The History of Instant Messaging Within the Shipping Industry

26 January 2021

The rise and fall of the shipping industry's instant messaging platforms over the years.

The History of Instant Messaging Within the Shipping Industry

For an industry that is built on relationships, communication, and the messaging tools that support it, is an important choice for shipping professionals to make. Historically we have seen the rise and fall of various instant messaging platforms owing to shifts in behaviour, technology advances, corporate cultures, and security and governance. With the recent update across WhatsApp’s terms and conditions surrounding data ownership, the shipping industry once again finds itself at a crossroads as messaging providers race for market share. We take a lookback at the messaging platforms for shipping professional and ask key questions about what the future may look like and how high data security and ownership now sits on the list. 

The Emergence of Instant Messaging

The first instant messaging tools adopted by the shipping industry were MSN and Yahoo. MSN was more attractive in the Dry Cargo markets, whilst Yahoo Messenger found favour amongst some of the oil and commodity brokers hence became more prevalent in Tankers and Gas.  Both these products were launched at a similar time, the late 1990s, and were available at no costIn those pioneering days, the products lacked the sophistication to parse or scrape data hence it was perhaps the only time in recent history whenas a collective, we have all agreed on just two platforms for communicating. The position of the two products was further entrenched by the advent of companies being able to record message history, thereby satisfying the Compliance Divisions who had become itchy at the lack of control they had over what was being said and done on these platforms 

Whilst these early instant messaging tools were designed for the consumer market, they were easily adapted for business and enhancements of Groups, Broadcasts, Emojis and, in the case of Yahoo, aliasesmade them winners. Their usage was restricted to desktop only since the brick-like phones of the time did not support Apps.  

Mobile Instant Messaging

As familiar as we have become with Smart Phones, they are a comparatively recent addition to the mobile landscape. The early noughties saw a proliferation of mobile phones that could do little more than make and receive calls and text messages. Motorola, Nokia and Erikson were big hits with their distinctive week-long battery life, but when Blackberry launched their colour 7000 series in 2004, the business community took notice. Email and messaging became achievable in or out of the office and Yahoo was one of the first to be accessible through the device. The iPhone was first launched in 2007 but it was not until the iPhone 5 in 2012 that sales in the business user community truly picked up. Even then, colleagues swore, and still swear, that they could type a message much faster on a Blackberry than on the iPhone. One notable factor in favour of the iPhone was the App store and the ability to download Yahoo messenger which, by that time was the leading product in the shipping markets. 

Corporate instant messaging tools

Whilst the MSN (later rebranded Windows Live Messenger) and Yahoo products were the most adopted by shipping professionals, products from organisations like ICE and Bloomberg had their share of success in the financial markets, where a more compliant tool was required if it was going to be installed on the desktop of a trader at a bank. Microsoft bought rival Skype in 2011 which spelled the end of MSN Messenger as we knew it with the product being subsumed into Skype during 2012/13.  

From History to the Present

With the landscape becoming more crowded, shipping users had to broaden the range of products they were using with Skype, Yahoo, Ice and Bloomberg all having their advocates. Which product you used depended on a number of factors: Who you were talking to, where your recipient was located and what they could access, what would your company allowed you to have, whether you were in the office, at home or in a Business Centre in an hotel. As a broker, you wanted to be wherever your client was, to build that relationship and make opportunities happen. As a result, you had everything, for everyone, everywhere. Just in case. Consequently, it was easy to miss messages and you would end up having one conversation across multiple different platforms depending on which way the wind blew.  

From beginnings in the personal messaging space, WhatsApp, having been launched some years earlier in 2009, was making a more established name for itself with 200 million users by 2013. WeChat had a similar run of popularity, particularly in China, at the same time. Both products offered the individual user a quick and easy sign-up process and the end-to-end encryption provided further reassurance. The feature-rich products soon started to impose themselves in the shipping space despite huge resistance from the compliance teams and CTOs in companies who suddenly had no control to record conversations on these devices. 

The bombshell that truly shattered the comparative calm was the announcement in late 2017 that Yahoo was going to close down Yahoo Messenger. A corporate, compliant messenger was needed to take its place with the market split about which to go for. The tanker space largely went down the ICE messenger route since the oil majors had already adopted this on the commodity side despite the limitations of the mobile application and the costs they were now, for the first time, having to pay. The dry space felt more comfortable with Skype whilst the futures and banking teams tended to favour Reuters Eikon, a comparatively new entrant, or Bloomberg Messenger with its associated costs. 

Far from seeing consolidation in the messaging industry, most now have a proliferation of half a dozen messaging products, any one of which could hold vital historical commercial information or provide the trigger for the next time-sensitive and confidential deal. But will your customer even be looking at the messenger you are transmitting on? What an unholy mess! 

Transparency, data and security for instant messaging

Usability is expected as standard. Now, more than ever, we have a growing concern around data privacy, security of personal details, cookies, tracking, and transparency of terms. These factors are hugely impacting our communication tools of choice. Likewise, it has given business owners and CTO’s sleepless nights: If an employee leaves the business with stacks of business or market sensitive data contained in an individual’s personal WhatsApp, who owns that information or what if it gets into the wrong hands? 

With WhatsApp’s recent terms update around data sharing with Facebook, many of us are now re-evaluating what tools we should be using: 

  • What tools suit me personally? 
  • What tools are appropriate for communicating with my clients? 
  • Is that the same tool? Or should I have two different ones? 
  • Do I understand the terms of use? 
  • What do I know about this company and who owns it? 
  • Who owns my data, and am I happy about that? 
  • What would happen if there was a data breach, could that happen? 
  • What is everyone else doing? 

In the past couple of weeks, we have seen millions of users switch from WhatsApp to Signal and Telegram as alternative providers to the market leader. But have these users done their due diligence and really considered the choices they are making? Signal had a major outage in the middle of January as it struggled, and ultimately failed, to cope with the volume of usage. Telegram, meanwhile, a Russian owned product, promoted it had added 25 million users in a 72-hour period. 

For the shipping industry this is a very real concern and a space with lots of challenges that requires a solution. We have covered much in this article: too many tools in too many places, poor usability, poor security, more messages than ever before, more beeps, more notifications, more governance, more flexible working days, the 24-hour working day, the need for speed…so what’s the answerUnderstanding these factors and living and breathing them every day Clarksons PLC – a leader in our industry – set out to solve this very big challenge and have done so in the form of a separate entity, Maritech and its premier chat tool Sea/chat. It has been designed as a free product specifically for the shipping industry and specifically to meet the needs of both the individual in terms of usability and function and the business in terms of security and governance. With a verified userbase, helpful built-in features such as Sea/bots for vessel and area intelligence on-demand and a roadmap that includes voice and video chat, Sea/chat should be a serious contender for our next leading shipping instant messaging tool.