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.
In software development you’ll have to communicate sensitive data from time to time as well. But development is not the only domain affected. In management it might happen that some potentially sensitive contact data of business parterns land in the app. Beeing in fire-fighter mode you might forget to NOT write or say sensitive data into your instant messenger app of trust. And if you bring sensitive data into an app you’ll sleep much better if you know that the messenger providers keep your data locked. Even if the FBI would knock on their door.
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
Signal does not provide a web app by the way. However as all major operating systems are supported this should not be an issue.
Signal uses user meta-data sparingly. To install and use the app there is no need to provide detailed contact data. You’ll have to provide your smartphone phone number, your first name (may be an alias) and a pin (at least 4 digits) only. You may provide your family name and upload an avatar image, but that’s optional. What’s quite unique for messengers is that the Signal asks for entering the pin frequently that you don’t forget it.
Signal provids end-to-end encryption. It’s important to distinguish between peer-to-peer chats/calls and group chats w.r.t. encryption. Signal encypts peer-to-peer as well as group text messenges, voice and video calls. Encryption is enabled by default. This is important because you don’t have to usage guidelines of how to enable encryption before using the app. Users cannot miss to enable encryption. Other messengers like e.g. Telegram don’t configure encryption as default.
You have to allow the apps (smartphone as well as desktop) usage of the microphone (for voice calls) and the camera (for video calls) expliticly. To beeing able to contact other people the app needs to access to the phone number related contacts implicitly. If you enable backups you’ll allow access to the local storage in addition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Unfortunatelly Signal has no way to integrate with calendars like explained above. W.r.t. internal, ad-hoc communication this is not really a problem. For external communication however this topic may be a showstopper for using Signal. The contact information of external contacts might need to be kept private to some internal employees only. And as mentioned already Signal does not allow to hide phone numbers from call participants.
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.
In my opinion for “formal” communication messengers are no reasonable alternative anyway. Usually you’ll write e-mails then. However if you want to use a messenger for this kind of communication as well beeing able to make backups may be important of course. Of course you cannot enforce someone to make backups.
In general backups are supported for text messages (peer-to-peer, group) only. Backups can be done on Android and iOS smartphones as well as on local workstations (Linux, Mac and Windows). To beeing able to restore backups you need the smartphone phone number.
Of course it’s possible to delete messages as well which could be more insteresting to you than making backups.
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.
If you don’t need calendar integration, file sharing, screen sharing and no support for communication with external contacts the Signal messenger is a great choice.
Most of the resources are in german. Sorry for that.