Forget Twitter, your next airline complaint could be via iMessage

You'll be able to text with retailers and other businesses -- and even pay for items via Apple Pay -- when Apple's iMessages Business Chat hits the market.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
3 min read

Apple's new iMessages Business Chat feature will let you ask brands questions and even make purchases using Apple Pay.


Brands are about to get a lot more chatty with Apple's iOS 11. 

Apple this week at its Worldwide Developers Conference unveiled its new iMessage Business Chat feature that lets companies connect directly with you in its texting app. It gave more details Friday during a developer session about how the service will work.

With the iMessage Business Chat, which is built into the upcoming iOS 11 mobile software, you'll be able to ask questions, learn more about products and services, troubleshoot problems, and make purchases using Apple Pay. You could, for instance, chat with an Apple Store bot to ask for advice about which iPhone to buy and then even make the purchase without ever leaving the iMessages app. 

"It's easy for them, and it's easy for you," Apple said during an explanatory video on the service. 

It's not just Apple and other retailers who will use Business Chat. Your bank, wireless provider, airline and anyone else who signs up for Apple's service could have chatbots of their own. Imagine being able to message with your airline to rebook your flight after a cancellation instead of waiting in a long customer service line or sitting on hold for ages. 

Business Chat comes as Apple tries to make the software running its phones, tablets and computers even smarter. Apple was first to market with a digital voice assistant, Siri, but Siri's capabilities have lately lagged those of the Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and other smart assistants. As iPhone hardware sales slow, it will become more important for Apple to build its expertise in areas like artificial intelligence, the software that lets machines act more like humans.

Getting chatty

Apple's not the first company to offer a chat service for brands. Facebook, for one, has made a big push with chatbots in its Messenger app. In April, it unveiled new features to make it easier to discover brands that have Facebook bots. It also said Messenger has more than 100,000 bots on its platform. 

"People prefer to use Messenger to interact with companies," David Marcus, head of Messenger, said during Facebook's F8 developer conference in April. "I mean, who likes to call companies?"

Facebook declined to comment Friday. 

Integrating bots into iMessages could help them catch on quickly with iPhone users. Americans send 40 billion iMessages daily, according to a study by Forrester. And 75 percent of US online adults send or receive text messages each day. 

"While in its early days, various artificial intelligence technologies will foster the emergence of new conversational interfaces like bots and intelligent agents," Forrester analyst Thomas Husson said before Apple's WWDC conference. "Apple needs to tell a story on how it will compete on that front with Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft -- not to mention the Chinese digital platforms like Alibaba, Tencent or Baidu, who are heavily investing in the space." 

Customer service, stat


Apple's new iMessages Business Chat will let you buy items right from the chat window using Apple Pay. 


The Business Chat system remembers past conversations you've had, so you can pick right back up, even if you haven't been chatting for awhile. Apple hasn't said how long the chats will be stored (the company didn't immediately respond to CNET's request for more information) but noted in the video about Business Chat that there will be "long-lived sessions." 

You'll be able to start conversations with brands from Apple's Safari browser, Apple Maps, Spotlight search and the Siri voice assistant, as well as from a particular company's app or website. 

So far several customer support software providers, like Salesforce and Nuance, have said they're on board. 

"While Siri made the virtual assistant mainstream, the ability to start a chat session with businesses using Messages is positioned to turn message-based customer service into the dominant way consumers engage with brands," Robert Weideman, executive vice president and general manager of Nuance's enterprise division, said in a statement. 

iMessages Business Chat and iOS 11 are scheduled to hit the market this fall. 

CNET's Richard Nieva contributed to this report.

Update at 3:15 p.m. PT: Adds Facebook declining to comment.

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