iMessage evolves beyond the text message

Illustration of the Messages app icon flanked by out-of-focus iPhone screenshots, tiled at an isometric angle.
This post is an excerpted chapter from the iOS 8 in context ebook.

In previous years, Apple’s keynote at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference has been the platform for the introduction of consumer-facing products and features, including the iPhone 4 in 2010 and iOS 7 in 2013. But this year’s conference was different—the final third of Apple’s presentation addressed almost zero consumer features. Instead, Cook and his team fulfilled thousands of developers’ wish lists to the sound of thunderous applause. While non-developers might have been itching for a glimpse of this fall’s anticipated new iPhones, little did they know that these additions to iOS will have a greater impact on their everyday lives than any flashy new hardware or buzz-worthy new feature.

If the redesign in iOS 7 was a fresh paint job, iOS 8 will be an entirely new engine. This is iOS 8 in context.


When Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007, its stock messaging application was aptly called “SMS,” shorthand for “Short Messaging Service.” The technology was rudimentary, designed for dial pads and only allowing for 160 alphanumeric characters, but allowed the original iPhone to send text messages to millions of other cell phones already on the market. But other smartphones already supported MMS messages, the Multimedia Messaging Service, which allowed for the sending of images and videos between mobile devices. With iPhone OS 3.0 in 2009, Apple expanded the iPhone’s messaging capability to finally include MMS, changing the name of iOS’s stock messaging application from “SMS” to the more inclusive “Messages.” But they were already falling behind yet again—third-party applications introduced since the App Store’s launch in 2008 allowed for instant messaging via a variety of internet services, and customers were beginning to demand new immediacy and seamlessness. SMS and MMS were clunky, unpredictable, and built on decades-old cellular network infrastructure. Apple needed a messaging solution that matched the power and elegance of iOS, and they set to work building one.

For four years, text messages sent by iPhones appeared in glossy green bubbles. When Apple launched iOS 5 in 2011, many casual users discovered that a subset of their Messages conversations were appearing in blue. Apple introduced an internet-based messaging service called iMessage, which automatically replaced traditional SMS conversations between two iPhone users. This spurred immediate adoption within communities of iPhone customers, and soon millions of people carried out their conversations over iMessage with zero configuration. iMessage was a parallel service to SMS/MMS which supported text messages, photo or video media, and communicated via cellular data networks (which had just been enhanced to “3.75G” by significant investments by AT&T and Verizon). But the carriers weren’t thrilled—using iMessage allowed subscribers to circumvent expensive “unlimited texting” packages traditionally offered by carrier packages, and bundled text-based communication with their data plan.

But iMessage represents more than a replacement for text messages. The platform was soon extended to iPads and iPod touches, allowing any members of the iOS platform to communicate over one seamless messaging service. When Apple revamped its OS X instant messaging app iChat as part of 10.8 Mountain Lion, iMessage expanded to Mac laptops and desktops, as well. Now, users could carry out consistent conversations across all of their Apple devices, communicating with friends and family using their ubiquitous Apple IDs. iMessage works differently than traditional chat applications, however: messages are encrypted end-to-end and delivered to each device uniquely, meaning that even Apple can’t intercept or view iMessage conversations after the fact. This layer of built-in security gained new relevance following surveillance revelations and increased privacy paranoia in recent years, and positions Apple’s messenger as a secure and private alternative to competing cross-platform chat apps.

While the technology and privacy might give iMessage the edge, compelling features from competitors have encouraged iOS users’ eyes to wander. Although Messages remains the most frequently used app on iPhones (by far), customers are starting to communicate on emerging mediums like Snapchat and WhatsApp in greater volumes. Simple text messages and basic image features aren’t enough—users demand new ways to communicate with friends on iOS for better convenience and speed. Although its attention to end-user features in iOS 8 was limited, Apple lent significant attention to reinventing iMessage to better compete in the new landscape of context and impermanence. iMessage isn’t a texting service—it’s a foundation on which Apple aims to build the future of mobile communication.


Some of the primary consumer-facing features in iOS 8 center around Messages, and aim to modernize how iOS users chat and communicate on their mobile devices. Since iOS 6, iPhone users have been able to dictate messages using a built-in “Siri dictation” keyboard option. The speech recognition was slow and required an internet connection, but allowed users to dictate messages with a relative degree of speed and accuracy. In iOS 8, Apple took the voice a step further—the company introduced a new “Tap to Talk” feature mirroring similar voice message services in Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. By holding their fingers on a microphone widget that replaced the “Send” button from iOS 7, users can record brief voice messages to friends. These missives can be replayed within the Messages app on recipients’ devices, or can be accessed directly from the lock screen by holding an iPhone up to one’s ear. This builds on Notification Center improvements like actionable notifications in iOS 8, and allows for an entire voice-message conversation to unfold without entering the Messages app.

Another new communication mode is the improved accessibility of photos, and particularly quick access to the camera, right from a camera widget to the left of the compose text field. By simply tapping the button, users can quickly select from a list of recently taken photos or videos, streamlining a multi-tap process and making Camera Roll contents easier to rediscover. Holding the button, however, enters into a new camera mode that can instantly snap photos and send them immediately with the swipe of a finger. This feature matches instantaneous communication in apps like Snapchat or Facebook Messenger, and is designed to encourage an increased level of multimedia communication over and above simple text messages.

