Apple’s iMessage is looking more like a workday collaboration platform

While iMessage will get some serious collaborative boosts later this year in iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura, it already has many of the features in place to make it a powerful platform.

Apple Messages icon

Of all the Apple tools available, iMessage might seem like the one most designed for teenagers, friends, and families. The ease it offers when sharing media, stickers, emoji, GIFs, for example, make it the ultimate consumer product. But it has steadily involved into a powerful business messaging solution and collaboration tool. You could even think of it as a basic – and free – alternative to Slack or Microsoft Teams. That’s a view that will only get more real with iOS 16 and macOS Ventura, which will extend iMessage’s enterprise capabilities when they arrive this fall.

iMessage has been around for more than a decade and it offers quite a few advantages over standard SMS and MMS messaging. It boasts media and file support, group chats, read receipts, the ability to integrate content from a range of other apps, and tight integration across all of Apple’s major product lines.

Some recent additions make it even more useful to business users. Last year, Apple introduced a new Shared with You feature that displays content received in the Messages app directly in an associated app. URLs are automatically displayed in Safari, for example, and songs or albums in Apple Music. Along with broadening this feature across platforms (including macOS Ventura), Apple will extend support for third-party apps and direct in-app collaboration.

More on that in a bit. First, let’s look at what you can do now.

Messages in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and Monterey

While iMessage will get serious collaborative boosts in iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura, let’s look at how to use Messages in the Apple OSes that exist now.

There are three major pieces to any business-worthy chat and collaboration platform:

  • Secure communication. iMessage is end-to-end encrypted to a degree that meets regulatory compliance for rules like HIPAA in healthcare, as is FaceTime.
  • Support for group communications. Although individual chats are important, businesses need group communications and message threads, which iMessage has supported for some time. Group chats also allow you to message the entire group or specific individuals and support inline responses so that you can easily respond to (and see responses to) specific comments in the message thread.
  • Status notices. Knowing that people have (or have not) read your message can be critical. Seeing whether they are in the process of replying is also extremely helpful. iMessage supports both of these functions.

For a business tool to succeed, however, requires more than these basics. The ability to pin message threads and the option to mute notifications about specific threads are both key features for workers who need to manage business conversations.

The ability to share media, content, or files is also important. While the Messages app for iOS/iPadOS 15 supports photo and video sharing as well as the sharing of links and other network addresses, it doesn’t, at first, appear to support file and document sharing.

It can be done, though. And, even if it’s not obvious, it’s easy. You just can’t do it directly from the app. Instead, use the Files app. Tap and hold a file and then choose to share it from the pop-up menu that results. You can also share files from within the app that created them using a standard share sheet. In both cases, Messages pops up as an option for sharing. Sharing in macOS is even simpler: Drag a file into the chat in Messages. (You can also right-click on the file’s icon in the Finder and select share. Or you can share from within app that created the file.)

Once you share a file with the group chat, everyone in the chat receives the file and can comment and discuss it in the message thread. This provides a baseline for collaboration. Everyone can see and discuss the same documents or files in real time. In many cases, this sort of discussion is easier than relying on features like Track Changes and Comments within a productivity app, because the discussion is interactive and it avoids cluttering the document with large numbers of comments and responses.

To ensure that you have easy access to communications wherever you are (and on whatever device you’re using), Apple provides Messages in iCloud. This backs up all your conversations into iCloud, ensures your messages are synced across devices (including new devices as they are set up), and allows you to access your messages through iCloud’s web interface if you don’t have access to your Apple devices. You can also extend Messages in iCloud into business environments through services like Apple Business Essentials and Managed Apple IDs.

In addition to using it as a business communication solution, you can pair Messages with FaceTime to offer your team real-time video and audio call capabilities. FaceTime will let you share your screen in real time and display apps like Keynote or PowerPoint. As with Messages, business environments can tie it to Managed Apple IDs.

Although generally not positioned as such by Apple, this combination of features solves many of the communication and basic collaboration needs of most business users. It isn’t as purpose-built as Slack or Microsoft Teams, but the functionality is nonetheless there and at no additional cost; that makes it a viable option, especially for smaller business environments when used with Apple Business Essentials.

Coming soon… Messages as a collaboration powerhouse

While iMessage as a platform already offers serious communication and collaboration options, macOS Ventura and iOS 16/iPadOS 16 will expand these in a couple of significant ways — particularly when it comes to integrating Messages collaboration with third-party apps.

The first expansion is in the Shared with You feature. Currently this feature allows a handful of Apple’s stock apps to retrieve content from Messages and make it readily available in the appropriate app: links in Safari, articles in News, images or videos in Photos, songs and albums in Music, shows in the TV app, and podcasts in the Podcasts app. This makes it easy to review a message without worrying about storing the attached items so you can find them later.

Currently, Shared with You is limited to six apps and a relatively small number of content or media types. Apple last month announced at WWDC, though, that this feature is coming to third-party apps. So any developer will be able to add support for it to their app for whatever types of content are appropriate. The same Shared with You shelf design (the area in the app’s interface where items from Messages are displayed) will be available.

This has big potential for those of us using these tools in a business context. During a workday, it’s possible to share a wide range of media and file types through Messages, across numerous threads. Being able to review your messages and easily retrieve the shared content through the native apps later allows for extremely streamlined workflows and the ability to switch easily between the shared content and the message thread where it originated. This makes reviewing and responding directly to the message about a piece of content simple. And it also helps prevent you from missing content as you scroll through message threads.

The second, and even more powerful, expansion is the integration of Messages directly into apps that support collaboration. When an app with a collaboration feature (say one that supports Track Changes such as Word or Pages) is integrated with Messages, a collaboration workflow can be kicked off in the app. The document can be shared through Messages (as well as FaceTime) with individual users or a group.

When a collaboration is shared with a group, each member will receive a copy of the document through Messages. As each person opens the document, their actions will be reported back to Messages as well as to the app. This occurs on the device(s) of each person in the group. Messages will report to all users whenever someone makes a change to the document and will provide a link directly into the document where the change was made. Users can comment directly in line with the change notice to discuss the edits.

If a user has the document open, they will be able to see all the users currently interacting with or editing the document. This allows you to do real-time communication and editing simultaneously. If multiple users are accessing the document in real-time, they can also convert the collaboration into an audio or video FaceTime call that incorporates screen sharing and group editing.

These features drastically expand on the existing Track Changes and Comments features that many business apps already support, and they marry this functionality to the existing collaboration capabilities in Messages and FaceTime. The result is a single cohesive experience for communicating, sharing content, group discussion, and collaborative editing. What’s particularly powerful is that this will give developers that may not have explored collaboration features a relatively easy path to adding real-time collaboration to their apps, expanding beyond the somewhat limited set of business and productivity apps that have implemented some versions or Track Changes like Office or iWork.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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