I finally got around to updating my various iDevices to IOS5 and was really interested to try out the iMessage functionality. If you’re not aware, iMessage is technology that is built into iOS5 that allows all of your iDevices to exchange short messages (similar to SMS messages) between themselves and other iOS5 users without using the carriers network thus avoiding ringing up text messaging charges – let me explain…
There are a few things that this technology does which are actually pretty cool. The first is that when you go to send a standard text message to someone, your iPhone will check if the recipient has an iPhone running iOS5 and if it’s enabled for iMessages; I’m assuming it does this by querying something over at Apple. You can see this happen if you attempt to send a text message someone that isn’t in your contacts list – when you enter their number into the send-to box, after a few seconds you will see your message type change from text message to iMessage if the recipient is iMessage enabled . The nice thing here is that iMessages go over the Internet (over your data connection or wireless network if connected) and therefore you don’t get billed by your carrier.
The second thing you can do with iMessage is send messages to people using their email address which is a pretty powerful feature. Assuming the recipient has associated their email address with the iMessage technology, the messaging application will detect this when you are creating the message and if available, will send an iMessage. The image on the left shows a new message on an iPhone when sending to my email address.
If you enter an email address which is not associated with the iMessage service, the phone will default to the standard text message functionality and rely on your carrier to route the message to the correct place. You can enter multiple email addresses into the send box however if any of the recipients are not iMessage capable, the device seems to convert the entire message for all recipients to a standard text message.
Finally, another great feature of the iMessage technology is that it will synchronize messages across all of your different iOS 5 devices allowing you to start a conversation on one and continue it on another – this is however without its caveats which I’ll go into shortly.
In the picture on the right, you can see a conversation that I started with my wife on my iPad where obviously she was displeased that I was playing with tech instead of helping her make dinner so I continued on my iPhone when I was heading to her…
I really like this as I do use both my iPhone and iPad to converse with people and actually use text messaging quite a bit. The ability to exchange messages with my contacts without having to switch back and forth on devices is useful and something which I personally think I’ll use – I just need an iMessage application on my Mac now please Mr. Cook
Getting it all to work – patience…
I must take a side note here and say that when it comes to Apple, I have always been exceptionally pleased with their technology when it came to user experience – their stuff was just, well easy… However, I am afraid to say that the iMessage functionality doesn’t really have the same Apple feel that I’m used to and was actually a pain to get working. I guess that what I’m saying here is that unless one is somewhat technically savvy, there is a chance that the setting up of iMessage will be a tad frustrating and I’m sure that our friends in Cupertino will want to work this out rather soon.
There are a number of things to be aware of when first setting out to explore the iMessage technology and first problem is easily solved with a little bit of patience. When I first activated my iDevices for iMessage I couldn’t get messages to synchronize between the two – sometimes messages would arrive on my iPad and sometimes my iPhone, it just didn’t make sense. I tried various combinations of settings, reboots and so on but nothing made a difference and then it all just started to work. I figured that what had actually happened is that once I had enabled my devices, it just took a little time for them all to become active so in the first instance, when you active your devices, if they don’t work, walk away and grab a coffee – give them 20 minutes and come back.
Are You Sending From Multiple Devices? Use a Single Identity
This one stumped me for a little and took me a while to get my head around it. In addition to being patient with your devices, there are a couple of settings you need to tweak if you want all of your devices to join the same conversation and I was again a little disappointment with the Apple experience here. When you configure (and activate) iMessage on your various iDevices you have to specify your Apple ID which then automatically associates your email address with the device allowing it to receive messages. What this means is that if someone sends you an iMessage using your email address, you will receive this on all of your devices, however, when replying things might be a little different. I found that when I replied from my iPhone, the recipient would have messages in a different thread than if I replied from my iPad and to add to it all, messages from my iPhone didn’t synchronize with my iPad. I tracked this down to a little setting on the iPhone called “Caller ID”.
If you go into message settings on your iPhone you will see an option (assuming iMessage is enabled) labeled Receive At and below that, a Caller ID menu. In the caller ID menu you will see that you have your email address but also your cellphone number and its the cellphone number that is marked as your caller ID. What this means is that when you send an iMessage from your iPhone to someone, it appears from your cellphone number, not your email address and so therefore exists in a thread of messages from that identity. This wouldn’t normally be a problem however when you bring an iPad into the mix, you get a problem with mixed identities. If you navigate to the same menu on your iPad you will notice that your email address is the only option you have and that its selected meaning that your iPhone and iPad by default appear to come from different senders. This difference has 2 major effects on iMessage with the first being that messages sent to a single recipient from both devices appear in separate threads and the second meaning that the messages you send don’t get synchronized.
To ensure any iMessages that you send are visible on all of your iDevices, you need to make sure that your caller ID setting is the same across them all which means you have to use an email address. This has no effect on actual SMS messages, just messages sent using iMessage and again, is only really relevant if your using multiple iDevices.
Messages To Your Cellphone Number Are Not Synchronized Across Your iDevices
One of the biggest challenges you will have when receiving iMessages if you want them on all devices is educating your friends. Because everyone is used to texting using the cellphone number the chance is that they will continue doing that. Remember above we discussed the addresses that the various iDevices can receive on and that your iPhone was the only one with your cellphone number? Well what this means is if your friends use your number to send you messages, only your iPhone will receive them.
Its Not Perfect But Its A Start
I guess in closing, I wanted to write this both to help people trying to get iMessages working and scratching their head but also give my impression on the technology. Generally I’m impressed and think that in the world of Facebook and Twitter, things like short messages should be handled in this way and not used as a source of revenue for the telephone companies. I would like to see this technology from Apple mature a little and evolve to be a little more intuitive but I can live with it for now.
Good work Apple, just make sure you keep your eye on that all important user experience.