Apple's iMessage finally grows up

Apple's iMessage service will have a much bigger impact than you think. It's all about the App Store.

Apple is finally taking on Snapchat, WeChat and Slack.

Wait, what?

When iOS 10 appeared on Tuesday, it featured a long list of enhancements. The biggest news is the transformation of Apple's messaging service, iMessage, into a full-fledged, modern messaging platform.

As with so many things, Apple is an exception to industry norms. The new iMessage will become far more than just another messaging service. It changes everything.

(Note that iMessage is the service based on Apple's proprietary Apple Push Notification Service protocol and should not be confused with Apple's iOS or OS X messaging app, which is called Messages. The Messages app supports iMessages and standard SMS or MMS service. )

Don't be distracted by the fun, playful and goofy stuff, of which there is plenty and over which the press is obsessing.

The new iMessage has effects that can take over the screen with fireworks, lasers, confetti, balloons or shooting stars. Other effects can make dialog bubbles "loud" (large), "gentle" (small) or "slam."

An "invisible ink" feature keeps your words and pictures invisible until the recipient swipes a finger across the screen.

Some effects are automatic. When you type "happy birthday," balloons rise across the screen. When you say "congratulations," the full screen rains confetti.

If you double-tap on any part of a conversation, you can add thumbs up or down or other quick responses, which are affixed to that part of the message. So if someone sends you a confusing photo, you can double-tap on the photo and choose the question mark icon, which is placed near the upper right corner of the photo.

The new iMessage also borrows from the Apple Watch. A feature called Digital Touch lets you send sketches scribbled with a finger, as well as vibration taps and heartbeats (using an Apple Watch or other sensor).

You can also do handwriting. When you're on an iPhone, simply turning the phone to horizontal mode enables a full-screen writing mode. The scribbling feature looks even better on an iPad, with its larger screen. It feels a bit like using an Apple Pencil on an iPad Pro -- the lines are thick or thin as you draw based on the speed of your finger's movement across the screen.

When you paste a link into a message, pictures and elements from the page you linked to appear in a box (similar to what Facebook does when you add links to comments). If you link to a YouTube or Vine video, the video appears in the message and can be played in place.

Emojis do more in the new iMessage, too. When you send three or fewer emoji without any text in the same line, they appear three times the size. After you've typed a message, you can tap the emoji button on the keyboard and the easily emojified words appear in orange. By tapping on each of those words, you get emoji options for instantly replacing the words with emoji.

Apple executes on all this stuff really well. Ultimately, though, it's just decorated communication -- fun, but not important.

Here come the apps

The biggest change to iMessage is the introduction this week of third-party iMessage apps. Some of these are pure iMessage apps, and others are extensions from regular iOS apps.

imessage app

Stickers, handwriting and special effects are nice, but the real change comes from iMessage apps, now available in iOS 10.

A quick glance at the featured apps in the iMessage app store shows more fun and frivolity: endless stickers, emoji, GIF options and other ways to add canned personality to regular messages.

A deeper looks uncovers apps that let you do things with iMessage beyond the cheesy, the goofy and the garish.

Secret for iMessage brings the original functionality of Snapchat to iMessage, which is self-destructing messages. As the sender, you can control how long each message, photo or video appears before vanishing, as well as the number of times it can be viewed. You can also revoke messages you've already sent, and the developer, Koder Inc., says there's no log-in and messages are anonymous. Recipients without iMessage can see the self-destructing messages on the web.

Confide for iMessage performs similar tricks. (In general, Secret appears to be aimed at younger people and frivolous uses, and Confide seems aimed at older and professional users.) I told you about Confide for iOS and Android in this space last year. Confide supports texts and pictures. The app provides additional privacy on the recipient's end. The picture or text arrives blurred out and becomes visible only by dragging a finger across the blur. Both users need Confide or it doesn't work.

The social payments company Circle rolled out an iMessage app last week called Circle for iMessage. The app enables you to send money in U.S. dollars, euros, British pounds and bitcoins to other iMessage users without charge. In China, the dominant messaging app, Tencent's WeChat, is heavily used for mobile payments. Users can pay bills, buy things online, send people money and even buy things in brick-and-mortar stores. To use Circle for iMessage, you add information associated with your debit card, so the transfer is from one debit card account to another.

imessage

Apps like Secret, which lets you self-destruct, time-limit or revoke messages, pictures and videos in iMessage, can be used as privacy-enhancing business tools or as replacements for Snapchat.

Another service called Square Cash from Square enables money transfers within the U.S. only, and now via both iMessage and Siri. You can use it to send "gift wrapped" cash gifts (the amount is obscured until the recipient "opens" it).

An app called iMessage Analyzer even gives you statistics on your messaging -- how often you get messages, how often you use specific words and so on. You can slice and dice the data by date, people, time of day and other factors.

These apps provide a hint about what's coming to the iMessage platform. And, yeah, it's kind of a big deal.

Why iMessage apps change everything

But wait, you might say. Why is the support of apps in iMessage such a big deal? After all, other messaging services have had apps for years.

Let's consider Apple's history with apps. When Apple launched its iPhone App Store in 2008, there were other smartphones with big user bases and app stores. But apps became a central part of what enabled Apple to grab the majority of smartphone industry profits, and apps remain one of the reasons why users say they choose the iPhone.

It's hard to remember now, but consumers were surprised in 2008 and 2009 by what apps enabled a smartphone to do. For many people, smartphones and apps together have replaced media players, radios, compasses, voice recorders, timers, flashlights, scanners and walkie-talkies, and they're in the process of replacing digital SLR cameras. Phones like the iPhone 7 are attempting to do in software and with dual lenses what SLR cameras do with large, interchangeable lenses.

I believe iMessage apps will replace a different category of products -- namely, other apps. It's unclear exactly which major apps will lose steam with the advent of app-enabled iMessage. But if I ran Snapchat, WeChat or Slack, I'd be worried.

While not everyone has an iPhone, the current crop of iMessage apps shows that it's possible to offer web-based equivalents for non-iPhone users.

I'd also be worried if I ran a company focused on messenger-based chatbots. The one element conspicuously missing from the new iMessage is bots. I'm hearing that the reason has something to do with iMessage's end-to-end encryption, but I'm not buying it. If Apple wanted bots on the platform, there'd be bots.

So why no bots?

I believe it's because Apple has decided that bots aren't ready for prime time. (The company has a good track record for judging when things are or should be mainstream.) I've noticed that users appear to be stymied by the hundreds or thousands of bots available on platforms like Facebook Messenger; they also appear to not care about bots. Besides, what can a bot do that an app (or Siri) can't?

The new iMessage is far more than just an upgrade. It's the birth of a platform and the start of a new Apple app ecosystem that will probably change what people use their phones for in profound and unpredictable ways.

And the software companies that make apps are getting the message.

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