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Watch Out Facebook Messenger: Apple’s iMessage Just Got Serious

Photo of Karol Severin
by Karol Severin

Apple’s WWDC this week confirmed that company is getting serious about messaging. At its developer conference it announced a major overhaul for iMessage with the upcoming release of iOS10. While iMessage has been typically perceived as a rather ‘basic’ text messaging tool that amassed users thanks to being pre-installed on the iPhone, these changes send the app right up to direct competition with the likes of Facebook Messenger or WeChat.

The swarm of nice-to-have features like animations, stickers, emojis, multilingual typing, invisible ink and Tapback alone put iMessage more on par with other messaging platforms. But the most crucial development puts it right along the market leaders: Opening iMessage to developers and the introduction of The App Drawer.

App Drawer Is Apple’s Way Towards Next Generation Apps

Apple decided to open iMessage for developers, allowing them to build apps which are integrated with Messenger, so users don’t have to leave their iMessage conversations to use them. The new iMessage has an ‘App Drawer’ which allows users to swiftly pull up, download and engage with compatible apps. This means users will be able to send payments, make reservations, seamlessly organize group food delivery orders from the comfort of their iMessage conversation.

Most importantly, iMessage’s App Drawer will link to the iMessage App Store which carries a number of implications:

As the app space becomes saturated with over 2 million apps now on iOS, hard-drives become full of pictures, videos and music , discovery remains one of the main problems in the app economy. There is a danger that people are starting to download fewer apps. Firstly, the new iMessage partially addresses the problem of app discovery as relevant messaging-compatible apps are not simply going to get lost in the App Store jungle. Perhaps even more importantly, iMessage compatible apps will give iOS users a whole new segment of apps to get excited about, which will prove to its advantage the more saturated the ‘standard app market’ becomes.A couple of months ago, I wrote about how Facebook’s invitation of chat bots essentially opened up a new distribution stream of mobile experiences (bots through messaging platforms, additionally to apps via app stores), which potentially threatens incumbent distributors Apple and Google, unless they come up with a counter move. Apple did just that by integrating apps with iMessage. Creating a new way to distribute and use apps via messaging, without people having to switch to another app, addresses the issues with current silo-like nature of app usage and helps Apple usher its users towards a more unified experience, a direction in which the next generation apps are evolving.

Considering the big picture, this is yet another confirmation that the distribution of mobile experiences (apps, bots) is moving towards social and messaging platforms – where users spend a large portion of their mobile lives and where there is no need from smaller developers to compete against these incumbent apps, because the experiences are delivered from within their ecosystems.

No iMessage For Android Proves It’s Still All About Hardware Sales At Apple

It has been rightly argued that many of these changes are nothing new, rather a catch-up move from Apple to keep up with other messaging services like Messenger or WeChat. As always, Apple has been observing the pioneers and leaders in the field learning from their mistakes before jumping in with it’s own splash. Now that the iMessage functionality is ‘on par’ with other messaging platforms, Apple will push the service to it’s 1 billion active devices. This will transform iMessage from a mere messaging app to one of the world’s leading messaging platforms/portals.

Though this will only capture iOS users for now, the risk for the platform agnostic portals like Facebook or WeChat is, that they might loose some engagement from the ‘more affluent’ iOS segments who will shift more of their messaging activity onto iMessage. iOS users are a valuable segment to those platforms, due to their higher spend and thus many advertisers’ desire to target them.

However, this should not be considered a direct swing at ad-funded platforms like Facebook, but rather a bi-product of Apple’s ongoing hardware strategy. Apple’s decision to keep iMessage contained to iOS, instead of launching for Android users too (as rumours had it) underlines that Apple’s strategy is to remain very much about hardware for the time being. On one hand, launching on Android would undoubtedly give Apple’s messaging platform a higher reach, but it would also give non-Apple users a way to enjoy the Apple experience without having to switch to its devices – something which would prove detrimental to its high margin hardware sales.

This is not to say that iMessage will never launch on Android. But Apple only just got serious with messaging. Now it has to make sure to carry on improving the experience and only potentially consider a launch on Android when (if ever) it is confident that the service offers so much more than other competitors, that it will essentially act as a loud promo of Apple’s experience superiority.

Apple Music, which in contrast was launched on Android, was an exception rather than a strategy pivot for Apple, with the rationale being to win back high value users, who turned away from downloading on iTunes to stream on Spotify, and re-connect them into the Apple experience through music. Additionally, Apple Music has a commercial business model in place, which also made the cross platform launch more justifiable.

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