Since SMS’ conception in the 1980s, text messaging hasn’t changed much. Sure, over the years, smartphone messages got longer, added photos, videos, and emoji, but their purpose—concise communication—stayed more or less static.
Lately, the technology has experienced something akin to the Cambrian explosion, with a broad range of new species of messaging emerging from companies large and small around the world. These are stretching the purpose and possibility of the lowly ‘text’ in novel directions. In the process, the trend has created one of the most effervescent, interesting technology races in recent memory.
Apple is the latest to rethink messages. During its Worldwide Developers Conference keynote on June 15, the iPhone-maker announced that it will open its iMessage service to developers, making it possible to access apps like Fandango’s movie ticketing service and payment platform Square Cash without leaving a message thread. Users could, for instance, jointly order food with friends by using an app like DoorDash directly in a message thread, adding meals to the same order without having to pass a phone around.
(Apple’s app for sending messages is called Messages; its service for tying them across iPhones, iPads and Macs is called iMessage.)
Apple executives said Messages is the most-used app on iPhones—and the company spent a considerable amount of time on stage demonstrating new features. The new software, launching later this year, will allow users to send each other animated messages and drawings as well as collate them with stickers, not unlike services popular abroad like China’s WeChat and Japan’s Line. One feature automatically translates text into emoji; another will hide the contents of a message until the person receiving it swipes away static obscuring it.
The activity in messaging reflects a shift in the way users interact with apps. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Mary Meeker acknowledged the trend in her widely read annual report on the state of the Internet, released earlier this month. In the presentation, Meeker noted that messaging apps have the potential to become a larger part of how we access information and services on the Internet. Messaging apps, she predicts, could take over the function of the home screen as a portal to various apps.
Indeed, messaging has come to dominate the many things people do with their phones. A Pew Research Center survey published last year found that that text messaging is the most widely used basic smartphone feature. Globally, smartphone users are spending between 50 and 200 minutes per week in messaging apps such as WeChat, KakaoTalk, and Line, according to data from researcher Forrester published in 2015. But in the U.S., people spend less time in such apps, hence the opportunity companies like Facebook and Apple see in upgrading their services.
One of the reasons messaging has become so diverse is that no company is pursuing exactly the same strategy. Apple’s service, for instance, seems to be adopting popular features from other platforms and adding glitzy new ones but is only available on devices the company makes. This cuts out the some billion and a half people around the world using Google’s rival Android devices.
Facebook, meanwhile, is hoping to make its Messenger app the default communication tool on any platform, Android, iOS, or the web. The social network giant announced June 14 that Messenger for Android will support the ability to view SMS text messages within the app. This means Facebook messages and regular text messages will be collated inside its Messenger app if users chose to opt in.
Google’s Allo, which will be released later this summer for Apple and Android devices, puts a premium on built-in search capabilities. Beyond being able to ask a Google chatbot questions as one might when using its search engine, Allo will proactively make suggestions based on specific conversations. If a friend sends a text that says something like, “Let’s go out for Italian food,” the app will automatically display nearby Italian restaurants in the conversation.
It’s too soon to tell which approach will prove most durable. One thing is for certain, the way we use our phones to message each other won’t be the same.