Damn it iMessage, shape up or “Get off my lawn”

By Michael Carney , written on January 2, 2013

From The News Desk

We’ve all had moments where we needed to communicate with multiple people simultaneously, whether it be to plan a night out or simply to chat about something too good to keep to yourself. When on the go, this means turning to any one of a dozen group messaging apps or services available on the various mobile platforms. As an iPhone user, I’d love for this solution to be the native iMessage app, but the team at Apple HQ simply can’t seem to deliver a workable solution.

Putting aside the platform specific nature of the product for a moment, iMessage isn’t even very good for iOS users.

Because the service is tied to your own list of contacts, if the list of recipients includes someone not already in your address book -- whether you know them elsewhere or not -- all you see is a strange phone number. “Great,” I regularly find myself thinking. “This list includes five of my friends and five unknowns. How the hell do I respond without knowing who’s listening? Can I be funny, sarcastic, inappropriate, honest? Will I offend or confuse someone?” Come on Apple, is it too much to ask for names?

This is not to mention the fact that on iMessage you have no control over what conversations you’re included in. The second someone includes you as part of a group message, you’re part of it for life. Regardless of which direction the conversation turns, or whether you’d like to receive each subsequent message, Apple’s app gives you no option to leave a conversation, or mute specific people. Again, these may be people that you don’t know, and don’t care to converse with.

As an infuriating example, I was included in a mass “Happy New Year’s Eve” message on the 31st from someone I would generously describe as an acquaintance. Nearly two full days later, and I’m still getting responses from strange numbers that say things like, “OMG, it’s been too long! We need to get together.” Each time my phone buzzes, my brain releases a little “somebody loves me” dopamine, and I reach into my pocket to open my digital gift, only to be deflated, and at the same time infuriated by the ongoing clusterfuck.

Lest I think I have it bad, my Android-wielding friends are quick to remind me that iMessage leaves them far worse off – the same applies to Windows Phone, Blackberry, or even feature phone owners. (As if what affects these hopeless contrarians even matters. Just kidding, I love all my digital brethren equally.)

When an iOS user sends a group message to users of multiple platforms, those not on an iDevice receive a standard SMS (or MMS) “text message.” They have no idea that they are part of a group message and have no option to “reply all.” They simply have the joy of receiving all future responses from the iMessage-wielding members of the group as individual, and thus contextless, text messages. In perpetuity. With no end. Forever. Nothing like the 15th random “That’s what I’m talking about, she’s the worst!” to throw you for a complete pull-your-hair-out rage of “WHO IS THIS AND WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU GUYS TALKING ABOUT?”

Like I said above, I’d like for iMessage to work. Given the hundreds of millions of global iOS users, it has the network effect required by a dominant group messaging service. And Apple is supposed to be the “It just works!” company. But in this case, reality falls far, far short of expectations.

The alternatives are many, but only one fits (almost) all the requirements. First, as outlined above, the app must give the user granular control over conversations in which they participate, and the way they’re notified. Second, it must be cross-platform with native apps for all the biggies. There’s just no arguing that we live in a multi-platform world and that’s never going to change. And finally, it needs to be ubiquitous enough among my peer group to make it useful. I know that networks take time to build, and that the best service out there may be new and obscure, but I just don’t have the time or inclination in this case to wait for anyone to play catch-up. Messaging is a utility product that needs to help me communicate better and not add frustration to my life.

The obvious contenders would be Skype (owned by Microsoft), Google Talk, Facebook Messenger, TextPlus, GroupMe (owned by Skype, therefore by Microsoft), WhatsApp, Samsung’s cross-platform ChatOn, and Kik. Skype is just a terrible interface, and utterly unreliable. Plus, the fact that Microsoft now owns it removes all faith that I have in its future evolution. TextPlus, GroupMe, WhatsApp, Kik, and ChatOn, for all their design and feature wonderment – or in some cases lack thereof – can be lumped together as lacking the critical mass to be a universal solution. Finally, Google Talk is fairly pervasive among modern Web users, but without a native iOS app, is unfortunately disqualified. Google+ Messenger is lurking in the shadows somewhere, but inexplicably it's not connected to Google Chat, and as it is, no one really uses the new service.

Given the above criteria, as much as I hate to admit it, Facebook Messenger rules the day. With more than 1 billion users worldwide, nearly everyone you’d ever want to communicate with already has a profile on the social network. In most cases – personal privacy and security settings permitting – you can message them even if you’re not already “friends.” Thanks to a recent update, Android users (and soon iOS) can sign up for Messenger only accounts, without having to have profiles on the full social network. Chatting is possible through the full blown desktop website, via the full Facebook mobile app, and through native single-purpose Messenger apps on all platforms that matter. The app also allows users to manage  conversation-specific notifications, leave conversations, add (but not remove) people to an existing conversation, see “read notifications” for all participants, assign names to individual conversations for organization, and do all the basics of sending photos and inserting emoji.

Many people are likely to take issue with Facebook being their primary messaging platform, especially in even semi-professional use cases. I’ll concede, that at least currently, messaging on Facebook feels somewhat inappropriate in certain cases. But given the lack of equally full-featured and well positioned alternatives, it offers the very best option I’m aware of.

Besides, I’ve already given in to the idea that it’s not worth the effort to keep parts of my life “hidden” from Facebook (the company, in this case, not other users on the network). As Robert Scoble argued in response to a Quora question about the pervasiveness of Facebook Authentication within unrelated apps, “We are heading into an age of predictive services based on our identity...Apps that use this data to enrich my life ARE highly wanted. Can't wait to see more!” With that in mind, I’m okay with Facebook owning my group chat activity.

So Apple, you see where the bar is set in group messaging. There’s literally no reason why you shouldn’t absolutely own this, at least among your hundreds of millions of active iOS users worldwide. Facebook is your partner, as indicated by its system-level integration into the latest version of iOS, but you can’t be happy to lose out on another social battleground. This isn’t tee ball, and there are no trophies just for showing up.