Apple wanted to bring the best of iMessage to every phone

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Messages iOS 10
Carriers didn't want to adopt.
Photo: Apple

Apple will never bring iMessage to third-party platforms like Android, but there was a time when it tried to convince carriers to adopt a standardized version for everyone.

Former iOS chief Scott Forstall has revealed that the company approached operators in an effort to convince them to take a number of features that make iMessage so great and bring them to traditional texting. But due to a number of reasons, the “explorations didn’t pan out.”

iMessage is one of the many features that ties users into Apple’s ecosystem. Once you’ve started using it, it’s incredibly difficult to cut ties and return to traditional to the traditional SMS messaging offered by rival devices.

In an article for the The Wall Street Journal, reporter Joanna Stern describes the iMessage difficulties she faced when trying to swap iOS for Android. The piece also reveals that Apple didn’t always intend for iMessage’s best features to be exclusive to its own devices.

Leaving iMessage isn’t easy

If you’ve ever tried switching to Android, you’ll know losing iMessage isn’t easy. You must deactivate it properly to prevent your messages from being forever lost in an Apple void, and even if you get that right, things can still go wrong.

Stern discovered this the hard way when switching to the new Google Pixel 3.

“The biggest barrier” when switching, she says, “comes in the shape of a big green bubble.” Stern is referring to the green bubbles iOS users are presented with when they send or receive a traditional SMS message, rather than a blue iMessage.

“If you don’t pay attention to the details, you could lose precious communication with your loved ones.”

Stern lost priceless photos, news that her sister’s best friend had a baby, and a revised deadline from her editor to the iMessage void. She also found that she was no longer included in group conversations that were now broken unless she switched back.

Why iMessage exists

Apple designed iMessage because traditional SMS messaging sucks. It’s stuck in the past and in the age of smartphones, its limitations are more obvious than ever. Apple wanted “messaging to feel more like a conversation,” Forstall told Stern.

iMessage offers a bunch of great features that make messaging so much better, like read receipts, the ability to see when someone is typing a reply, vastly improved support for multimedia, and even the ability to send cash with Apple Pay.

What’s more, iMessage is significantly more secure, thanks to end-to-end encryption.

These are the kind of features that might make someone want to buy an iPhone over another handset, but Apple didn’t originally intend for them to be exclusive to iOS.

Apple wanted everyone to enjoy iMessage’s best features

Forstall reveals that Apple “approached the carriers to pursue adding features to the existing texting systems and removing the additional customer costs.” It wanted many of iMessage’s best features to be standardized and baked into every phone.

Sadly, carriers didn’t want the same thing.

“For various reasons, from the difficulty of extending the existing standards, to challenges with interoperability between texting systems and carriers, to the desire of carriers to protect a significant revenue stream, these explorations didn’t pan out.”

What next?

Traditional text messaging is getting better. Carriers and other smartphone makers have adopted Rich Communications Services (RCS), which is faster than traditional SMS messaging, and supports things like read receipts and typing indicators.

However, Apple hasn’t brought RCS to iOS, which means the problems iPhone users have when messaging friends on Android are still present.

Apple could still build an iMessage app for Android that would fix all these problems for a large number of users. But that would make it easier for iPhone owners to switch, so it’s never going to happen.