Apple's Next Messaging Push Should be to Venture Online

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 3 min read

Yesterday I tweeted this:

I was at work yesterday and was struggling to keep a conversation going with my wife over a combination of iMessage and Twitter DMs. This complication is relatively fresh, as my still-new job has me in front of a Windows computer all day. I can use my phone whenever I need, but it’s a lot easier for my workflow to have all my work on my desktop.

I use to access my photos and Notes from my work computer. It’s very convenient, and while it’s not as fast and easy as using these services on my Apple devices, it’s a good fallback to have. I was lamenting that iMessage is not there to make my conversations with my wife easier while I’m at work. But it turns out that there are some perfectly good reasons why iMessage is not available on the web (thanks, Eric for the insight).

I still think Apple needs a more universally accessible messaging service, but I also see how iMessage has certain elements that fundamentally prevent it from being the web-based messaging platform of my dreams. Here’s what I’ve come up with as the 3 tiers of Apple’s Messages app that I would like to see in next year’s iOS X.

1. iMessage (secure/exclusive)

iMessage is clearly a hit, and absolutely is one of the key selling features of the iPhone. People love those blue bubbles! This currently is, and shall continue to be, the default messaging format for iOS and OS X devices.

One of iMessage’s selling features is its security. The messaging service does far more than any of its web-based competitors to keep your data safe. By nature of iMessage not living in the cloud, it is easier for you to know that your messages are only on your devices and not on an array of servers out there. Because this is such a large differentiator for iMessage, I doubt they’ll sacrifice that security in exchange for convenience. That’s what brings me to iOS X’s new addition to Messages…

2. X Message (social/universal)

Who knows what they’ll call this, so let’s just call it X for today. X would be Apple’s direct competitor to WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger. X would be a web-based messaging service that is built into Messages on iOS and the Mac, but also has a web component on as well as an Android app.

I know adding a third messaging service to Messages creates a whole bunch of complexity (addressed below), but I think that it’s important for Apple to be a strong player in the web-based messaging wars. Even I, a huge fan of iMessage, am experimenting with Twitter DMs and Google Hangouts to message with my wife through the day because my Windows web browser is the easiest way for me to chat. If I’m looking at other solutions, I have to imagine many others are doing the same.

3. SMS (fallback)

Just like it is now, SMS/MMS should be the fall-back solution. If the person you’re messaging doesn’t have iMessage or X, then they’ll get an old fashioned text message.

Having another form of messaging inside the Messages app does add a large amount of complexity:

  1. How does a user send the right type of message to each person they talk to?
  2. How do you effectively communicate to users why some messages are available only on your devices vs. ones that are on devices and in the cloud?
  3. Blue bubbles are iconic and green bubbles are considered taboo (by some weirdos), does Apple add a third bubble color?

These are tough problems, no doubt, and I’m sure there are people inside Apple who have wrestled with these issues (if a project similar to this is indeed in the works, at least). If Apple went this route, I hope they have someone clever enough to solve these complications in an elegant way. From my perspective, Apple could:

  1. Go all in on making iMessage web-based. In this case, iMessage and X are the same service. The challenge would be to maintain the security angle of the service. This does add the least complexity from a UI perspective, though.
  2. Create a new app in iOS called “Apple Messages.” This app will have all of your iMessage and X conversations together, similar to how iMessage and SMS conversations work together presently. The current Messages app will be demoted to “SMS” and stuck in the Extras folder on a new iPhone. You can use it if you want, but users will be pushed to use Apple Messages.
  3. Combine all 3 services into the current Messages app. This maintains the simplicity of having all your messages in one app, I suspect this will cause Apple Music-level confusion in users.

I’m very curious is this is even on Apple’s mind right now. iMessage seems to be doing great, and Apple is literally swimming in money at this point. Still, I think they have to be looking at what Google, WhatsApp, GroupMe, Facebook, Slack, and others are doing to take over messaging and be thinking about how they compare. I understand that Apple wants to keep iMessage’s exclusivity as a selling point for their devices, but I think that exclusivity means less and less as web-based messaging platforms get more popular and more convenient over time.