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Things you should know about developing custom real-time chat application

The rise of social media has forever changed our world. An obvious part of reality for the younger generation, it has had a huge impact on the older audience as well. Even today’s grandparents take to social media to connect. Hell, people wake up, and the first thing they check is their Facebook account.

Pop a comment here, answer a message there – nothing out of the ordinary. All before the morning shower and brushing your teeth. Well, you need not to smell good to have a chat. Not in this day and age.

Chat apps, chat features, chatbots – by now chats in all forms, on iOS or Android, on your desktop, tablet or phone are a part of everyday life.

Back in the day…

I remember the times when chat was just text. Nothing else. On computers, it was the IRC, on mobile phones – the SMS. They were both awesome. IRC opened the global floodgates of communication. All of a sudden, with hardly any effort, being in Poland I could speak to someone in Australia and be totally surprised to learn it’s the middle of the night in Melbourne when I was sitting at the library at 4pm. Small world it started to become.

Fast forward to 2018 and chat is now an integral part of our lives. People virtually (sic) live in their social apps and chatting has become as natural as a morning coffee.

development of chat apps

Developing innovation

Creating a real time chat feature for an app is a challenge every app developer in the world faces sooner or later. Clients’ requirements keep growing along with market leaders’ strive to innovate. And usually, as soon as a software house develops one or two chats, they start claiming no less than expertise in the field. Looking at the complexity of the subject, becoming an expert takes a bit more than that.

You may think a chat application is a basic thing. All the popular services like FB Messenger, WhatsApp do give the impression that it’s all easy and straightforward. When you start looking under the hood, you realize there is much more to it than what you see on your screen.

How chat application work?

First of all, with real time chat app like whatsapp, we are talking two-way communication. At the most basic level, a user types a message, sends it, another user receives it and answers back. Easy? Sounds like it. Technically – not so much. For this back and forth process to work in mobile apps and web services a kind of a “middle-man” is required.

In digital messaging, a message is sent, ends up in the backend – a server, then gets sent to the addressee’s device along with a notification, and shows up on recipient’s screen. As much as text in 1 on 1 communication is fairly easy to facilitate by this process, any variations – multiple recipients, groups, channels, cross-device communication etc. require much more sophisticated processes and development tools.

The real pickle in two-way communication is actually the sending on the server side. Imagine postal service. It seems pretty easy to go to the post office and send a package, but for the addressee to actually receive it, a complex and resource heavy logistical process is employed. Sorting, transport routes, exchanges, identifying the recipient – your package goes through quite a bit before it ends up where it’s supposed to. The process of Sending and receiving messages in chat apps is just as complicated, and the logistics of it must be done right.

First of all, communication over the internet is done using protocols, which connect devices with each other. These protocols (like websockets or XMPP) need to be handled properly for the communication to run smoothly for real-time communication, your online chat app will require full duplex transmission. Meaning, both sides must be able to use the connection’s bandwidth at the same time.

Today, instant messaging apps are more than just plain text, and each new feature requires a technology capable of producing it. Sending photos and files, video calling, group chat various security features, confirmations, and push notifications – each of these need a significant amount of programmers work.

More than meets the eye

Numerous technologies, communication protocols, tools and services are required to create a fully working, reliable chat app. The choice of the most appropriate solutions depends primarily on the client’s requirements.

For apps of high complexity, large number of features and significant amount of intended users, a completely custom development is unavoidable.

Custom made applications’ are built using open source frameworks – Software Development Kits (SDK). The choice of the right one depends highly on the set of requirements. In order for an application to handle a variety (text, file, audio/video) of  high volume, real-time communication, its server side needs to be reliable and designed with scalability in mind.

Custom app developers like to work with what they know. Building a chat app from scratch makes further development, maintenance and service much easier and cost efficient, than working on modifying an off the shelf solution. If you think you found a cheap ready-made messaging app template that suits your needs – great. If you think it’s good but needs a few modifications to work for you – keep in mind that most times developers might charge you close, or even as much for the modifications, as they would for a full development, due to restrictions and complications when working with unknown code.

The running costs of licensing, hosting and further development will quickly spin out of control and weigh heavily on the owner of the product. This is important to consider when you’re planning your own mobile app with a chat feature. Custom development of a chat module, if it’s to be anything more than just exchange of text messages, is most times a project on its own.

Does my app need a chat?

