Apple's iMessage is stuck in the depressing past

The new iOS communication service should help correct overpriced text messaging. But alas, iMessage is also just another proprietary network.

iMessage icon

commentary I'm generally an optimistic guy, but iMessage left me feeling that the cup is half empty.

Apple's new service for iOS 5 devices lets people send messages to each other through a system that embraces and then extends the traditional text-messaging world. It's got plenty to be excited about, but overall I'm sad that a powerful computer is repeating the mistakes of the instant-messaging market.

Here's why: I'm glad somebody with Apple's clout is sticking it to the carriers when it comes to overpriced text messages. But I need another proprietary messaging network like I need a hole in my head.

With iMessage, somebody with an iOS 5 device can address messages with either any e-mail address their correspondent has registered with Apple or with an iPhone's phone number.

Like the iOS messaging app it replaces, iMessage integrates with the SMS (Short Message Service) and MMS (Multimedia Message Service) that wireless network operators offer. Also like regular messaging, iMessage messages are delivered with Apple's push servers and thus arrive with an attention-getting notification.

Unlike the iOS earlier messaging method, though--and here's the big deal--iMessage communications sent from one iOS device to another are free on Wi-Fi and use only a miniscule amount of data on data subscription plans. That could save some folks some real money, especially if they text with iPhone-toting friends or relatives who are overseas.

Apple's iMessage service lets iOS device users send text messages to each other for free. It also dovetails with existing SMS and MMS messaging services from carriers.
Apple's iMessage service lets iOS device users send text messages to each other for free. It also dovetails with existing SMS and MMS messaging services from carriers. Screenshot by Jason Cipriani

And a broader role for iMessage seems likely. It's for iOS right now, but especially that it can use e-mail addresses, it seems obvious that Apple would build iMessage abilities into iChat, its instant-messaging app for Mac OS. It's also conceivable that Apple would extend iMessage by building apps for other devices, of course, but I wouldn't bet on it.

What's good about iMessage
Like most people I know, I have no love for the carriers from whom I've purchased phone and data subscriptions over the years. Ideally, they should reliably send and receive bits wherever I am and otherwise stay out of the way.

It can be tough being a carrier. There's a constant need to upgrade and expand the wireless-network infrastructure. Soaring data demand means a large number of customers are disgruntled from congestion and reliability problems. And as much as carriers want to have a relationship with their customers, the fact of the matter is those customers care far more about the companies at the other end of the pipe--Facebook, Google, and so on--than they do about the pipe itself.

But one reason I have no special love for the wireless operators, though, is the fees they exact for text messages.

Take Verizon as an example. With its pay-as-you go plan for messaging, text messages cost 20 cents each, and MMS messages, which include a photo or video, cost 25 cents each. Alternatively, $20 a month gets you unlimited messaging, a better deal if you send and receive more than 100 messages a month.

So for text messages with a 160-character length costing 20 cents each, that's a price of $1,250 per megabyte. Verizon's smartphone data plans, by comparison, starts at $30 for 2GB for the lowest tier, which is to say 15 cents per megabyte. So by that measure, text messages cost a factor of 8,333 more.

Text messaging adds up. According to a Sanford Bernstein analyst estimate quoted in The New York Times, the U.S. wireless industry brings in $20 billion in messaging revenue each year.

I'll grant that text messages carry much greater value per bit than most data, in part because of their immediacy and the fact that they can be exchanged using only phone numbers for message addressing.

But I still resent what looks an awful lot like gouging to me. For that reason, I welcome Apple's iMessage. The carriers might just raise rates elsewhere through data caps or other means, but at least that will be more honest pricing.

I expect iMessage will gain enough adherents that even if you can't use it directly, it could lead to more rational text-message pricing from carriers. And it's likely to draw attention to new or existing alternatives--BlackBerry Messenger, Samsung's ChatOn, WhatsApp, Skype, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, AIM, and who knows what else.

What's bad about iMessage
Here's what I don't like about iMessage, though: it's yet another proprietary service.

There are times when I'll grudgingly step into somebody's walled-off online service. I've bought videos and apps over iTunes that I can't play without Apple's software. I've bought plenty of Android apps from the Android Market and stored plenty of files at Google Docs. I've posted innumerable moments of life history at Facebook, uncomfortably cognizant of the fact that Facebook then effectively owns an important part of social interactions with my friends and relations.

But when it comes to sending tidbits of text here and there, I don't want lock-in.

I want a standard.

I've been spoiled here by e-mail. All I need is your e-mail address, and I can drop you a line, and vice-versa.

It's not CompuServe e-mail, AOL e-mail, or Prodigy e-mail, for those of you who can remember back to the proprietary networks of the 1980s and 1990s. Those went extinct when the Internet's standards won out.

But no such thing happened with instant messaging. To this day, I have to deal with three instant messenger networks, AIM, Yahoo Messenger, and Gmail Chat. People ping me with Facebook chat, Skype IM, and Twitter direct messages. And from a practical point, it's hard for me to archive and search all these disparate communications channels. It's not the end of the world, but I do think that the fact that the networks didn't cooperate on something as fundamental as exchanging real-time text was important in the history of the computing industry.

Specifically, I expect that if Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL had reached some agreement in the 1990s about IM protocols, then we wouldn't be having this discussion about iMessage and SMS today. If instant messaging had been standardized, it would have become just as ordinary as e-mail is today on smartphones. SMS may or may not have integrated, but I believe its utility would have been comparatively low with effective IM that spanned computers as well as phones. And the carriers wouldn't be able to charge so much for text messages.

Overall, I see iMessage as a useful addition for people who have lots of iFriends, and Apple shouldn't be criticized for bringing it to market any more than Skype should be blamed for undermining per-minute voice-call pricing. And who knows--with iCloud and iMessenger, Apple is finally building a suite of compelling online services that could make the company a player on the Internet as well as on computing hardware.

But unless iMessage lays the foundation for an industry-spanning messaging standard that sweeps away today's proprietary networks, I'm afraid I see it as just the latest in a series of disappointments.

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