Messages in OS X Yosemite: Explained

OS X Yosemite makes key improvements to Messages to help enhance productivity and make it easier to communicate. Among the improvements in this update are soundbites, compact audio files you can record with the click of a button and include in your iMessage; SMS/MMS support through the iPhone; and group messaging. Let's take a look at the new features.


Sometimes it's just easier to tell someone something than it is to write it down. To that end Soundbites can help; this new addition of Yosemite lets you add quick audio clips to your messages.

Soundbites don't replace Voice over IP, Skype or any other streaming audio technology; they're just supplemental files that can be sent between iMessage accounts, either to Mac or iOS device users.

Soundbites are trivial to use: Just click the microphone button, record your message and it will be sent. You can either keep the message (by clicking on a "Keep" button) or let it expire after a couple of minutes, so your chat log doesn't fill up with audio files.

No need (and no way to) customize the audio; the Mac takes care of all that for you, and sends it to the recipient. The soundbites themselves are sent encoded as .amr files. Adaptive Multi Rate is an audio compression format optimized for speech recording; it's not high fidelity, but it gets the job done and it's compact.

You've long been able to include audio files on your iMessages, but it's relied on having an external app to record the audio, which you then have to save as a separate file and then click and drag into the iMessage to send. Soundbites simplifies the process down to a couple of clicks, making it infinitely easier for everyone to use.

iMessage and SMS/MMS

OS X's Messages apps is a handy tool if you're trying to communicate with other iMessage users on Macs and OS X, or if your messaging takes place on one of the other services that the Messages app supports (like Google Talk, Jabber, Yahoo or AOL Instant Message).

Where Messages on OS X has failed, however, is to keep us in touch with the many people who rely on their non-iOS mobile devices as an instant messaging tool. Short Message Service (SMS) and Multimedia Message Service (MMS) reign supreme on those devices. Since that messaging is managed through the wireless carrier, Messages on OS X hasn't been useful to stay in touch with the people Craig Federighi cheekily called "our green bubble friends" at WWDC 2014.

That changes with Yosemite thanks to Apple's Handoff technology, which blurs the line between the Mac and iOS devices. With Yosemite on the Mac and iOS 8.1 installed on your iPhone, you can see SMS and MMS messages you're getting from non-iPhone using colleagues, and what's more, you can send them too.

Both the Mac and the iPhone need to be on the same Wi-Fi network, and both must be signed in using the same Apple ID. But once they are, new messages you get on your phone will now show up on your Mac as well, even if the person isn't an iMessage user.

Group messaging

Group messaging gets some big improvements in Yosemite — it's now much easier to manage them, thanks to the inclusion of a new "Details" button in the upper right hand corner of the chat window.

Now it's possible to give your chat a title, helping to (hopefully) direct participants to stay somewhat on topic, so chats don't veer off wildly into unexpected territory. What's more, you can mute notifications for the chat, so if you're carrying on a group conversation but don't want to be distracted temporarily (say you're in a meeting or on a call), you can silence the chat and pick up later when you're ready.

You can add new participants as you go along, and what's more, you can even remove yourself from the chat entirely, if you're done.

The Details control panel also gives you other handy tools — like using Find My iPhone, if it's turned on, so you can see the location of the people you're chatting with. Participants can share their screens with one another. You can review images and files that have been transfered in chat. And that's also where you can mute notifications if you don't want to be bothered for a bit.

Bottom line

Apple's taken a mostly iterative approach to Messages in Yosemite, making key improvements to help reduce user discomfort with features like improved group messaging and soundbites. One feature stands out above the rest, though, and that's Handoff.

Handoff blurs the line between Mac and iOS device, making it possible for you to use both devices together in elegant, intuitive ways that you can't do alone. With the ability to make and take phone calls now present as well, the iPhone just may be the killer app to help improve productivity on the Mac.

Peter Cohen