iOS 7 wants: An iMessage. Merged with FaceTime. That works. Everywhere.

A plea for more unified, more functional, more reliable, more compatible, and more competitive messaging on iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

iMessage and FaceTime today do pretty much what they did years ago at launch. While it's hard to say they've been neglected, Apple hasn't prioritized them to the same degree their competition has been prioritizing Google Hangouts, FaceBook Messenger, or BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) of late. What features Apple has been adding have been centered more around notifications and the management thereof, which are important but secondary to core communications features. You can't be notified about something you can't do.

Not only that, iMessage will soon be the only remaining first-party single-platform messaging service in mobile. BBM comes to iOS and Android this summer, Google's new Hangouts app has already launched for iOS and Android, and Microsoft's Skype runs on pretty much anything (I can almost hear my toaster ringing now..). Third party messengers, like FaceBook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. likewise run the gamut of platforms, and connect users no matter where they are, or what type of device they're using. Many if not most of them also include integrated video and audio messaging, something Apple supports -- in video-only form -- in the separate, and similarly single-plaftorm, Facetime app.

Moreover, while FaceTime is fairly reliable, the same can't be said for iMessage, which is missing, miss-ordering, miss-grouping, or otherwise messing up often enough to shatter faith in the service. All of this adds up to something I'd sorely like to see integrated, fixed, and perhaps even expanded in iOS 7:

  1. Merge iMessage and FaceTime into a single app, or at the very least a transparent experience. Like BBM, Hangouts, and Skype, I'd love to be able to switch between text, audio, and video chat without having to switch back and forth between apps.
  2. Add features to iMessage/FaceTime like persistent groups, the ability to block people, video conference calling, and maybe even screen sharing and VoIP. I don't think Apple needs all the features of BBM, especially the social ones, but parity with Skype and Hangouts would be nice.
  3. Make iMessage "just work" better. Fix whatever causes messages to fail to appear, appear out of order, or switch to SMS/MMS without notification. Communications requires trust. iMessage needs that trust.
  4. Consider taking iMessage cross-platform. It's not nearly as far-fetched as Apple licensing iOS or OS X, and it's broadly inline with the original stated intent for FaceTime.

These are all non-trivial requests.

Base feature parity with the competition would, of course, make iMessage/FaceTime competitive.

Merging the proprietary iMessage with the standards-based FaceTime would certainly be a huge challenge, but likely necessary to handle all the varied types of communication. Where sometimes separate apps for separate purposes makes more sense, other times a bigger-picture app enabled higher-level functionality. Both iMessage and FaceTime currently employ phone numbers as the connection mechanism on iPhone, and Apple IDs as the connection mechanism across iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac. So, to end users like us, the way we establish contact wouldn't change. It would just become unified.

Base feature parity with the competition would, of course, make iMessage/FaceTime competitive. From conference calling to blocking, there are obvious holes in Apple's current offering that seem like they'd have already been filled but for prioritization of (limited) resources. Now that messaging is becoming important again, perhaps it'll become more of a priority? Of the additional features, Voice over IP (VoIP) would be trickiest, as it threatens to expand carrier disintermediation even further. Google and BlackBerry have already done a lot to provide carrier-free communications, as has Microsoft with their Skype acquisition, but everything has always been more difficult for Apple given the uniformity and mainstream popularity of the iPhone.

Tim Cook probably isn't any more amused by missing or messed up iMessages than we are.

Fixing iMessages' reliability will also no doubt be a challenge. If it were simple or easy at any level, Apple would have done it already. (Tim Cook probably isn't any more amused by missing or messed up iMessages than we are.) Other vendors have shown that it's possible to have dependable messaging, however, so it's something Apple has to figure out.

Taking iMessage/FaceTime cross-platform is harder to see. Apple probably doesn't want to port iMessage to Android, much less Windows Phone or BlackBerry 10. While the FaceTime, which could be released as a standard and implemented by other people on those other platforms, iMessage is all Apple. They'd have to do the heavy lifting themselves, add a parallel, standards-based component for others to tie into, or open their currently closed technology. None of those seem likely, though allowing fall back to XMPP the way iMessage can already fall back to SMS/MMS for compatibility could interesting.

Like email, messaging should go wherever our friends are, or its usefulness is compromised.

