Is Signal the right instant messenger for your StartUp?

Reasons for considering Signal for internal, informal, ad-hoc communication.

Why do you want to use an instant messenger in your StartUp?

In most StartUps I’ve worked so far there was need for ad-hoc, internal communication. Walking from one side of a building into another on was considered unnecessary overhead :) Communication included pper-to-peer text messages as well as voice calls. However in the (post) Covid-19 age video calls are getting more and more important as well.

Alternative instant messengers

The data privacy topic disqualifies a lot of potential alternative messenger alternatives. However for the sack of completness here is an incomplete list of instant messengers, widely used in the private context:

Supported operating systems

Of course it’s important that there is an app for all the operating systems, wether smartphone or laptop, which are used in your company. Otherwise you’ll lock people out of communication if you don’t provide them with a suitable smartphone or workstation. Luckily there is a Signal App for all major workstation and smartphone operating systems:

# NOTE: These instructions only work for 64 bit Debian-based
# Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, Mint etc.

# 1. Install our official public software signing key
wget -O- https://updates.signal.org/desktop/apt/keys.asc |\
sudo apt-key add -

# 2. Add our repository to your list of repositories
echo "deb [arch=amd64] https://updates.signal.org/desktop/apt xenial main" |\
sudo tee -a /etc/apt/sources.list.d/signal-xenial.list

# 3. Update your package database and install signal
sudo apt update && sudo apt install signal-desktop

Security

One major argument for most people to check out the instant messengers currently available was the announcement of Facebook that they will change the data privacy policy for WhatsApp users. Due to data privacy issues WhatsApp was never a reasonable choice for communicating within a company of course. But it triggered people to think about this topic again.

Server location

The servers are located in the united states. Beeing german suffering from German Angst (“typical German hesitancy”) I’d prefer server locations in the european union or switzerland. In contrast Threema runs it’s servers in swizerland. However as mentioned before even the FBI was not able to get any data other than the smartphone number of users (which they had before already of course). Many prominent users like e.g. Edward Snowden cannot be that wrong.

Financing

The service provided by Signal is payed via donations exclusively.The messanger does not have use web browser usage data for displaying advertising. There is no company behind the service which sells your and potentially the data of your contacts to someone else. Cosidering how long Wikipedia,which is also fincaned with donations only, existis already I’m not afraid of seeing Signal beeing shut down in the near future.

Feature overview

The full list of features is available on the Signal Support Site. I’ll limit this post to the most imporant text message writing, voice call and video call features as well as security related aspects.

Status

Personally I use status messages in messagers regularly to let people know if they can expect immediate response or not. Signal does not allow to set a status message. This can be seen as privacy feature as well of course. Signal does also not allow to post content which disappeas after some time like e.g.WhatsApp (images, text messages) does. However for work related communication I see no important missing use case with respect to this feature.

Text messenging

Signal supports peer-to-peer text messages and group chats. One can paste media like images, videos, GIFs and hpyerlinks into there. One surprising thing to note here is that the app does not support landscape mode on smartphones and tablets (Android/iPad).

Voice calls

Everything is working as one expects it to work w.r.t. peer-to-peer voice calls. I’ve not tried group voice calls yet.

Video calls

Right now I’ve not used video calls. I know that peer-to-peer video calls are supported. I’m not sure about group video calls yet.

Calendar meetings

Many commercial business solutions provide seemless integration between a calendar and video/voice call meetings. MS Outlook e.g. allows to place video/voice meetings in the calendar which open a corresponding MS Teams session. For scheduled meetings this may be quite helpful, especially cause one can invite external people into meetings as well.

Backups

From a security perspective this topic needs some attention. If you want to use Signal for “informal” communication (alternative to speaking with someone in person) you want to avoid beeing able to make backups. Signal allows to make backups. Of course you cannot forbid someone to make backups and you cannot enforce the deletion of messages.

Conclusion

If you use a tool like an office suite like e.g. Outlook which integrates nicely with an own instant messenger (Microsoft Teams in case of Outlook) you should consider to use that one instead. The integration of Microsoft Teams into the Outlook calendar is powerful w.r.t. scheduled meetings and communication with external contact persons. Be aware of the fact that it might not be possible to delete conversations, like in case of e.g. Microsoft Teams. Of course with Signal it’s also not possible to share files or to share screens as easy as with e.g. Microsoft Teams.

Resources

Most of the resources are in german. Sorry for that.

Software Developer for rapid prototype or high quality software with interest in distributed systems and high performance on premise server applications.

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