Signal is losing the network effect battle - at least in my Hong Kong-focused neck of the metaverse. While Signal has always been popular in the bitcoin and crypto space, it started seeing traction in Hong Kong last year after the rollout of the national security law and then again early this year when ZuckCo tried to roll out his new WhatsApp terms of service. The forced privacy changes and data sharing angered a lot of people in a city where people are sensitive about their privacy. Signal suddenly started getting popular among friends in social groups outside of my usual tech and crypto industry circles.

I’ve made a half-hearted attempt to try to exit from WhatsApp over the past year as well. I stopped sharing my contacts with it and turned off notifications, intentionally making it as hard for me to use as possible. I either don’t respond to messages on WhatsApp or respond with a week or two delay. Unlike the leap I took exiting the USA fully exiting the ZuckBook universe, deleting my accounts and the apps, isn’t something I’ve been able to bring myself to do.

Are you there?

Over the couple months though as people have upgraded to the new iPhone, or otherwise lost or replaced their phones, I’ve noticed that people I used to be able to message on Signal are no longer reachable.

If they want to contact me, I’ll often get an iMessage (or SMS) from them asking if I’m using WhatsApp.

As someone who cares about privacy, this trend is disappointing to me because Signal offers significant privacy improvement over ZuckCo products.

There seems to be a few reasons for this migration:

Signal spam

The first is that some people seem to have a problem with spam on Signal. This is strange to me, because after years of usage I can’t think of even one instance where I’ve received a spam message. I’m not calling them liars though, because I’ve seen friends phones with lots of Signal spam. It just isn’t my experience.

In contrast, WhatsApp, iMessage and Telegram spam is relatively common. In the past, I’ve typically received a couple of spam messages on each per month. None of these apps compare to the worst spam offender of them all, the good old telephone call. I receive typically around 2 spam calls on my Hong Kong number per day despite being listened on the Do not call registry.

Notifications not received

Some people seem to have trouble receiving notifications for signal messages. I’m not sure if this is because they’ve misconfigured their notification settings or some other technical problem. Anecdotally, this problem seems to be more common with friends using Android.

Poor user experience

While the Signal iOS app is pretty well written these days, Signal’s electron-powered desktop app is horrible. Every time I open it even on my maxed out, 64 gb, M1 Max Macbook Pro, it takes tens of seconds to load messages. After sitting through this message-loading ceremony, I’m greeted by a huge banner telling me to restart the app and go through the whole startup process again to install an update for undefined benefit.

The user experience of the Signal desktop app is frankly embarrassing. This probably stems from the desktop app’s prior life as a “Chrome App” (anyone remember those?). They should take a look at the speed and fluidity of Telegram’s native desktop apps. It opens instantly, it updates without nagging me via the Mac App Store, my older messages are there when it instantly opens and any new messages are updated after the app opens. We all know the technical problems with Telegram’s cryptography, but that doesn’t excuse Signal from learning from the things Telegram (and other competitors) do right.

Desire to optimize

Some people are easily frustrated by having to keep track of which friends use which chat apps and have an OCD-style personality that makes them want to clean up their phone and only have one app for messaging. These people correctly see that WhatsApp is the de facto monopoly messaging app in Hong Kong and delete or disable all other apps, including the built SMS app on their phones.

The solution

If Signal is to take marketshare away from incumbents like WhatsApp, it’s can’t only rely on its competitors making brain-dead product decisions and PR mistakes like WhatsApp’s new terms of service as a method of growing its marketshare. While these are great opportunities to introduce new people to Signal, Signal also needs to deliver with a product that not only ticks the boxes for the functionality people are looking to replace, but does so in a way that doesn’t force its advocates and donors to make excuses for areas of poor user experience.