Utilitiarism vs the app people really want

Messages doesn't follow the WhatsApp trend

If something is clear from the preview of iOS 7 is that Messages is not going to be the WhatsApp killer I was secretly hoping for. Apple's iMessage platform will, unsurprisingly, continue to be locked to iPhone, iPad and Mac users only, leaving the rest of the world to chat on third party apps. No changes on the horizon. This is still the same Apple not really serious about this kind of free web service stuff for the masses.

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Just like it happened with iRC, Hotmail's Messenger or Facebook chats, instant messengers are tremendously popular products. Even if you have apps like Adium on OS X — which allows you to login using multiple accounts and see only one list of contacts — the game is still in the name. Are you on BBM? Five or four years ago Blackberry users were all about their PINs; today you cannot meet any smartphone user without WhatsApp. And by the way, it's not called texting or messaging; it's called WhatsApping and Snapchatting.

Snapchat might be a popular app right now but it's not difficult to see it satisfies more than a trend. People want to have free and immediate means to keep in touch. We have used the internet service that would offer the lowest barrier of entry and a decent user base. At this time, free texting more than instant messaging apps are taking over every smartphone platform. The likes of Viber and Line are following the lead of WhatsApp, stepping into territory once dominated by things like AIM, Google Talk and Skype on your PC.

The Apple utilitarian take

When Apple demoed a bright and flattened iOS 7, its messaging app got an important overhaul. In fact, Messages (or iMessage) is a great example of the animations, translucency and colour simplicity iOS 7 tries to introduce. Beautiful but only a coat of paint on what we already have. Apparently unaware of things like group chats replacing massive email chains or the appeal of stickers, iOS 7 ships with a messaging app because a phone needs to do SMS. The built-in Messages app is a core element of the system. There's no iPhone without it.

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What is surprising is to see FaceTime going solo again, away from the phone app. The reason? No clue. Perhaps having a standalone app that can call and video call with an internet connection separate from the phone app, that a mobile operating system needs to ship with. The built-in Phone app is also a core element of the system. There's no phone in iPhone without it.

Other messaging apps are now integrating multimedia content, sending audio and video files for instance. Free calls over data network are a big win with users, so it's difficult to understand the reasoning of two separate apps for messaging and calls. I haven't done much research on this, but I bet this has something to do with the Messages app being tied to SMS (billed by mobile operators) and iPhone to iPhone messages when internet access is available (not billed). Also note how the Messages protocol is specific to Apple's devices where other messaging alternatives have gone cross-platform. If there was a joke about iMessage at WWDC, that was about the lack of reliability of the service, not exactly knowing if your texts had been delivered. By the looks of it iOS 7 is not going to revolutionise this market.

Why not adapting the basic and utilitarian texting functionality to what people expect of a messaging app in 2013?

Instead of boosting the iMessage protocol to be a respectable player in the messaging app market, Apple is sticking to simplicity, only delivering an app to do SMS that any new user would expect to find on a mobile phone. When you launch the camera app though, you get the basic photo and video options plus fancy Instagram cropping and filters. This is a response to how people are using photos in 2013.