Delta Chat: universal messaging over email

When I first heard about Delta Chat and the idea of instant messages sent through email I was both thrilled and confused. I remember thinking to myself: how would it work? In my mind, email was quick but it was hardly instantaneous. It turns out that the good, old email can be indeed used to deliver short messages, just like any other IM does. I mean, Delta Chat is a bit different in this respect since it doesn't use a single provider (like Signal or WhatsApp) and this fact alone can be baffling to some people. It can also affect your experience with the app because it relies on your email provider. And trust me, the whole email landscape can be messy. But knowing the limitations we can still enjoy sending sweet, short messages to our friends and family. They don't even have to use the app themselves: the messages will still arrive in their inboxes. That's the beauty of interoperability.

Sending your first message

So how do you get started? Well, if you have an email account, and I assume you do (be it Gmail or work account), you should first check the compatibility: There's a good chance that your current inbox will do the trick. Unfortunately, some secure email providers like Proton or Tutanota are not supported because they use non-standard connection protocols. If you have one of those (I use both) you'll need to look elsewhere. And if you don't mind paying a few euros per year I know for a fact that Posteo is an excellent choice.

Once we have the provider covered, now it's time to download Delta Chat. I've got some very good news: it's available for every major platform, including Android, iOS, Windows, MacOS, and Linux. I recommend starting with one device, e.g. your Android smartphone. Later on, you can set up a second device, like your laptop, similar to what other messengers offer. Ok, with the app installed you'll log into your email. Don't worry, your credentials won't be sent to DC servers because... there aren't any. What you do here is logging directly to your email account. After providing your email and password you should be ready to go. In most cases, the app will detect the required server configuration so you don't have to hunt for specific instructions. In the rare event that it doesn't, you can always set it up manually (which I've never had to do). You should now be able to send your first message. Who will be the lucky recipient? =)

The good and the bad

I'm trying to be completely honest with you so here are some loose thoughts about Delta Chat. Let's start with the positive. The app uses email as its 'back-end' so it's the most universal IM out there. Almost everybody has an email address so you can message people from the get-go without even asking them to install additional software. Your message will simply appear in your contact's inbox. Here's the (small) problem. By default, email is not encrypted so if you use DC and your contact doesn't, then your messages will be in plain text. I know, it's not ideal. But if you're not discussing anything confidential you might not care. If you'd rather make use of automatic encryption then you'll have to convince your contacts to install DC. So yeah, you cannot beat the universal aspect of this system, maybe with the exception of mobile numbers, but that's a different story.

As for usability: Delta Chat has all the essentials that modern IMs offer, without the ability to place calls (natively). I believe you can set up an external voice service but I haven't experimented with that. I treat DC as my text-based messenger. However, it can do more than just text. You can send images, videos, emojis, voice notes and even share location. You can have 1:1 chats or groups. The latest, and still experimental feature let's you create broadcast lists, which resemble Telegram channels or good ol' email newsletters. Want more? If both contacts use DC you can enable 'disappearing messages', just like in Signal or WhatsApp. Finally, there's the killer feature: Webxdc, or apps / games that work within chats. Just to mention a few: TimeTracking, CrappyBird, Snake, Reactle (Wordle clone), Tic Tac Toe, Poll, Calendar, and more. I've had lots of fun with these mini apps.

Now let me mention some not-so-great aspects. I've already told you about the encryption, or lack thereof if your recipient doesn't use DC (yet). Maybe it won't matter to you but I find it problematic. The app may not be as streamlined and intuitive for some people who are used to centralised IMs (again: Signal, Whatsapp, Telegram). BTW, the whole idea of decentralisation (and email is decentralised, at least in principle) can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it's great: no single point of failure, yay! On the other hand: not all email providers play by the rules, and so we have deliverability problems. So I'm putting a warning here: you might experience delayed, or even missing messages. It all depends on your (and your contact's) email provider. There are ways to get around this problem, like using your own email server, but it's beyond the scope of this post. The last thing I want to discuss is message retention / storage. I know it can be pretty confusing for new DC users. You might think that your chats will clutter your inbox. Thankfully, that's not the case. Delta Chat moves your short messages into its own folder on the server. This allows you to use one email account for both traditional emails and chat messages. By default, DC doesn't delete anything from the server (smart move IMO). So if you'd like to free some space you can either 'clear' individual chats or just delete the contents of “Delta Chat” folder on the server. There's an option to auto-delete messages from the server (and/or app) but I don't recommend it. Better safe than sorry.

Want to learn more?

Thanks for reading! This post is a bit longer than usual. I admit I’m quite passionate about the topic ;) Now go and share the knowledge! If you'd like to know more about Delta Chat, check their FAQ. It's available both online and in the app itself (also offline!). Happy chatting!

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