But perhaps the most significant feature “borrowed” from competitors will not only increase iMessage privacy but also free up millions of space-limited iOS devices’ storage drives. Learning from impermanence messaging models pioneered by Snapchat’s disappearing photos and videos, Messages in iOS can optionally purge received photos, videos, and voice recordings a few minutes after receiving them. This option is enabled by default, meaning millions of average iOS users will benefit from the level of privacy measures beyond iMessage’s standard encryption. Messages also includes new cache clearing preferences in Settings, optionally purging all conversations after 30-day or 1-year intervals. Messages is notorious for a multi-gigabyte storage appetite in the past, caching and locally saving every photo and video from conversations dating back to the device’s activation. This addition will help free up precious space on storage-strapped 8or 16GB iOS devices, and will prevent frustrating content bargaining necessary to accommodate new over-the-air iOS version updates.


Not only does iOS 8 expand upon the number of ways iMessage users can talk with one another, but it also changes how Messages manages conversations and contextual information. Borrowing, again, from competitive chat services like Facebook Messenger and Google Hangouts, Messages in iOS 8 allows for greater control over group chats. Previously, iMessage group conversations were inescapable notification traps, and often multiplied within the Messages app’s conversation list as participants composed messages to new members in an effort to add to the group. In iOS 8, users can now name group conversations to categorize them, manually add or remove participants, and even leave the group themselves if the conversation loses its relevance. What’s more, users can effectively mute bothersome threads for set time durations with a “Do Not Disturb” switch in the conversation’s new “Details” view, preventing constant message notifications from draining batteries and driving users insane. (As it stands, all conversation participants need to be updated to iOS 8 for anyone to benefit, but the platform’s rapid adoption trends could make this limitation a nonissue soon.)

Apple has long maintained a basic iOS app called Find My Friends, which allowed Apple ID users to share their exact locations with friends and family. The feature presented contacts’ geolocations on a map in the form of an inconspicuous purple dot, and was able to leverage geofences to notify users of their friends’ proximity. In iOS 8, this location sharing functionality has migrated to the system level, with its own preference pane in Settings and new location options within Messages. In the expanded Details pane of any conversation, iOS 8 users can locate their buddies and optionally broadcast their own location on a temporary or permanent basis. As it stands, Messages is the only iOS app to take advantage of Location Sharing features in iOS 8, but opening that data to third parties in a theoretical future API could enable developers to build the location-sensitive social networking applications of the future.

Perhaps most significantly, heavy iMessage users will appreciate new synchronization of conversation threads between connected devices. Since the introduction of iMessage compatibility in the newly minted Messages app in OS X Mountain Lion, Apple users have bemoaned the frustrating lack of consistency between devices for message delivery and sequence. Because of iMessage’s encrypted direct-to-device delivery model, dozens of backlogged messages would frequently arrive all at once and out of chronological order as soon as Macs or iOS devices would wake from sleep, causing confusion and irritation when switching devices. In iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, iMessage conversation threads are synchronized—chronology and all—between Apple devices via iCloud. (It might not seem like much, but the confusion has been an enormous pain point for Mac users for the past two years.)


iMessage has grown beyond a straight SMS replacement, and now serves as a fully realized communication platform between iOS and OS X products. Messages has expanded to support text, images, video, audio, contact vCards, geolocation cards, and even animated GIFs. Coupled with FaceTime video and audio chat, Apple has constructed an empire of iOS and Mac communication mediums with the seamless integration of one Apple ID login. Any iOS devices running version 5 or later—including every iPad, every iPod touch since the third-generation, and every iPhone since 3Gs—can instantly communicate with each other and with any modern Mac over the web. iMessage’s cultural significance is unprecedented for a service as obvious as a messaging platform, as the class and preferential connotations of “blue bubbles” versus SMS’s “green bubbles” take on different meanings for every iOS user. But recent announcements surrounding the Apple Watch suggest that Apple’s messaging platform is about to transform into a whole lot more.

Apple Watch has three input modes: its revolutionary “digital crown,” its touchand pressure-sensitive Retina display, and a solitary button on the bottom right corner. That singular button immediately launches users into a list of their commonly contacted friends, underscoring Apple’s intention of the smart watch as an avenue for instant connectivity and communication. From this screen, users can compose text and voice iMessages, initiate phone calls, or share unique new Apple Watch–specific messages with other Apple Watch customers. Ranging from haptic taps assisted by Apple Watch’s “Taptic Engine” to ephemeral illustrations on the device’s 1.5-inch display, Apple Watch opens the floodgates for entirely new communication media between Apple devices. Some of its additions, including animated and customizable emoji faces, will be compatible with iOS users in Messages conversations, as well, implying that there’s still room for the iOS Messages application to grow.

Apple Watch introduces new complexity, but also evolves existing iMessage communicative trends considerably. Assuming the wearable’s new message formats are built on the iMessage platform, Apple’s service would begin encompassing a wide variety of cross-device delivery media: heartbeats, haptic pulses, and doodles on top of text, images, voice, and video. The platform runs the gamut of ways to get in touch, but represents an interesting Apple company trend that spans across all of iOS 8. Apple is aware of its competition, perhaps for the first time since the iPhone’s massive success. Coming from a company whose limited iTunes Radio product was intended to take down Spotify, but instead addressed features more like those of Pandora, the lack of hubris is refreshing. The mobile ecosystem is pivoting sharply, favoring new ways to communicate and fresh ideas around privacy. Apple’s changes in iOS 8 prove the 35-year-old juggernaut is equipped to pivot with it.