WWDC: Everything you need to know about the new iMessages

Apple’s improved iMessages system is a tent pole feature within iOS with some interesting implications

WWDC, iOS 10, macOS, iMessage,
Credit: Jonny Evans

WWDC 2016: Apple’s improved iMessages system is a tent pole feature within iOS with implications across Apple Watch and the Mac, and while the company insists it has no plans to extend the service elsewhere, I still think doing so is a logical step.

Apple has announced a range of improvements to iMessage, including support for third party apps, emoji and sticker designs. Apps will be made available through an App Store for iMessages.

Some example apps you can do things in while remaining in the iMessage screen include Lyft, Uber and Didi ride hailing, retail and services and third party person to person payment services. (Apple hasn't yet introduced personal payment services through Apple Pay, likely reflecting that it's own payment service isn’t yet global).

Apple delivers around 28,000 messages every second, so any improvements to its service will have consequences. Developers at WWDC told me they think Apple now has a strong position against other messaging services, including Facebook’s widely used solutions.

New iMessage features also include:

  • Things like images, video, or Web page links are now included within the message itself – it makes for a much nicer experience.
  • Making emoji three times larger so you can see them (I heard one developer complain that the company spent a great deal of time designing cool emoji, but because they were so small people couldn’t see them, now they can).
  • Invisible Ink: A feature in which you can choose to occlude an image, text or video in such a way so the message recipient must physically wipe the display to see what you hide there.
  • Handwriting: You can now use your finger or an Apple Pencil to write an iMessage.
  • AI: iMessage can recognise scenarios in which you are agreeing to do things on certain dates within a conversation, it can then automatically make Calendar entries for that data and time.

However, you cannot access some of these features on an Apple Watch or Mac, though you can use those products to share stickers and other messaging elements that you may previously have received. So, if you were sent a funky dog cartoon sticker from elsewhere and have it on your Mac it may be used again.)

You can watch the entire WWDC segment on these new features here.

Better than Facebook?

Because Facebook Messenger is an app, third party apps built for that solution never get the kind of headline status iMessage can provide. Apps for Apple’s service will always be much easier to get and use on iOS than anything Facebook provides.

Apple has even thought about app proliferation – if you receive a message containing content created in a third party iMessage app you don’t yet have, you’ll be provided with an unobtrusive dialog box to help you get that app if you want. That’s a great way to foster viral spread of apps as people share and create content for each other.

Apps are displayed in their own App Store, and active apps are made available in the apps window  (Inline Apps Drawer) situated at the bottom of the chat.

Developer data

Developers can create two types of app: Sticker packs and iMessages apps.The first can be assembled in Xcode in a matter of minutes, while the second take more time, but give developers much more control.

iMessages apps depend on app extensions that interact between the iPhone and Messages app and lets users send text, stickers, media files, and interactive messages, even including use of interactive messages.

Apps can access device features such as the camera and Apple Pay for use by/within apps. App creators can create their own unique app interfaces within iMessage, so I fully expect digital marketing and brand sponsorships of viral sticker and apps packs.

I imagine someone will build an app that lets you take a photo of something someone is wearing, search for that item, list available online and nearby retailers for that item, and purchase/and or share that item all within the iMessage app.

Why it matters

Forrester analyst, Frank Gillet said: “Opening up the iMessage and Phone apps to third party developers is… a big deal, enabling Apple to offer a more natural fluid experience to customers that builds on chat innovations pioneered by WeChat and others.”

Speaking with John Gruber, Apple SVP Software Engineering, Craig Federighi stressed that Apple wants to allow developers to do “whatever they can”to improver the end-user experience.

Apple is likely to accelerate development in other ways in the run-up to the release of iOS 10 in Fall. Messaging will become a new Home screen for many users, with many of the things we have traditionally used computers for being replaced by tools made available within the messaging screen. WeChat is a world class illustration of the rich collection of services we can expect.

What next?

Siri will be Apple’s secret weapon in this, but at present in iMessages Siri is actually quite limited. I don’t think that will last, but one step at a time. I see Apple’s WWDC moves as meaning it understands that messaging will become a lightweight platform, useful on an Apple Watch, Apple TV, or anything else.

The only problem is that there is little point sending an astonishingly funny and well-crafted iMessage using all the features the app now provides if the person you are sending to is not on an Apple platform. They won’t see the message. That’s why when Apple denies plans to introduce iMessage to Android I remain unconvinced.

Across the industry, messaging's big fault is that we already seem to be using too many incompatible services. This makes me think the service that makes itself the most compatible across platforms and other services is the one that will outlast the rest, and I'd quite like that to be Apple's.

Summing up, this is a significant boost to iMessages and as developers get involved in building solutions that work within it we should see a bunch of interesting activity, and many attempts at creating viral sticker collections -- some of which might even be funny!

(I just want to apologise for the irregular posts this week, I've just returned from WWDC and have a huge quantity of coverage you'll be able to explore in the next week or so.)

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