If you’re planning a social app for people to connect, a chat feature is practically mandatory. The market of social apps is filled with a plethora of products, with big names like Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram leading the pack.

To compete here you need more than an average product – you want to offer real value to your users, along with a fresh, new feel that will make heads turn. The chat feature in a service like that would have to be at least able to compete, so plain text exchange will simply not cut it.

If your application is anything else than social, then there’s usually no need for a huge palette of extra features. Depending on your business, you might need more than just texting between two users, but contrary to a social app, in business applications, it’s better to tailor the solution to your needs, than pack it with unnecessary stuff no one will use.

What can a chat do?

Long gone are the times when chat was just text communication between two users. Nowadays, they are capable of much, much more. Among the most common features, there are file sharing, group chats, user status, voice, and video calls. Each of these may look like something natural to today’s user, but for an app developers, they take significant time and resources to produce.

If you imagine a chain of communication that needs to be supported by your chat app, the importance of the server’s quality and reliability is paramount. Imagine 100k users sending 100 messages each day. The message gets sent, recipient notified, sender notified of reception, recipient answers.

how chat application works - diagram

All that means billions of various types of server requests processed instantly. The users expect this to be done smoothly and in real time. Thinking a $30 chat template would be able to do that efficiently and without glitches is an extremely far fetched assumption.  

More than plain text

Less common, but well within the scope of users’ expectations are functions like timestamp, notifications of the message received, a user typing a message, type of device user is on. There are also features that take care of safety and security of chat communication. Secure login, where and how your chat data is stored and deleted, logging from various devices at the same time, message delivery speed – are all important pieces of the puzzle that require adequate technology and specialists to develop.

All these app features need to be supported by the server of the app, or, if they are to be added to the app in the future, the backend should have the options to facilitate this.

Template, off-the shelf solutions are, by nature, not designed for significant modifications and further growth. In short – what you see is what you get.

Thinking scale

Although there is plenty of ready-made, template solutions out there, none of them is comprehensive enough to address all your needs, not to mention future scalability or licensing rights. A bespoke development will mean you get complete control over what is done and how it feels. After all, the only thing standing between your developer and the money is your approval of their work :).

All of the above require a significant amount of work to develop. Adopting the right strategy in the development is extremely important for the future of your product. A software developer will be able to design and build a chat tailored exactly to your present and future needs.

The bigger the application you’re planning, the more important building a high quality server infrastructure for a chat becomes. To ensure the possibility of scaling and further development, your development company must design your product, so this can be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. That is, if you want an app that makes business sense, not an on-going investment.

Reflection of self

Features and functions aside, there’s more to a chat than just what it does. What it looks and feels like makes a whole lot of a difference. User Experience matters in all B2B, B2C and C2C applications. A custom developed mobile app will give you the freedom of adjusting your app’s look and feel to your business’ identity. As the whole app is to be the reflection of your brand, the chat must follow suit.

Here, again, a custom-made user friendly app holds a significant advantage over an off-the-shelf solution. You can advise your developer to include all the important branding as well as adjust the UX to feel like the app is a natural part of your business. You can achieve that only by direct contribution to your project. Presenting the UX designer with your ideas of how your app is to reflect your business, ensures that the design goes in the right direction.

Discover first

Understanding all the technical details of chat app development is truly challenging. The multitude of available solutions, the costs, and level of developers’ expertise all have a huge impact on the process and must be thoroughly considered before starting a project. One thing you simply can’t ignore with a chat application or feature is the product discovery. This initial phase of product design is going to give you answers to all the questions about your future product’s viability.

Find an app developer, who will offer a complete analysis of your idea before moving forward with the project. This may sound obvious, but the consequences of ignoring this phase will almost certainly be disastrous. Particularly in large-scale communication projects, with little room for error.

Bespoke – looks and sells better

Custom app development holds significant advantages over off-the-shelf solutions. Not only for your having a complete control over what is designed, developed and delivered. The product you receive will be your own, not just symbolically reflecting you and your business, but also legally – you will hold the rights to the whole thing. This will make it easier and cheaper to maintain, service and further develop it, as well as enable you to charge a licensing fee to other businesses for using it.

Things you should know about developing custom real-time chat application
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Paweł Czerniewski, Writer

Paweł Czerniewski, Writer

Writer and a technology enthusiast from Melbourne, Australia working at itCraft in Poland. He writes IT related content, researched with industry professionals, for passionate audience interested in mobile app and software development.
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