And that's a pity, because as much as I love proprietary hardware and interfaces, and think strong opinions make for great experiences, I want my communications protocols to be open. What's on my phone can be all Apple, what connects me to my friends and the world I'd prefer to be standards-based and interchangeable. Like email, messaging should go wherever our friends are, or its usefulness is compromised.

(iMessage/FaceTime integration into future Apple TV products is an interesting idea as well, especially for connecting families via the living room and companies via the conference room, but we don't have future Apple TVs yet, and current ones can already put FaceTime on the big screen via AirPlay.)

iMessage and FaceTime vs. the competition today

iMessage was introduced in iOS 5 as a way to provide a BBM-like service for iPhone users, and neatly roshambo the carriers' right in their exorbitant SMS/MMS fees at the same time. Where Apple's iChat, the messaging service available at the time on the Mac, piggy-backed on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), iMessage uses Apple's own Push Notification Services (PNS).

On the iPhone, iMessage intermingles seemlessly with SMS/MMS. Apple including both in the same app made for immediate, immense adoption. If you're sending a message to another Apple user, it simply goes over iMessage. If you're sending to someone on a non-Apple device, it reverts to SMS/MMS to maintain compatibility. However, it's not always elegant. Sometimes iMessage will fail and you'll have to resend, or optionally resend as SMS/MMS. Other times, iMessage will fail and your message will automatically be sent as SMS/MMS. Which, if you're in the midst of convering with someone, could mean instant, potentially rage-inducing texting charges. And you can't block people from iMessaging you when you want or need to.

iMessage and FaceTime on iOS

iMessage and FaceTime offer incredible integration with SMS/MMS and standard calling on the iPhone, but don't offer the unified experience or more robust feature sets of competing services.

In addition to text messages, iMessage provides delivered and optional read receipts, like BBM. It can also handle images, video, contacts, location, audio, and a few other types of files. While text, images, and videos can be added from within the iOS Messages app, the other forms of messages can only be attached from within apps specific to those file types, like Contacts, Maps, Voice Memo, etc. That's fine if you're in an app and want to share as a one-off, but irksome if you're engaged in a conversation and simply want to drop in an attachment as part of it.

Much to their credit, Apple did move iMessage to the Mac. Once you get used to messaging that works on mobile and desktop, it's tough to even consider using anything else. It's one of Skype's biggest advantages, even though their Mac and Windows client can be as horrible an experience as it is useful. Lack of a native Mac and Windows client is also one of the biggest drawbacks to BBM, and to Hangouts whose web experience has gotten more powerful but far less elegant as of late. Facebook is likewise locked to the browser (and bereft of a video calling option on mobile), and many other alternatives are still mobile-only.

BBM on the BlackBerry Q10

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) is arguably best in class, with a range of personal and social communication features that are set to start going cross-platform this summer.

The Messages app on the Mac is more of an iChat/Messages hybrid -- or Frankenstein -- still supporting AIM, XMPP, and Yahoo! accounts as well. Those accounts retain some of the old iChat features as well, including integrated audio and video chat and screen sharing. Gone, however, are features like video conference calling, iChat theater file sharing, and the cute if gimmicky backdrops.

And, of course, none of those legacy iChat features work with iMessage -- for video chat with an Apple account, you have to launch FaceTime on OS X just like on iOS.

Skype on iOS

Skype, now owned by Microsoft, offers a robust range of features from basic messaging to full on VoIP and video conferencing.

FaceTime arrived with iOS 4 and, like iMessage, enjoys a huge advantage on the iPhone by being tied right into the default calling app, in this case Phone. That makes switching from a traditional cellular voice call to FaceTime incredibly easy (though switching back is not currently possible, easily or at all). FaceTime isn't based on a proprietary protocol like iMessage, but on standards-based ones like H.264, AAC, SIP, STUN, TURN, ICE, and RTP.

When it was announced, Steve Jobs said Apple would be, in return, offering the FaceTime implementation as a standard. That has not yet come to pass, though Apple has been sued for patent-infringement over elements of FaceTime, which may have necessitated a change in plans. Open or closed, FaceTime remains video-only, though you can escape to audio if you really want to. It has also remained relatively stagnant, unlocking 3G/LTE transmission, but not adding (back) any features like video conference calling, screen sharing, or file sharing either.

