This is what Android Messages should have been from the beginning.
Microsoft significantly raised the quality of its services on Android over the course of the last two years, leading to great Android apps that include the likes of Next Lock Screen and Microsoft Launcher.
The latest is SMS Organizer, a text messaging service from Microsoft Garage, an initiative within the company that lets employees work on projects they're passionate about. The app leverages machine learning to automatically sort messages based on context, and comes with an array of customization options that makes it a worthy alternative to your current messaging app.
Before we get into the specifics, a quick look at how the app came to be. SMS Organizer was developed by a Microsoft Garage working out of Hyderabad, India, and is tailored to address problems unique to the Indian market. With the government mandating two-factor authentication on all online transactions, customers are often inundated with OTPs for everything from logging in to a mobile wallet to making payments with a credit card.
SMS Organizer is designed to cut through the clutter and provide a messaging experience that surfaces useful information at the top. Therefore, the app's main interface is split into three sections: texts, reminders, and starred messages. The reminders feature is one that is particularly useful to me: it parses the information in the texts and creates cards with actionable data.
For flights, SMS Organizer will surface the date and time as well as the booking reservation number, and for things like credit card bills, it will show the due date and the total amount due. This feature isn't new — Xiaomi has been doing the same in its stock MIUI messaging app for over a year now, but with SMS Organizer you can use it on any device.
The SMS tab is broken down into five categories — personal, transactional, promotional, archived, and blocked — and SMS Organizer automatically sorts incoming messages into the appropriate section. The personal tab is what shows up when you open the app, but you can change it to the transactional tab from the settings.
Notifications for promotional texts are disabled by default, and as someone who receives a lot of spam, this is one of the best features in SMS Organizer. If for some reason you want to enable notifications, you can do so from the settings.
The app also comes with swipe gestures, à la Outlook. The default action for the swipe left gesture is to mark a message as read, and swiping right opens the Move To dialog box. Of course, you can configure the actions for either gesture from the settings. And oh, there's also a dark theme as well.
You can also set up a message signature, and SMS Organizer comes with rules to automatically delete messages. For messages in the promotional tab and blocked messages, you can choose from either one week, month, or year, and the app will automatically delete messages based on your choice. For OTPs, there's an added option that lets you delete messages older than three days.
With reminders, automatic backups, and a dark theme, you don't need another messaging app.
There are so many features in SMS Organizer that make it a robust messaging service, but the one that made me switch to the app is its backup option. You'll be able to automatically back up messages to Google Drive — options range from manual, daily, weekly, and monthly — and restore them when moving to a new device.
The option is disabled by default, so you don't necessarily have to link your Drive account to SMS Organizer if you're not going to use the restore feature.
The main drawback with SMS Organizer is that you can't use it outside of India. Even if you get a hold of the APK file, you'll need an Indian phone number to authenticate via an OTP to start using the service.
I talked to Microsoft's Senior Program Manager Nikhil Verma, who led the team that created SMS Organizer. He explained how the app came to be, from an initial prototype in a hackathon to a service tailored for the Indian market:
While smartphone penetration has been growing by leaps and bounds in India, the number of users who use feature phones is still staggeringly large. This makes SMS the most inclusive medium of delivering information in India today.
Most business and government transactions today trigger an SMS text message for confirmation of service. In addition to these transactions, businesses have been using SMS for sending a promotional text messages to consumers in India. Simply put, the deluge of text messages that an average consumer receives on a daily basis creates a very messy SMS inbox.
After talking to several users it appeared that SMS handling was largely broken across most bundled SMS apps and that none of them were meeting the needs of these Indian consumers. We created a prototype in an internal Hackathon and the response was phenomenal. We were trying to solve an everyday problem mobile users faced in India and the excitement over our prototype energized us to deliver this to the market.
As SMS Organizer relies on machine learning to sort messages, there are privacy implications. Verma confirmed that the service uses on-device text classification, with the data never making its way to a Microsoft server:
SMS Organizer uses machine learning models to classify SMS messages into personal, promotional and transactional categories. Within the transactional category, the model identifies a class of messages that are actionable through reminders and parses them for important details that are required for triggering and displaying reminders.
We took user privacy very seriously from the beginning and designed the app around the fundamental premise that SMS is a very private entity for a user. The user should have the absolute control around how they manage and backup their SMS. Hence, all the data classification is done on the device and none of the SMS content is ever uploaded to the cloud.
The ability to seamlessly back up and restore messages from Drive combined with the robust feature-set — including a reminders feature and intelligent sorting of texts — makes SMS Organizer the best messaging app I've used in a long time. According to market intelligence firm Apptopia, SMS Organizer nearly doubled its monthly active users in January to 55,000, and while that's a fairly low number, the 31,000 daily active users suggests those that installed the app are continuing to use it.
The interface itself is clean and devoid of any clutter, the app has a ton of customizability, and you can fine-tune the settings to tailor a messaging experience that's one of the best available on Android.
As for availability outside of India, Verma said that there is a "lot of interest." Microsoft is "continuing to gather user feedback before making any decisions," so there's a possibility we'll see it heading to other markets at a later date.