Apple’s big messaging moves were among the biggest and most unexpected announcements of Tim Cook’s WWDC keynote Monday. iMessage gained a host of features, from “invisible ink” that hides a message until it’s swiped, to in-line Apple Music links that play seamlessly in-app, to “digital touch,” which lets you send images you draw, or even your heartbeat. It’s also, like Facebook Messenger, now open to third-party developers.
If Apple wants to be more than an iPhone company, there’s one other thing it needed to do: make iMessage for Android.
All of this is big. It’s good news for Apple, since it’ll undoubtedly convince a few holdouts to get iPhones so they can use all the cool new features with their friends. If Apple wants to be more than an iPhone company, though, if it wants to be a software and services company the way it claims, there’s one other thing it needed to do: make iMessage for Android.
Not that long ago, it was impossible that Apple would ever make apps for other platforms. Not only has iMessage not existed on Android before, it’s been actively hostile toward it. If you want to know what true frustration looks like, just ask anyone who’s ever switched from iOS to Android how many texts got lost in Apple’s servers. Then there was Apple Music. The company is, it seems, slowly coming to grips with the fact that not everyone is going to use an iPhone, and that Apple actually stands to gain in the long run by getting people hooked on Apple software before Apple hardware. But then there’s iMessage.
I can shout and scream until I’m blue in the face about all the reasons Apple should have brought iMessage to Android, about the messaging-first future that Apple’s going to miss without a platform that works for everybody everywhere. I will, in fact, shout and scream about those things right now. But here’s the rub: Apple’s the same company it’s always been. And Apple really, really wants you to buy an iPhone.
A Core Concern
For years, decades even, Apple has been infamously insular: you’ve definitely heard that line about how it’s the best because it controls both the hardware and the software. But that delineation isn’t quite so simple anymore. Facebook Messenger isn’t an “app” in the traditional sense, it’s an ecosystem. A whole world, from app stores to payment structures, all happening within Apple’s devices but outside of its direct reach. It doesn’t matter which hardware you’re holding, what you’re using is Messenger. As apps and services continue to stress cross-platform harmony, Apple’s walled garden starts to look more like a co-op.
By that logic, Apple will succeed only if it not only hosts these full-stack, do-everything apps, but builds them as well. Apple Music is a small but useful example: from radio to downloads to curation to social networking, it’s everything you could ever need from music all in one comfortable little box. Or at least, it’s meant to be. Even after unveiling a huge redesign, Apple’s still working on the execution part.
Music made sense as first effort also because it offered Apple a small hedge, in the form of subscription revenue. Even if it was the one thing that let people migrate over to Android (it’s not), Apple would still collect a monthly tithe. iMessage would be a much bigger step, if only because Apple doesn’t monetize it.
Still, there’s not as much risk to building bridges as there might seem. Apple’s hardware remains a huge advantage. Apple Music is better on an iPhone because it’s integrated with Siri. Siri is better than other iOS assistants because it’s right there when you hit the home button. And iMessage will be better on an iPhone because it’s better integrated with your phone, your contacts, your assistant, your email, your apps, and everything else.
In this way, it’s the same Apple as ever: the best because it controls both software and hardware. The difference now is, you can also get Apple’s software without the hardware, which maybe (maybe?) could entice a few Android users to hop ship back in the other direction. Current iPhone owners would win as well: They’d get end-to-end encrypted messaging no matter who they’re talking to, and they could excise those green bubbles once and for all. Unless Apple’s afraid that iMessage is the only thing between iPhone owners and Android phones, the way BBM was for BlackBerry back in the day, there’s plenty of upside in opening iMessage to everyone. Oh, and ask BlackBerry how going the closed-off route turned out.
The tech industry is entering what you could call a post-hardware phase. The race is now not just to sell you the phone, but to control the things you do on it. Better yet, to control the things you do elsewhere as well.
That’s what makes Apple desperate to be a compelling “software and services” company. To succeed, though, it has to create software people actually use on purpose. Increasingly, that means software that follows people wherever they go. Increasingly, if you’re not on every platform—and on Android in particular—you’re simply going to be forgotten.
Messaging is no longer just quick bursts of conversation, it’s the interface of the future.
Don’t be confused, iMessage is huge: Apple SVP and noted Golden State Warriors lunatic Eddy Cue said earlier this year that up to 200,000 iMessages are sent every second. That’s partly a matter of convenience, of course, since iPhones send iMessages by default. But iMessage is a huge, powerful texting platform in its own right.
Which is great, except texting is being replaced by apps that are better and more powerful. Messaging is no longer just quick bursts of conversation, it’s the interface of the future. You can talk about the news with a chatbot, order an Uber or a pizza with a few taps, and shop at all your favorite stores from the comfort of a text box. There are more people using messaging services—WeChat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and their ilk—than there are on social networks. These services are cross-platform, simple to use, and simple to develop for.
Most importantly, they all offer very compelling reasons not to use iMessage. And if you’re not using iMessage anymore, that’s all the less reason to buy an iPhone by default.
Even with all the new features and some cross-platform love, iMessage wouldn’t suddenly drive WhatsApp and WeChat out of business. But it might keep hundreds of millions of iOS users happily inside Apple’s own ecosystem. It would also establish a software foothold in critical developing markets, where Android still dominates and messaging apps reign supreme. And there’s one more slightly prosaic benefit: It prompts Android users who might have shunned iOS and OS X entirely to create Apple IDs.
The messaging wars are only beginning, and how far they’ll go is still hard to say for sure. There’s no doubt that iMessage is more fun, more useful, and more compelling than ever. But in one single move, Apple could have given itself a huge position of strength in the fight for your attention. All it had to do was learn to play nice with others.