Ben Brooks on iMessage •

Overall iMessage isn’t a feature that is going to change the world, but if you family and friends are all iPhone users (increasingly more likely), it’s a very nice tool to have.

While I agree with Brooks counterpoint to Dr.Drang, I also disagree with his passive underestimation of its importance, especially with the 13-21 crowd. Here’s why.

My sister, who turned 18 over the summer, sends on average a thousand text messages a month. When I asked her about it, she wouldn’t even describe herself as a heavy user amongst her friends, whom many of which, coincidentally, own iPhones or iPod Touches. As for myself, the number of texts I send per month hovers around the low hundreds, most of which are to my girlfriend, who also owns an iPhone. I’ve already dropped my $15 unlimited text messaging plan and I’m encouraging her to do the same.

Of course, these two examples are merely anecdotal. Yet, I’ll go out on a limb and say that they aren’t uncommon. You might even recognize yourself in there.

Not much ink has been spilt about iMessage in all the iOS 5 reviews I’ve read, other than questions about multi-device synchronization. Unfortunately, it seems their authors fail to realize how ubiquitous text messaging has become as a mode of communication; a generational gap that even takes me by surprise sometimes.

iMessage is absolutely game changer. Blackberry’s own messaging system was already a hit amongst its users, and the iOS install base is exponentially larger, in the hundreds of millions. Apple’s entry is the tipping point: Android will surely follow suit to match the iPhone’s feature checklist, as will Windows 7. Neither would it be a stretch to imagine that future Facebook integration into mobile OSes will make messaging a standout feature. If you think iMessage is only a handy bonus, you’re missing the larger picture.

Combine those growing platforms with ever increasing Wi-Fi coverage and commoditization of wireless data and it’s easy to see that the writing is on the wall for SMS.

Update - 5:20pm

Ben responded to my post, reaffirming his initial position. Perhaps we don’t see eye to eye, but I rather think we’re both approaching the issue from different angles. Like him, I do agree that in it’s current implementation, iMessage won’t take over SMS by itself. Ben makes two great points that would help iMessage really take off:

It is integrated into Mac OS X.

It is opened up so that other platforms can use it (Android mainly).

I concur, but I still stand by my claim that iMessage is a game changer. Let me clarify:

  • iMessage may not be good enough to overtake SMS entirely, but I’m convinced it’s good enough for many people to reconsider their current SMS plans, perhaps even dropping to a lower - cheaper - plan. This will hurt the carriers, especially at iOS’s rate of growth.

  • iMessage has a large enough install base to make SMS alternatives viable and more importantly, popular beyond the small (in comparison)niche of BBM users. As I previously stated, Google and Microsoft will want to play a part in this as well, so I’d predict seeing something similar on Android and Windows Phone in the near future. But it doesn’t have to end with the big players; even if iMessage only stimulates interest in SMS alternatives, it’ll open the door for another third party to come up with the appropriate solution.

  • Text based messaging is a vital component of communication for a young but growing generation of kids, that will take those habits into adulthood. There’s incentive to find a free alternative to SMS. Likewise, you can expect vigorous resistance from the carriers for the same reasons.

  • The individual platforms may not want to adopt a standardized system, which would hurt adoption. Brooks is correct in pointing out the importance of interoperability. Something akin to system wide Facebook integration could be the answer: gargantuan install base and platform independence.

iMessage is the first jab in the direction of SMS, not the final blow.

Update - 6:01pm

Stephen Hackett astutely brings up another vital point.

    Growing Schisms

    With iChat

    When the iPhone was introduced back in 2007, many believed that it made sense for Apple to include a mobile version of iChat, it’s proprietary chat and video calling application, in iOS. Such a version of iChat failed to ever materialize. In fact, nothing like iChat appeared in any form until 2010, when Apple opted instead to introduce FaceTime for video calls and in 2011 with iOS 5,  where iMessage arrived for text based communication duties.

    While there isn’t any outstanding reason to question why Apple choose to create two new apps on iOS to fill in for iChat, there are some questions to be asked now that we’re seeing those appsinfringe on iChat’s space on the Mac. Despite being able to already do both video calls and messaging, Apple has left iChat in solitude on its own island, making FaceTime it’s own unique application. One might assume that if there were to be a Mac iMessage app, it would also be a standalone icon in your dock. Porting the same apps from iOS over to Mac OS makes sense from a usability standpoint. Having the same applications across both platforms makes it easy for users to orient themselves.

