Apple's New iOS 17 Messages Features Help It 'Catch Up' to Chat Apps
Commentary: There's one new Messages feature that should be mimicked by Apple's competitors pronto.
Mike SorrentinoSenior Editor
Mike Sorrentino is a Senior Editor for Mobile, covering phones, texting apps and smartwatches -- obsessing about how we can make the most of them. Mike also keeps an eye out on the movie and toy industry, and outside of work enjoys biking and pizza making.
ExpertisePhones, texting apps, iOS, Android, smartwatches, fitness trackers, mobile accessories, gaming phones, budget phones, toys, Star Wars, Marvel, Power Rangers, DC, mobile accessibility, iMessage, WhatsApp, Signal, RCS
Apple's iOS 17, now available in a public beta, plans to overhaul the Messages app by adding some of the best features we've already seen on WhatsApp, Signal, Google Messages and other rivals to iMessage. And in a move that takes the Messages app forward, Apple is also bringing a new Check In feature -- to help alert friends or family when you get home -- which could very well be the next feature we see copied back by other texting apps.
Even if some of these new-to-Messages features are already familiar for someone who juggles multiple texting apps and group chats, wider adoption will only make communicating on phones better, regardless of your preferred chat app. On top of that, some of iOS 17's new features will indirectly assist you when texting in a non-Apple chat app -- such as the updates to autocorrect keyboards that'll contextually recognize if swearing is a regular part of how you speak.
It's worth noting that while these iOS 17 improvements are certainly welcome, there are definitely a few areas Apple could still improve for a better universal chatting experience. Chief among them are the infamous green bubble-blue bubble conflicts. So far Apple hasn't announced any SMS conversation improvements, but there are features that are also on other messaging services and apps that are worth taking a closer look at.
Check In is the new Messages feature that should get copied
Apple's upcoming Check In feature takes a very common request and makes it easier to honor. There've been many times after a gathering with friends or family when we've asked each other to text after getting home. It's so common in my life it's practically part of the goodbye ritual, just to get assurance that everyone's arrived safely by subway or car. Despite that, it's also very common to forget to send that text.
Apple's Check In could fix that problem. Though CNET has yet to test the feature, theoretically it could be turned on right as friends or family ask for that "made it home" message. Then it could automatically send the ping when I've walked through my door. That way, if the hour's late or I'm just too tired from the journey, the status update still goes out.
Check In builds on a location-sharing tool for friends and family members that Apple has had in Messages for years, and the new feature makes that tool far more automated. Check In takes things a step further by allowing for notifications when a delay could be holding up someone. For friends and family who want that kind of safety check, it could be an additional tool that helps loved ones look out for each other.
There are currently other ways to set up a similar ping, using navigation apps like Google Maps, but the version Apple previewed during this year's WWDC shows an easy way to get these notifications directly in the Messages app. Hopefully other chat apps find their own ways to mimic this idea, whether it's through integration with a maps service or through improvements to an already-existing location sharing feature.
Catch Up will make group chats much easier to follow
Apple's Catch Up feature for group chats caught my eye when it was revealed. An arrow indicates where you left off in a busy group chat that carried on while you were away from your phone.
This is a feature that's quite common in other chat apps, and I didn't realize Apple lacked it until the company pointed it out. The unread label in WhatsApp, for instance, helps me when I check in with a neighbor group chat I have for my apartment building within that app. This is a group chat I don't participate in actively -- and I often mute it -- but on days when I do want to check it, a label for unread messages helps me with finding the last part of the conversation I looked at.
Currently there's an unread filter in the iPhone's Messages app, but the Catch Up arrow should make it clearer what messages you missed. The adoption of Catch Up in iOS 17 could be an indirect sign that Apple is bridging the gap between iMessage group chats and an SMS/MMS chat that includes other types of phones. Though we'll have to wait for iOS 17's release this fall to confirm, a simple indicator that helps with organizing any conversation only serves to help when chatting with friends or family.
Audio message transcription brings a great Pixel feature to the iPhone
Google's Pixel phones have included various audio transcription features for years, with the Pixel 7 series adding the ability to transcribe any audio message that's received within the Google Messages app. Now Apple plans to bring the feature across its iPhone line using iOS 17.
New audio messages received in the Messages app will be transcribed automatically, and that's a boon for accessibility. For someone who prefers to do audio messages, the gist will immediately be available for the receiver, and at times that transcription could be more than enough.
Until the transcription feature gets adopted into more services though, anyone who frequently sends audio messages should please remember to be patient while waiting for others to get a chance to listen.
Swipe to reply fits right (or left) in
I've been using Signal a lot lately, and like Telegram it offers the ability to quickly reply to messages with a swipe. It's faster than pressing and holding on a message, and then tapping a corresponding option.
Swipe to reply could streamline the menu of options that pop up when you press and hold on a message. Apple's Messages app already includes shortcuts for emoji reactions, reply, copy, Translate and a "More..." option for selecting multiple texts. By moving this into a swipe action, Apple could eventually decide to tack additional features onto this menu, or simplify the menu down to basics.
In an unrelated organizational move, Apple moved iMessage apps from a row above the keyboard in the Messages app to a list that pops up when you tap a plus-sign icon. It shows that Apple is trying to declutter where it can, and make replies faster.
iMessage improvements (hopefully) still to come
While we wait for iOS 17's final version, which comes out this fall, there's the possibility that even more Messages features will be added as Apple continues development. For instance, the XDA Developers website says the iOS 17 developer beta keeps a number of iMessage features available for group chats with Android phones. Should this indeed make it into a public release, it could be a relief for iPhone users who still want to use threaded replies and message edits. XDA's report notes, however, that non-iPhone participants might not see any of these Messages changes.
We'll ultimately have to sit tight for iOS 17's official release to see whether all these iMessage features announced at WWDC make it, or whether some get pushed to a later release. For instance, iOS 15's SharePlay missed the September launch of that year's operating system but arrived a month later. But the fact that these Messages improvements are in the pipeline shows that substantial improvements to iPhone texting are on the way.