What’s wrong with iMessage?

Messaging is easily one of, if not the most important things we do with our mobile devices. The industry for messaging apps is huge, and smack dab in the middle is iMessage and its vessel, Messages, which Apple says is by far the most-used app on its devices. At WWDC 2016, it also said iMessage sends around 17 billion messages per day which, while impressive, is below some competitors, lIke WhatsApp at 42 billion per day.

Despite those impressive numbers, I strongly believe that, as the iPhone was five years ahead of the industry, iMessage and Messages have been roughly five years behind their competition. I feel that, so far, it has been one of Apple’s worst, most tone deaf products. From what I’ve seen of the iOS 10 beta so far, Apple has tried addressing a couple of these flaws, and the upcoming App Store for iMessage might allow developers to narrow the gap. Might.

I’ve talked about this in various capacities elsewhere, but folks have asked that I further explain my position and reasons. Before I elaborate on just a few here, I want to make something crystal clear: my thorough distaste for Messages and iMessage (from here on referred to as just ‘iMessage’) is not about any one problem or missing feature. It’s born from thousands of paper cuts, many of which have lingered for years, most of which stem from what I perceive is Apple’s perpetual, fundamental misunderstanding of how and what people communicate.

If, even after reading this, you still don’t get it, I implore you to try some of the competing apps to broaden your understanding of the market, namely Telegram, WhatsApp, Line, and Facebook Messenger (you don’t need a FB account). Chances are, you have at least a couple friends on some of them, but go in with the right intention: to explore what unique ideas and tools they offer for communication, and to understand why billions of people choose these apps instead of, or at least alongside, iMessage.

Technically ridiculous

Let’s get iMessage’s technical issues out of the way, as I find them to be less important in my grand scheme of things. The service has always had a variety of reliability problems since the beginning, ranging from delivering messages out of order to simply not at all, even to known, long-time iMessage accounts. Oh, and inexplicably splitting conversations into two threads.

Now, I should note that I am not a developer. Maybe there are technical hurdles for iMessage the likes the world has never seen, and perhaps I’m being overly harsh. But as an end user, I have never seen, and almost never heard of, messages being delivered out of order on any of Apple’s competitors, including WhatsApp, Line, Signal, Facebook Messenger, Hangouts, Yahoo Messenger, Telegram, Skype, and more.

Identity crisis

A continued source of iMessage confusion stems from its support for adding multiple email addresses to your ID. I actually like that we can use an email address, as telephone numbers are far harder to remember and identify these days versus johnny5@alive.com. I dream of a day we can get rid of phone numbers through society.

But multiple addresses create all sorts of confusion. Sometimes a person enabled an address on one device but not another, so messages get involuntarily lost or ignored. Other times you can’t be sure which address to use; will my recipient see the message in time, or at all? Which device, if any, is this message going to reach?

My last papercut example here is the silly mechanism that, when starting a new conversation, iMessage has to pause and check with Apple’s servers to verify whether your recipient is an iMessage user. Sometimes this process takes a heartbeat, usually it takes a few seconds, especially when not on wifi. It happens with long-time accounts and addresses saved to Contacts, even to phone numbers saved with Apple’s custom “iPhone” label.

I have not found a single other messaging service that experiences this problem, and I have used or at least tried almost all of them. Pair this with iMessage sometimes choking and displaying a known, verified account as not iMessage-compatible (after taking some time to check), and the entire process becomes maddening. Again, this simply doesn’t happen on other services.

A fundamental misunderstanding of how and what people communicate.

Lost in sharing

Since its inception, iMessage’s sharing abilities have not evolved much farther beyond a late 90’s Instant-Messenger-competence of text and photos. Meanwhile, the messaging industry has been doing things like rich media previews for web links, GIFs, places, and other content for years. In iOS 10, iMessage will finally do rich previews for web links (a feature Notes got last year in iOS 9), but out of the box, it will still lag significantly behind competition.

For example, think about all the situations where you want to share a place with friends. Maybe you’re going out somewhere, maybe someone is coming to meet you, maybe you want to tell friends about a great new place you found.