Skype on iOS

Facebook has recently added VoIP calls in the US and Canada, complementing its existing text service.

Contrast this to the admittedly much more mature, much more central-to-the-platform, BBM, which offers not only text, image, video, and the other standard attachment types, along with integrated video and audio chat, and screen-sharing, but also social components like shared galleries, calendars, and task lists, and even Twitter-like, one-to-many channels now. You can also easily block people from messaging you, which can be really important if your contact information gets in the wrong hands. And while BBM has suffered more than its fair share of outages, like any internet service, when it works, it works reliably enough to have put the "crack" in the "crackberry" experience.

Likewise, Skype and Hangouts are both currently offering more feature-rich, more integrated, and more reliable messaging services. (Though Google has entangled Hangouts in their larger social identity network.)

Hangouts on iOS

The newly expanded Google Hangouts offers persistent group chats to large scale group video calling as well.

The bottom line

On the iPhone, the phone, like the messaging, has always been just another app. However, communications is still one of the most important jobs the iPhone has, and one that makes the iPad and Mac far more useful as well. Apple doesn't need to be best-in-class when it comes to messaging -- though that might well be on their, likely very long, to-do list -- but it would greatly behoove them, and us, if they were to prioritize being more competitive.

Otherwise, alternatives go from niche to mainstream, and you end up de-facto outsourcing something that should be a core technology on any platform. (Which is likely why BlackBerry is porting BBM.)

I'd love to see Apple take a step in that direction with iOS 7. Then I can start asking for a unified messaging system, like webOS Synergy or the BlackBerry 10 Hub, for iOS 8...

