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Apple's iMessage strategy: steal from Snapchat and Facebook, like everybody else

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But don't go Android, not yet

Apple executives spent a great deal of time at the company’s WWDC keynote yesterday telling us how iMessage will be different with iOS 10: more colorful, more featured, more cluttered. In trying to make its native messaging client more appealing, especially to younger users, Apple is borrowing all the hallmarks of its competitors. Gone is the simple blue bubble to denote a fellow iPhone owner. In its place is a dizzying number of ways to interact that go well beyond the written word.

Starting this fall, you’ll be able to send custom text bubble animations; respond by writing with your finger; send hidden messages in "invisible ink" that require swipes to reveal; send messages with full-screen animations; doodle over a photo in multiple colors; reply with stickers; "emojify" your written responses; and reply with one of six "tapback" reactions. In other words, you’ll be able to converse with friends without using any text at all.

Apple's chat service is now a full-blown messaging platform

Apple’s chat service, which before acted like a thin layer over your standard text message, is now a full-blown messaging platform. Nearly every new feature is something you’d find in Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, or WeChat, and it’s all designed to support the many different ways we like to communicate today. Nowhere is this more apparent than with new iMessage Apps, which are third-party extensions for expanding the capabilities of the standard text window.

If you’re a heavy Facebook Messenger or WeChat user, you may recognize this as the toolset that lets you drop in GIFs, share elaborate emoji animations, pay your friends back, and draw doodles with your finger. Apple has similar features now too, in a bid to make its more popular services as open as the company will allow. You can pay friends with Square, or order food through DoorDash.

iMessage at WWDC16 announcement photos

Opening up iMessage to third-party developers is a big deal, says Forrester analyst Frank Gillett. It enables Apple to "offer a more natural fluid experience to customers that builds on chat innovations pioneered by WeChat and others," he adds.

The goal is to turn iMessage into something we’d want to use, as opposed to something we do without thinking about it. Up until now, iPhone owners have used iMessage simply because it was right there, built into the device’s software at a fundamental level. Now, with the popularity of competing products — many of which work cross platform on both iOS and Android — Apple can’t rely on just being present. iMessage has to be better.

iMessage can't just be present — It has to be better

Of course, cribbing from more popular messaging apps isn’t something only Apple has done. Google dedicated significant resources during its I/O developer conference last month to its Allo chat app and Duo video messaging app. Allo is supposed to be your standard messaging app, with all the quirky, emoji-friendly features we’ve come to expect with some artificial intelligence thrown in. Duo is a mix of Apple’s own FaceTime with heavy doses of the selfie-first design of Snapchat. Both WWDC and I/O were tacit admissions from the two largest tech companies in the world that they're still sorely trying to figure out social.

One key disadvantage Apple contends with is its update cycle. The company treats stock software, apps like Messages and Music as static objects tied to the annual iOS refresh. When Apple wants to fix something on one of those apps or needs to squash a bug, it has in the past been forced to update its entire mobile OS. Even then, it’s rare for Apple to ever tweak any aspect of its stock apps in a substantial way outside an annual iOS release.

iMessage at WWDC16 announcement photos

That means Apple is slow — far slower than its competitors. By equating software changes with hardware updates, the company has continuously ceded ground to rivals who can tweak and experiment endlessly to see what sticks. That may change with iOS 10. Without making an onstage announcement, Apple has decided to unbundle its own apps from the core iOS software.

That means you’ll soon be able to uninstall Stocks, Notes, Weather, and many more apps that sit unused in a folder on your home screen. More importantly, for Apple, apps like Messages may potentially receive future updates through the App Store, a far easier and faster way of pushing out changes. Now, if the company sees Snapchat or Facebook trying something novel, it too can tinker with a feature of its own and get it out there.

Yet with all of Apple’s newfound openness, it appears unwilling to cross the line into Android. The company is still very much of the mentality that its hardware and software work in tandem, selling one another based on the tight integration of the two. Bringing iMessage to Android would be an earth-shattering move in the tech industry, for sure.

iMessage could make Apple money on Android

It may not be too far off if Apple wants iMessage to be a serious messaging platform and not just a tool to sell more iPhones. Especially if Apple wants to turn iMessage into a money-generating app. Right now, there's no clear way for the chat service to earn revenue. If Apple Pay supported peer-to-peer payments or Apple let developers charge for more than just sticker packs in iMessage, that could be reason enough to bring the app over to Android.

Pretty much every one of iMessage’s competitors offers a cross-platform option. It’s the very reason WhatsApp has surpassed 1 billion users and why Facebook Messenger is closing in the very same milestone. Apple says it has more than 1 billion iOS devices in the world, but many of its customers who maintain an Apple ID do so on multiple devices, from Macs to iPhones to iPads. The one number that matters is iOS market share, which hovers around 23 percent of phones and tablets worldwide. So while iOS 10 shows Apple is paying attention to the messaging world’s biggest names, there may be a time when iMessage needs to leave Apple’s garden and explore the outside world.


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