Up to and including iOS 10, iMessage’s only ability is to drop a red pin on a map—good for directions, but that’s it. For years, other messaging apps have shared places not just pins—business names, addresses, maybe even photos, but always some sort of one-tap link to the actual information people need to know about that location like a phone number, business hours, attire, ambience.

A pin on a map is practically useless by comparison, and even in iOS 10, Apple still doesn’t get it.

Now look at something like sharing a song from Apple Music over iMessage. Just look at that mess and attempt to explain how it makes one lick of sense.

A fundamental misunderstanding of how and what people communicate.

An app best served cold

Another paper cut is that iMessage has always felt freezing cold and impersonal. While I don’t care much about personalizing my fonts and colors, I sometimes watch how people use their devices in public and they absolutely do. Just look at the popularity of the myriad iOS and keyboard customization tools in the App Store, even though iOS restrictions functionally kneecap most of them in all sorts of ways.

But open an iMessage conversation and look at who it is. Your only actual indication is a first name at the top; no last name, no avatar, nothing to otherwise bring some humanity to your conversation partner(s). I’ve always felt like I’m talking to a bot.

Again, look at the rest of the industry. Sometimes avatars are at the top, sometimes they accompany each message in the back and forth. Sometimes you can customize a conversation’s background or just the color of the bubbles. They’ve all offered something, and for quite some time.

Remember, this isn’t about specific features. The point is: these elements add humanity to an otherwise impersonal medium. Seeing a friend’s face, even as a tiny round circle, can make a big difference.

A fundamental misunderstanding of how and what people communicate.

Just plain lost

The final paper cut I’ll bring up for now is Apple’s continued muddying of mute and block. iMessage only recently gained both of these features (block I think in iOS 7, mute in 8) which, again, were things many other apps adopted years ago. But in iMessage, there isn’t much of a functional difference between the two.

Think about it: you block someone, they’re gone; they can’t message you until you dig into Settings > Messages and remove them from your block list. Muting someone is functionally and equally permanent. It stays that way until you manually un-mute, except there isn’t really a list like blocks to check for muted people and group chats.

Unless you open Messages and deliberately view your conversation list (which, remember, not everyone uses Messages that way), a muted recipient could easily fall down your list of conversations ‘below the fold,’ and you could never hear from them again. Some nerds might laugh, but I’ve met multiple regular folks who discovered the mute feature, used it to get a temporary breather from That One Family Member or Friend, then inadvertently ignored them for weeks or, in one case, over a month. Imagine the hurt feelings and drama.

Other messaging apps have long understood that there needs to be more of a functional difference between mute and block. This usually means that, when you mute someone, you get a prompt with options beyond “forever,” such as “for one hour,” “for five hours,” and “until tomorrow morning.”

If installing other messengers isn’t an option, Tweetbot’s mute is a great example. If you never want to hear from someone again, you block (or mute permanently). If you just need a break, you get temporary options. These are simple concepts of human interaction both in both the real and digital world.

A fundamental misunderstanding of how and what people communicate.

A case for hope

Fortunately, Apple is finally paying some real attention to iMessage again, exhibited by some pretty whiz-bang stuff introduced in iOS 10. But when I step back and look at what Apple introduced, most of it is cosmetic, empty calorie fun.

Now, I am very much a fan of adding fun to messaging; I’ve taken plenty of crap for touting the wonders and mood-improving powers of stickers. On one hand, I’m glad to see this stuff.

On the other hand, with iOS 10, Apple did not directly address most of iMessage’s foundational problems. It will finally make sense of web URL gobbly gook, but many of the other tools and features have no improved what and how we can communicate, so the app and service remain overall years behind their competition.

The one saving grace might, might, be the forthcoming App Store for iMessage. Within the last year or two, competing apps began turning into platforms for third-party apps to add all sorts of useful and fun things.

Apple clearly noticed this trend and did what it does best: built what looks like a great platform for developers to create good stuff. We’ll just have to see how much power and freedom developers have to enhance iMessage and catch up to competition.

I have hope. I like Apple, and I increasingly feel it’s one of the few companies that is actually fighting for our individual rights to privacy, so I prefer to use its relevant devices and apps when I can. I would love to see iMessage evolve, perhaps with the help of some third-party developers, into the messaging app that understands how and what we want to communicate with others in the 21st century.