OpenKeychain screenshot

Software reviews: messaging apps

As messaging of all sorts converges onto the smartphone, the need for simplicity – and, for many people, privacy too – grows ever more important. We look at apps that can help.



2 CHF (about £1.40)

Instant messaging is hugely popular and, as we have reported previously, it is taking over from SMS and MMS for exchanging text messages, photos, video clips and so on. Its weak point is privacy: even those instant messengers that offer encryption and say they take user privacy seriously can have flaws. For example, the encryption may be optional, or their privacy policies may allow a new owner access to your information, or they are hosted in the US and are therefore vulnerable to US government data-tapping.

Threema uses high-grade end-to-end encryption and is hosted in Switzerland, which should make it immune to US snooping – whether legitimate or by a rogue government employee or contractor. An additional encryption layer providing Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS) protects the metadata (the who-contacted-who information) from interception in transit. Of course, if the spooks or hackers can get a keylogger onto your phone, then all bets are off.

Threema also claims to take better care of its users' data, so where many of its rivals help themselves to your address book and location data, Threema does not collect, mine or sell any data. You can even use the service anonymously, without providing a phone number or syncing your contacts list, and if you do sync your contacts, they are sent in hashed or pseudonymous form.

Similarly, it offers a trust rating of sorts for your contacts. If you typed their eight-character Threema ID manually or they messaged you unexpectedly, they show as red; if they match a contact in your address book by email or phone number, they get amber because you can be reasonably sure who they are; and if you verified their public key by scanning their QR code on their phone screen they go green. You could also scan a screenshot or even a photocopy instead of the phone screen, but this is risky because the wrong public keys could leave you open to man-in-the-middle attacks.

What's not clear is just how much people are really prepared to change or give up in return for privacy. In the German-speaking world, Threema benefited from a rush of new users immediately following Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp, but many Germans seem to have decided since then that WhatsApp is not so dangerous for the average user after all. However, if you really do have concerns about eavesdropping, Threema is only the cost of two years of WhatsApp, plus it is a one-off purchase, not a subscription. Android and iOS apps are available now, with Windows Phone under development.




The concept of unified messaging – collecting all your email, voicemail, instant messages and so on in one place – first became fashionable in the late 1990s. It was expensive and complex though, because it meant integrating several different devices and applications, adding location-based algorithms to determine the best medium to reply through, and so on.

Who would have imagined back then that all those lines of communication would converge on the mobile phone? Yet this is what Swingmail and its companion app Swingbook set out to deal with. (A third app in the family handles calendaring.) Swingmail aggregates messages from Googlemail, Facebook and Twitter, plus voice and FaceTime calls – the apps are iPhone-only for now.

Swingbook does more than just aggregate your contact lists. It lists your contacts in order of priority instead of A-Z, and the priority changes through the day and with location. For example, if you have an appointment with someone, they should move to the top of your list.

Both apps attempt to filter too, focusing on important messages and regular contacts – though this may not suit everyone, of course!

In both apps, you can swipe left or right to phone or message that contact. If you create a message and that person has multiple lines of communication listed, you can choose which one to send it over. Similarly, if someone has both a phone number and Facetime address listed, you can choose which one to call them by.

Boxer Inc


free or £6.99

A digital footprint that a lot of email users would like to reduce is the task of dealing with – or simply looking at – all those unread emails. Boxer is one of several apps that implement a new strategy for email called Inbox Zero. This doesn't mean deleting everything as soon as you have read it. Instead, as you go through your email you should either archive it, delete it, reply immediately if it's quick, forward it to someone who can answer it better, or tag it for a longer reply later.

So Boxer lets you swipe each message left to archive or delete it, or right to pull up a menu of other actions such as moving it to a to-do list or the spam folder. This relies on the service using the modern IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) scheme, where email primarily resides on the server in folders and is only downloaded temporarily. IMAP allows Boxer to move messages between existing server folders, such as inbox, spam and archive, and also to set up its own folders for to-do items and the like.

As well as IMAP services, such as Gmail, Hotmail, etc., the Android app can also pull email from services using the older – and more limited – POP3 scheme, which the iPhone app cannot. Both can also link to your social network apps to retrieve avatars (icons or pictures) for your correspondents.

One downside is that you can only send from the email addresses associated with your accounts, not a forwarded address on another domain or a Gmail alias, say. On the plus side, Boxer lets you copy messages into your Evernote database if you have one, or 'like' a message, Facebook-style.

The upgrade options differ between iOS and Android, but essentially the Pro version adds support for multiple email accounts and MS Exchange, plus integration with Box and Dropbox cloud file storage so you can send files from there. It also adds canned but editable quick-response options.




If you don't want to pay for an email app but still want a gesture-based zero inbox metaphor on Android or iPhone, consider Mailbox instead. Useful features include swiping a message to the left to choose when you want to be reminded to deal with it, for example later today or next month. A longer swipe left lets you move the email to one of several to-do lists such as 'buy this' or 'read this'.

Buttons at top let you quickly switch between seeing your inbox, your archived messages and your deferred list. You can also view your various mail folders by pulling over a menu from the left screen edge. Of course, if you view your zero'd inbox on the web, there is nothing there, but you can view the new folders online or simply chose Google's 'All Mail' view, which also displays the archive.

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