Decades ago, a software program called Trillian introduced a way for Internet users to interact with multiple instant messaging networks, such as ICQ, AIM and MSN Messenger, in a single window. Now, Pebble founder and Y Combinator partner Eric Migicovsky is revisiting this concept, but this time with a focus on centralizing access to modern chat applications. Through the recently launched app, Beeper, users can connect to 15 different messaging services, including WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Instagram and Twitter DM, Messenger, Skype, Hangouts and others, even, through some tricks, iMessage.
Migicovsky says he first came up with the idea for a universal chat app while working on smartwatch pioneer Pebble, prior to its acquisition by Fitbit.
“We really wanted Pebble to be able to send iMessages, but we could never figure out how to do it because there is no API for iMessage,” he explains. But the idea for Beeper came to a head two years ago when he learned about a protocol called Matrix. “All of Beeper is based on Matrix, which is this open-source, federated, encrypted messaging protocol,” he says.
Migicovsky describes Matrix primarily as “a hacker thing,” but believes it is starting to take off among developers. Basically, Matrix offers an API that allows developers to connect to other chat networks via a “bridge,” which relays messages back and forth.
“When I heard about that, I thought we could build Trillion using Matrix,’” says Migicovsky, who started working on Beeper as a side project with Tulir Asokan, a Matrix collaborator he met in a chat room.
In order for Beeper (formerly Nova) to work with all the different chat applications, they had to build these connection “bridges”. This code is also open source and is available at Gitlab.com/Nova.
“We think it’s very important for people to know what code they’re running, so everything is open source. People can inspect it,” Migicovsky points out.
Because of this, people also don’t have to pay Beeper the $10 per month it is charging for access to the service. If they know what they are doing, they can run the bridges on their own servers, if they wish.
While each messaging platform has its own unique setup in Beeper, getting iMessage to work was the trickiest. Beeper actually sends its users an older jailbroken iPhone to serve as a bridge. The code installed on the iPhone reads and writes to the database file where your iMessages are stored. The iPhone encrypts the messages with its own private key and then sends them over the Beeper network. This means that Beeper, the company, cannot read your messages, Migicovsky says.
This process allows Android, Windows and Linux users to use iMessage. But it’s not the only way Beeper can make iMessages work. Mac users with an always-on device can opt to install a Beeper Mac app to act as a bridge.
Migicovsky says he is not afraid of any attempted shutdown or litigation by Apple. Even if Apple somehow prevented Beeper from providing jailbroken iPhones to users, the company could redirect its customers to purchase their own old iPhones from Craigslist. Meanwhile, the software itself is open source and runs on an iPhone in the user’s home, so Beeper isn’t really “hacking” iMessage.
“I think given the current climate of messaging freedom it would be crazy for Apple to start fighting with its own users,” Migicovsky adds. He also notes that the European Commission is working on a GDPR-like bill that would force all companies to open up messaging to other platforms.
“When that passes, legally they won’t be able to stop people from doing something like Beeper,” Migicovsky notes.
Beeper, of course, is neither the first nor the only startup focused on trying to break iMessage blocking. Other apps tried to do this in the past, such as AirMessage or weMessage, for example. However, they only had one limited adoption and Beeper is not the only startup trying to centralize chat apps. Texts.com is developing a similar system.
That said, Beeper subscriptions were larger than Migicovsky expected, he says, though he declined to share details. He says Beeper is slowly onboarding users as a result.
Despite the competition, where Beeper may have an edge in understanding what makes for a great user experience, Pebble, after all, sold more than 2 million watches.
Today, Beeper promises features such as search, postpone, archive and reminders, and runs on macOS, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android.
In the long term, Migicovsky envisions a platform that could do more than just text and share media, stickers and emojis, like other chat apps. Instead, the team is building a platform that would allow people to create more tools and apps in addition to Beeper, a system similar to Gmail add-ons. For example, there could be tools that allow users to schedule calendar events from within their chats. Or perhaps a tool could help you see all the most recent messages you received with a particular user on different platforms, like Clearbit.
Migicovsky also declined to detail how the work on Beeper is being funded, but when asked if Beeper could be the next step for him, as in a new venture to work on, he replied, “possibly.”