Craig Wilson | Telegram: The (possibly) secure WhatsApp alternative
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Telegram: The (possibly) secure WhatsApp alternative

Telegram_MessengerTelegram is another in a string of competitors hoping to unseat the reigning champion of mobile instant messaging, WhatsApp. Promising unprecedented security and protection from prying eyes, it also claims to be speedier than its rivals and assures users it will remain completely free and devoid of ads, forever. But with WhatsApp promising to add voice functionality in coming months, can Telegram realistically compete with the current darling of the tech world?

Since the extent of the snooping undertaken by the likes of the NSA and GCHQ came to light there’s been a growing number of applications promising to protect users’ privacy. Telegram does so by offering what it calls “secret chats” that offer end-to-end encryption and include a Snapchat-like self-destruct timer, which does exactly what you’d expect it to.

So confident in its encryption are the Russian duo behind Telegram that one of them has offered a bounty of $200 000 in cryptocurrency Bitcoin to anyone who can beat the service’s encryption before 1 March 2014.

Secret chats and encryption aside, Telegram looks and feels a great deal like WhatsApp — from the way it automatically creates a list of your existing contacts that have downloaded it (if you’re willing to let Telegram’s servers have your contact list) to the two ticks that appear alongside message timestamps (though in this case, the first indicates delivery, while the second indicates that a message has been read, whereas on WhatsApp the first indicates successful sending and the second delivery). That familiarity will almost certainly help, rather than a hinder, Telegram’s uptake.

Beyond its security features, interest in Telegram also been bolstered by Facebook’s recent eye-wateringly expensive acquisition of WhatsApp, and the service’s downtime that followed days later. While some people’s suspicion of all things Zuckerberg might explain the increase in interest in an IM service offering privacy, it doesn’t explain why Telegram — and not WeChat, Kik, LINE or any of the myriad competing services out there — saw such an upswing when WhatsApp went down. Perhaps the answer is shrewd publicity.

Telegram 5Telegram does feel decidedly faster than WhatsApp when sending message or multimedia content — and doesn’t limit the size of the files users can send — and it includes all of the key features you’d expect like the ability to share contacts or current location information. Really, the only thing it currently lacks is the ability to hide your “last seen” timestamp, but the service’s FAQ suggests this feature may follow.

If speed and privacy don’t concern you why should you consider switching to Telegram? One reason: it offers developers an application programming interface, or API. This means anyone with the inclination, time and know-how can create a custom version of Telegram, which in turn means it can be used on multiple devices, including desktop or laptop computers — a feature that keeps many Apple users using iMessage, despite its numerous and infuriating gremlins, and one many WhatsApp users have clamoured for.

If Facebook thought WhatsApp was going to be overtaken by one of its rivals in the near future it wouldn’t have spent so much money on it, but that’s not to say there isn’t room for other services in the market, particularly ones that address needs and desires as yet unmet. For now Telegram’s piqued the interest of the tech press and security conscious users alike. That’s as good a start as any.  — CW

UPDATE — 27 FEBRUARY 2014:

After posting this article to social networks I got a number of responses from developers and security experts pointing me at other posts online questioning the legitimacy of Telegram’s security claims. I’m not a security expert, but if you are you might find three of the recommended posts interesting.

The first is from a blog entitled Unhandled Expressions, and includes a lively discussion about security in the comments section between the author and Telegram. The second questions the framework of Telegram’s competition to beat its encryption, and the third takes a look at the major privacy-touting IM apps currently available.

Is Telegram as secure as it claims? I couldn’t say, but I’m encouraging my friends to move to it nonetheless for one reason: its desktop options. I’m (probably foolishly) not terribly concerned about the security or privacy of my messages, but I’m very interested in a truly cross-platform service that can be used on multiple devices, particularly laptop and desktop computers.

Earlier today I got around to trying one of the desktop apps, Messenger for Telegram (Mac OS X), and found it excellent, if imperfect. The app closely resembles the desktop version of iMessage and integrates well with the notification system in OS X Mavericks (10.7). The only obvious flaw — and it’s a minor one — is that reading a message using it doesn’t remove notifications of the same message from other devices like phones or tablet computers. That said, considering it’s not an official Telegram app and will doubtless be refined in future versions, I’m delighted with it.

Telegram-OS-XI can’t comment on the quality of the unofficial Windows apps, but considering there are three of them (along with three unofficial Linux apps and seven Windows Phone versions) it seems safe to assume at least one of them will suffice if you’re not an Apple user.

WhatsApp’s plan to introduce voice services in coming months mean I won’t be deleting it any time soon, but if Telegram follows suit (which it suggests it might) I may well become more evangelical about it.

If security and privacy are your primary concerns, you should probably do some thorough research before deciding which service to use. But if it’s functionality you’re after, you’d be hard pressed to find a better service than Telegram… until the next big thing, that is.  — CW

Thanks to Dominic White, Evan Knowles and Rigard Kruger for their input on this article.

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