More iOS 7 wants

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • A thousand times yes!
  • I think the article meant to say Facebook, instead of FaceTime.
  • No.
  • Makes sense, although I like the ability to switch to facetime when I'm in a call. How will a standalone unified app handle that?
  • Your first point is wrong .. You can make a face time call within the message app itself without shifting ur own app ..
    And you can convert a normal call to face time by just clicking the FaceTime button when calling(even though it again reconnects)..
    U only can't do it the other way round that's all but that is ok ..
  • Google users wanted this, and instead, we got hangouts. Be glad you have imessage. I think there is a chance that other chat offerings are so bad, that BBM might actually be a hit.
  • What's great about iMessage is that you don't have to download a seperate app to use it. Facebook is something almost everyone have but Google Hangouts, BBM, Viber, Kik and others IM clients has to be downloaded and the chance of all your friends to have them downloaded is small.
  • BBM comes preloaded on all BlackBerry's.
  • He was referring to iOS.
  • Well I could be wrong but I think Cook said at All Things D they would be offering more individual services instead of bundling them together so chances are slim for the to group iMessage and FaceTime together at but it makes all the sense in the world!
  • I wish more apps were consolidated. Why do I need four apps (music, videos, App Store, and iTunes) when this is just one app on the desktop. I also wish there was an option to remove native apps in the settings.
  • Because thats when things become bloated. iTunes on the desktop is a mess in its current state. You could make a case for consolidating music and videos (but we've already been here and moved away from it) and the app store with the content store, but not all 4.
  • You're probably right. I'd like to narrow down the App Store and iTunes into one at the very least. I guess I am just over "apps" and ready for a more unified system. I may be in the minority but still love the iphone.
  • Just because you haven't mentioned it. A big problem with iMessages that I have to troubleshoot all the time is the confusion over what device is going to "ring" when you message someone and what devices you can receive messages on. The settings for this are hard to find, only appear in certain contexts, and are extremely confusing and counter-intuitive when you do find them. I get people who used to have their phone, Mac, and iPad all "ring" when they get an iMessage, but then somehow "things change" (typically the user doesn't even know what they did!), and now iMessage is only working on the desktop. Later on it will switch back, or maybe only the phone works for iMessage for a while, etc. I've talked to some very smart people who dealt with situations like this for weeks, because they were simply too embarrassed to tell anyone that they couldn't make iMessages arrive on their phone or iPad anymore. As to cross-platform clients, IMO they could get away with iOS, Mac & Windows only. I don't think they have to build for Android for it to work and Windows Phone is an also-ran at this point anyway.
  • My only request is for cross platform iMessage. Fixing reliability is a given.
  • Please, no. I've never had any use for Facetime and never will. Keep it as far away from something I use all the time - iMessage - as possible. Thank you.
  • I see a similar, puzzling sentiment pop up a lot for adding features that people don't use to a service they do use, assuming that the addition of the service they don't use will somehow mess the other one up? How would adding facetime to iMessage negatively impact you if you never use it. Will the addition of it suddenly cause iMessage to stop working as it used to, even if you never use the facetime feature? I never use the spotlight search function on my phone, however I've never complained that it's screwed up other parts of my phone, mostly because it's just invisible to me.
  • Solid list. I'd add: 5. Drop the email/phone number split. People want to conact *me*,not my device. Apple knows who I am, and what devices I own. Apple should be able to route accordingly, rather than force the user try different targets. 6. Sync entire conversations across devices. If I start chatting on my iPhone and pick it up on my iPad, I want to see the conversation in context regardless of where/how it was started. Edit: Looking around, sounds like my relevant gear is too old -- 1st Gen iPad, MBP still running Lion, and that my issues may already be addressed in newer editions
  • Your 5th point .. If u change ur number and forgot to tell a few people .. And if the want to contact you.. They can do it by sending it on your apple iD .. . Apple ID is used on iPads(wifi only), iPods, and macs where u can't have a number..
  • Why can't you have a number there? That seems archaic thinking for an iMessage context, where Apple is already taking over from traditional SMS in favor of a pure data connection. There is no reason they could not route to non-cel devices as well. The only thing they would lose is incoming SMS fallback.
  • FaceTime and iMessage can be configured on wifi iPads and Macs to also use your phone number... I have it on mine... uses the number associated with the AppleID on my iPhone.
  • Thats good news, but I guess I need one of Ally's beginner level posts, as all I see is "add another email" and no phone number on my poky 1st gen iPad Edit: Looking around, sounds like my relevant gear is too old -- 1st Gen iPad, MBP still running Lion, and that my issues may already be addressed in newer editions
  • Yup. I use my phone number for both. No confusion in someone sending messages to my email addresses. And configuring FaceTime with a number gives you a ringtone on incoming FT call instead of the faintly audible alert tone.
  • I am wanting a more "unified" experience so bad for iOS 7! I don't want to use competitors' products, I want to use Apple's!
  • What?
  • I don't want to use Skype, Google Hangouts or BBM. I want a services that is built into the OS by Apple.
  • There already is a service built into the OS by Apple. You don't have to use Skype, Google Hangouts, or BBM as of present day, assuming you're communicating with another Apple device. The reason those other services are useful is for when communication with someone that doesn't have an Apple device. Doesn't mean you're forced to use them.
  • This article sounds like one big advertisement for BlackBerry. Its funny that people want what BB has, but hate it so bad.
