What is the Matrix protocol and how does it work?

Most of the platforms we use to communicate with each other online are linked to a single provider. But there is no technical reason for it to be that way. There are ways to chat online that offer a greater degree of privacy and freedom. Matrix is ​​one of those ways.

What is the matrix protocol?

Matrix is ​​an open standard for real-time communication. Specifically, it allows you to communicate between different service providers. Think about how email works. If you have a ProtonMail email address, you are not limited to speaking only to other ProtonMail users. Matrix offers the same freedom of online chat.

Matrix is ​​one of the many apps and services available to help you decentralize your online business in this way. Together they are known as the decentralized web (or fediverse), and with them you can take control of your digital life today.

Matrix is ​​not the first attempt to decentralize the chat.

XMPP, the extensible messaging and presence protocol, has already done this for instant messaging, where it has served as the basis for Google Talk, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp (all of which are increasingly locked down). Moreover, because XMPP is extensible, it has also evolved to handle VoIP calls and video chat.

Matrix is ​​a newer protocol designed to do all of this from the ground up, the way we’ve become used to chatting on our devices. Yet, it’s not just this ability that makes The Matrix interesting, but how the Matrix works.

How does the Matrix protocol work?

Matrix-element-web-app-startup

The Matrix.org Foundation describes Matrix not as a protocol but as a decentralized conversation store. There is no single point of failure, such as a centralized server, in Matrix. When you communicate with someone, the data is shared among all the servers, with the users participating in the conversation. If your server goes down, the conversation can still continue elsewhere until your server restarts.

It is an effort to democratize communication. Each server has the same ownership over conversations and self-sovereignty over user data. These servers can be self-hosted at home or on a virtual private server or hosted by an organization, business or community. This contrasts with all of the major commercial platforms, such as Discord, where the company owns the servers that everyone connects to and, therefore, all of the data. And if those servers go down, no one can communicate.

This is not where the contrasts end. While someone on Twitter can’t send a direct message to someone on Facebook, the Matrix is ​​interoperable by design. You can set up your Skype account, Discord account, and Slack account so that no matter where someone sends you a message, you see them in your Matrix client and you can reply to any of them from. from one place. Matrix refers to this feature as a bridge.

How to use the matrix

web-application-element-matrix

To start communicating using the Matrix protocol, you need a Matrix client. This is the application whose icon you will see in your application drawer, on your desktop or in your taskbar.

The Matrix.org Foundation recommends Element as the closest thing to a flagship product. It showcases what Matrix can do and is cross-platform, so you can install it on whatever desktop or mobile operating system you want.

Element isn’t alone, and there are plenty of clients to choose from. Some are suitable for a specific operating system or, on Linux, a specific desktop environment, such as Fractal for GNOME and NeoChat for KDE Plasma. Others are created using a specific programming language or toolkit, such as FluffyChat created with Go and Mirage with Qt and Python. Each offers support for a varying degree of Matrix functionality.

You will also need to choose a server to host your account. You can opt for self-hosting if you want maximum control over your data and appreciate that freedom that you don’t have with large commercial networks. But it comes with added complexity, and it’s hardly necessary. If you just want to be up and running and start chatting as quickly as you would on any other platform, you can do that, too. Perhaps the easiest place to start is app.element.io.

Your Matrix user ID appears in the following format.

@username:server.com

This is similar to an email address or your nickname on Mastodon. On a centralized platform, everyone is on the same servers, so a single username may suffice. On federated networks, you must designate a user name and the server on which that user name can be formed. Keep in mind that the term “server” is used loosely here. Technically, a service like Instagram has many servers handling unimaginable amounts of data, but to the end user, these many servers appear as one.

What are the features of Matrix?

Matrix handles all kinds of communication, but communication is a very broad term. So what can you actually do with the Matrix?

  • Individual instant messaging

  • Discussion rooms

  • Video calls

  • Audio calls

  • File sharing

  • Other bridging functions not related to communication

The most direct comparison to a service similar to Matrix would be Discord. But in addition to Matrix federation, there is also end-to-end encryption support. So in addition to having greater ownership of your data, you also benefit from a greater degree of confidentiality.

Again, there are also gateways. While the experience isn’t seamless, Matrix is ​​one of the best options these days for using a single client to manage all of your different messaging platforms. You can also link to services that are not used to communicate with others, such as receiving updates on new posts in an RSS feed.

You can even link the Matrix with Twitter, but if you want a full-fledged decentralized alternative, you can consider Mastodon instead.

Should you be using Matrix?

As with any communication platform, the question comes down to which platforms do your friends, family or colleagues use? Are they ready to change? Or do you just connect with people who already use the Matrix? Again, there are already channels you can join to talk to strangers of common interests.

Even if no one in your circle uses Matrix, you can still embrace Matrix on your own and relate to the platform they are using.

Matrix is ​​an exciting technology and an example of how online communication could be done. If it’s a vision you share, sign up and help make it happen.


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