria, the former iPhone engineer, now runs Future, a messaging app that allows people to talk to fitness trainers. He said he understood the intent behind Apple’s Focus, but agreed it was too cumbersome to set up.

“I don’t want my East Coast boyfriend not sending me a funny meme because I’m sleeping if it doesn’t wake me up,” he said.

Still, every notification for a new text message is added to a to-do list to reply to someone. “This red dot is growing,” he said.

Google’s messaging app has what’s called a Smart Reply tool, which automatically generates possible responses to a text message, including one that says you’re busy. But you still have to manually select an answer.

Apple and Google’s texting apps would benefit from a much simpler tool: the out of office message.

America Online Instant Messenger, one of the first online messaging services of the 1990s, had a simple autoresponder with a memo that users could use to tell people why they were unavailable. Slack, the chat app for workplace collaboration, has the ability to display an away status, such as “on vacation until Monday.” It is effective in preventing people from messaging.

One of the beauties of text messaging is the ability to instantly share something — like an idea or a photo. But the iPhone messaging app still lacks an easy way to harass people at unreasonable hours: the ability to schedule a message to send later.

This is where Android’s messaging app has a distinct advantage. Last year, Google added a scheduling tool. After composing a message, press and hold the send button. A “Schedule Sending” button will appear, allowing you to set a time and date for the text to be sent. That’s helpful because we often send text messages at unreasonable hours for fear of forgetting them later, and a scheduling tool solves this problem.

The lack of interoperability between the iPhone and Android messaging services makes photos and videos appear grainy when sent between Androids and iPhones, a dreaded digital phenomenon known as the “green bubble” effect.

At a tech conference last week, an audience member raised the issue with Apple’s CEO Tim Cook. In a question-and-answer session, Mr. Cook asked if Apple would consider making iPhone messaging service work with Google’s Rich Communication Services so that the questioner could send clearer videos to his mother, who had an Android phone.

“I don’t hear our users asking that we put a lot of effort into that right now,” said Mr. cook. “Buy your mom an iPhone.”

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

Ms George from Fight for the Future said Mr Cook’s comment was elitist because not everyone could afford an iPhone. The incompatibility between Apple’s and Google’s messaging apps also posed a digital privacy problem, she said.

Apple and Google encrypt their messaging apps to make messages unreadable to anyone but the sender and recipient. But the encryption only works when Apple phones are texting Apple phones and Android phones are texting Android phones. When users of different mobile operating systems text each other, their messages lack encryption, making the content readable by other parties, such as telephone companies.

While third-party texting apps like Signal provide encrypted messaging between Apple and Android phones, those tools aren’t as widely used as the standard texting apps that arrive on our phones.

A Google spokesperson referred to a series of tweets by Hiroshi Lockheimerthe Google executive who oversees Android, and stressed the need for Apple to support Rich Communication Services to strengthen privacy protections for Android and iPhone users.

“By not including RCS, Apple is holding back the industry and hindering the user experience for not only Android users but also their own customers,” said Mr. Lockheimer.

The content of text messages has become even more sensitive after the reversal of Roe v. Wade, Ms. George said, as law enforcement agencies can request data from tech companies and telephone companies to prosecute women who want to have abortions. This is one of the reasons why it would be a greater good if Apple and Google found a way to collaborate on their messaging apps, she said.

“At a time when half the country has to worry about how they communicate about their bodily autonomy, there’s a moral obligation to do your marketing when you tell people they can trust you,” she said of Mr. cook. , which has built its reputation on digital privacy.