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Apple's iMessage finally grows up

Mike Elgan | Sept. 19, 2016
Apple's iMessage service will have a much bigger impact than you think. It's all about the App Store.

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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