    So why chose to port FaceTime over to the Mac rather than iChat to iOS?

    One could argue that the early iPhone hardware lacked the front facing camera that would make video calls possible, handicapping much of iChat’s core functionality and appeal. While the release of the iPhone 4 solved that particular issue, it was FaceTime that got to take advantage of the new optics, not iChat. It’s likely that the advantage for Apple is how FaceTime and iMessage can be touted as new and unique features of iOS, equally useful for both promotional and strategic advantages. The term FaceTime is easy to understand and far more marketable. It’s a better bulletpoing in a feature list.

    Now FaceTime is on the Mac as well and while Lion is still a month away from release, Apple has made no sign of dropping iChat or having it replaced. It’s continued existence reveals what seems to be a growing schism between different Mac users. On the one hand, it’s highly probably that longtime Mac users are still making frequent use of iChat, having grown with it over many years. Meanwhile, people considering a Mac for the first time because of their experience with an iOS devices are ignorant of iChat’s existence, looking instead on their docks for similarities between their new Macbook and their iPod Touch.

    “Hey…FaceTime is on there too…”

    Going forward, it’s obvious that FaceTime and iMessage will become far more popular platforms - if they aren’t already - than iChat ever will be. Yet, something has to give. It’s going to look increasingly bizzare to support two or more apps that are essentially the same. Will we see iChat be rebranded as something new?  Or will it simply fade to irrelevance and be completely replaced, as the trend seems to indicate.

    With Thunderbolt

    A few weeks ago, I outlined some scenarios for the future of Thunderbolt. My guess was that Apple would most likely introduce a Thunderbolt enabled iPhone before an iPhone that could sync wirelessly. My argument being that wireless connectivity, for a number of reasons, wasn’t an adequate replacement for tethered syncing yet. My own logic implied that the best way to push the adoption of Thunderbolt would be to require it on one of the world’s most recognizable and popular products, strongly encouraging consumers towards a new Mac.

    Obviously, Apple doesn’t care so much for my logic.

    There isn’t anything inherently wrong with choosing to go wireless now rather than later. If anything, it’s the best choice, I just wasn’t convinced it was feasable. One is left to wonder though exactly what part Apple thinks Thunderbolt is supposed to play in the future. From the Apple page on Thunderbolt:

    Intel co-invented USB and PCI Express, which have become widely adopted technologies for data transfer. Apple invented FireWire and was instrumental in popularizing USB. Their collective experience has made Thunderbolt the most powerful, most flexible I/O technology ever in a personal computer.

    The language is arranged together in such a way here as to emphazise how their partnership should result in nothing less than a revolution, and rightfully so. Thunderbolt’s abilities are such that it should really be the only port left on your Mac computer sometime in the future, capable of handling anything thrown it’s way. Unfortunately, there’s little reason to convince consumers to take the plunge. Here, the schism grows between wired and wireless connections. While Apple could still release the next iPhone with a Thunderbolt cable in the box, its’ lack of neccessity negates any incentive to adopt it. If iCloud works as proposed, it’ll be an even larger sign that wireless connections are primed to overtake physical inputs. No matter how good it is, an even better wireless option forebodes Thunderbolt’s fate as the next Firewire rather than the next USB: a niche feature for power users.

    While it’s a tough pill to swallow for its’ partisans, it’s music to the hears of its’ detractors. Say what you will for the potential of Thunderbolt but there isn’t much to say about what you can do with it today. No Thunderbolt supported hardware is available on a store shelf. No PC OEM outside Apple is selling a computer with the technology.

    The exact opposite is true for USB 3.0. It goes without saying that rollout of a new input device takes time, but Thunderbolt is racing against the cost advantages and interoperability that USB 3.0 offers. Thunderbolt might be faster than USB 3.0, but it’s a case of “Win More” rather than a true advantage. USB 3.0 will probably be more than most ever need for the foreseeable future. Apple and Intel’s trump over USB was it’s stable of iOS devices, providing millions of consumers an instant reason to switch. Without that ace, nothing currently stands in the way of USB 3.0 adoption getting an enormous and possibly insurmountable head start.

    Thunderbolt might not be out of the game yet but now neither is the possibility of seeing USB 3.0 on a Mac.