  • What I would like Apple to do is consolidate some of their core apps. For instance contacts, why do I need a stand alone app for contacts when my phone app has all my contacts, they should also take all the games you download and put them inside the Game Center app similar to the way iBook does it for books. Also combine iPhoto with the photos app make both those apps 1. Allow core apps to have their own settings within the app instead of going to the separate Settings app. This way if I'm in Safari and I want to set it to surf privately I don't have to quit it and go to the settings app to then go back to Safari. iMessage and FaceTime need to be across the OS no matter what your doing you should be able to summon iMessage without quitting the app that you're using.
  • i have to say being spoiled by bbm on my personal phone makes me realize these same gripes. in bbm you can call/text/video chat etc... i totally understand where the frustration is when you are trying to use it as a communication device rather than just a media consumption one.
  • Here's my problem with your request: "I'd love to see Apple take a step in that direction with iOS 7. Then I can start asking for a unified messaging system, like webOS Synergy or the BlackBerry 10 Hub, for iOS 8..." Like with Notifications and Android, you're requesting something that everyone else seems to have already. What are you, Amish? Why are you content with Apple lagging on these features that, like Android with great notification tray, BB and Web OS had 4 years ago? I understand that people are happy with a stable well made phone. But at a certain time we have to say to Apple, "get off your as and give us something forward thinking!" I don't want another failed attempt at Apple buying an app and then making it worse when they integrate it into iOS...(cough cough Siri). It seems like we're in this holding pattern purgatory cell phone nightmare. I mean really, what major progress have we gotten from iOS that was a truly revolutionary idea that couldn't be done before on another device? Apple needs to get their act together. Where's my damn MotoX Google phone already. Alright, that was my "yes, I is mad bro" rant of the day.
  • "and neatly roshambo the carriers' right in their exorbitant SMS/MMS fees at the same time." My bill:
    Unlimited Messaging.............................$0.00 My fees are nonexistent. I'm fine with all this stuff if it pleases someone. Honestly, though, i send a text and don't care what method get's used. iMessage is turned on but until i read an article here i didn't actually know it was doing anything different. But hey if if floats your boat implement them changes.
  • I have never once noticed any reliability issue with iMessage or ever had it mis-order anything, and have never heard any of my friends mention their iPhones having an issue either. Is this really that big of any issue, or am I just lucky? And I hope they NEVER merge FaceTime and iMessage. I use those for completely different needs and do not see any benefit to merging them. If anything it would clutter up the app.
  • ditto. i've never had or heard of an issue outside of imore. granted. I've never heard of imessage outside of imore so maybe it's the circles i run in.
  • True confession: I use my (long-suffering) wife as my "is it simple enough for a non-technical user" test subject. I had her iPhone 4s and iPad 2 set up for iMessages and FaceTime. FaceTime was the first to "fail": other family members and friends went to Android. No more FaceTime. Other video messaging alternatives are possible, but everyone had their own preference as to which service. My wife did not want to deal with keeping track of who was using Skype, google video chat, etc., much less learn to use multiple apps just to video chat. A few months ago she started noticing lags or outright failure for her messages to be delivered and received. I deactivated iMessaging, problem "solved", but she can no longer message from her iPad. Once again, there are other IM alternatives, but others have to agree as to which one to use, and once again, my wife did not want to deal with learning multiple apps. At present she is back to using "voice only" for her calls and SMS only for text messages. We are on AT&T with a family plan, so we pretty much have to pay for "unlimited text messaging" anyway. Ah, well, so much for advanced smart phone communications. Bottom line: If Apple wants its iPhone users to "stick", its services must
    1) Always work without fail, lag, or glitches,
    2) Be seamlessly integrated into its existing apps and drop-dead simple to use (both FaceTime and iMessage met this criteria, using my wife's experience as the measurement, although I had to set them up for her so that they worked on both her phone and her iPad), and
    3) Have seamless simple cross-platform capability (currently this situation is a total mess, regardless of whose services and platforms are in use. It is impossible to keep track of who is using what platform and what service)
  • As awesome as it would be to make these services cross-platform, I doubt Apple ever will. It's a defining competitive advantage for them: You can use FaceTime with your friends and family that have iPhones. So make sure that's what your friends and family are using. My mom has 3 different Skype accounts. For her, it was too hard to figure out how to log in whenever she'd want to do video chat with the grand kids. With iPhone, she doesn't have to worry about that, it's tied to her phone number and "just works." Since she has a 4S, she doesn't even have to worry about being on Wi-Fi, and I don't have to do a tech support call before running a video chat. If FaceTime was multi-platform, Apple would have missed the sale, Android phones were cheaper at the time she traded up.
  • iMessage becomes kind of useless if it's not on multiple platforms (at least Android).
  • I want kid mode
  • I've noticed iMessage down twice in the 2 years I've had an iPhone. That is not enough for me to consider it unreliable. I just sent text messages instead. Remember those?
  • hell Sprint is down twice a month for me. or at least my closest tower seems to go down twice a month for one night.
  • Great article Rene, I hope we see this or some kind of big changes coming to iOS 7 next week at WWDC.
  • Video conference calling, iChat theater file sharing, and the "cute if gimmicky" backdrops are all still in the current Messages app in Mt Lion, as far as I can tell... The options aren't available until you're already in a video chat, I believe, which is why it may appear that they've been removed.
  • No more merging with Facebook. There is too much reliance on it and not for a good thing either. Facebook has peaked and many are moving away from it already.
  • All I want:
    - A multi-party FaceTime call (like hangouts)
    - Syncing iMessages on all my registered devices (even if a message arrived via SMS)
    - Muting options for Group iMessages