Messaging service Slack—once a leader in embracing emoji as a means of expression thanks to custom emoji, emoji reactions, and an easy emoji input method—has fallen behind recently. New emoji have been continually added to the lexicon, but for the last couple of years, Slack has not responded.
Well, right now Slack is finally rolling out a major update to its emoji support that finally supports new emoji introduced in the last couple of years. But there’s a big catch. My friend Erika Ensign spotted this last week, when all of a sudden the emoji images she was used to (which are based on Apple’s emoji set) disappeared from her Windows PC running Chrome, replaced by the emoji images that are standard on Android.
When I suggested to Erika that perhaps her settings had changed, and she could go into Slack’s settings to see which emoji set was selected, I expected her to see Slack’s (unusual) option to choose from among several different emoji sets:
You can’t copyright letters, and emoji sometimes seem like the modern equivalent, but each emoji image is itself a copyrightable piece of artwork. The Unicode Consortium, which defines the emoji specification, does not provide artwork to anyone. As a result, every platform owner is left to commission its own artwork, and they do, generally.
Apple’s emoji designs have carried a lot of weight, with the success of the iPhone leading many people viewing Apple’s designs as definitive. Some apps, like Whatsapp and Slack, actually used Apple’s emoji set on other platforms. Last fall Whatsapp unveiled its own emoji set, and with Slack removing Apple’s images from non-Apple platforms, you get the sense that someone at Apple has nudged developers who were re-using Apple’s copyrighted artwork on other platforms and suggested that they stop.
As Burge points out at Emojipedia:
While Apple’s emoji font is entirely owned and copyrighted by Apple, Google’s emoji font (named Noto Color Emoji) is provided with an open source license which allows other projects to use this within the terms set out in the SIL Open Font License. Given this, it’s possible that Slack believes it is on firmer ground to be using Noto Color Emoji rather than embedding Apple emoji images on competing platforms.
The result is emoji fragmentation, where different users of Slack will see different versions of the same general concept. Also, users like my friend Erika might prefer one set of emoji designs to another, but they no longer have a choice in the matter.
That’s the bad news. The good news, at least, is that Slack is rolling out support for new emojis, including gender splits and skin tones, that it previously didn’t.