Lauren Goode, writing for The Verge a few weeks ago, “iMessage Is the Glue That Keeps Me Stuck to the iPhone”:
As someone who vacillates between iOS and Android fairly often, but who considers a lightly cracked iPhone 6S her daily driver, I’m also considering whether the Pixel phone is the next phone to buy. All of the software I use now is available on Android: all of my top email, calendar, music, fitness, photography, task-based, work collaboration, and social networking apps are there.
But one app is not, and that’s iMessage.
There is a lot of truth here, especially for people who are largely in the Google ecosystem for email, calendaring, photos, etc. A lot of them use iPhones with Google apps, not Android phones. I know several people who think iPhones are better client devices for Google’s ecosystem than Android devices running Google’s own operating system. In particular, I think this is very common in Silicon Valley. I notice it frequently when I see the homescreens on iPhones used by members of the press who cover the wider industry (as opposed to those who focus more on Apple). That’s who I think Google’s Pixel phones are aimed at: not the mass market, per se, but the technical elite who are currently using a lot of Google services on iPhones. Another way to put it: if the Pixels don’t get Google employees who use iPhones to switch, nothing will.
See, for example, this year-old BuzzFeed column by Charlie Warzel, “Apple’s Junk Drawer Problem”:
There’s a folder on the homescreen of my iPhone affectionately labeled “Apple Crap.” Inside, a colony of flattened, painstakingly designed app icons gather dust. With the exception of the Health and Podcast apps, I’ve become accustomed to relegating Apple’s (undeletable) native apps to the junk drawer. The containment strategy started back in 2012, when Apple Maps suggested I head to a work meeting in the middle of the Hudson River, and I’ve never looked back. An informal office poll also concluded that I’m not alone. We’ll wait hours in line in the cold/heat/rain/snow for a shiny new piece of Apple hardware — but once we get it, the first thing we do is fill it with third-party services, leaving Apple’s proprietary apps tucked away in lonely folders on third or fourth screens.
That doesn’t sound like a typical iPhone user, who is likely to use all or most of Apple’s built-in apps. Apple Maps, for example, is far more popular on iOS than Google Maps. But Warzel’s description sounds exactly like the sort of iPhone users who might be tempted by the Pixel. There’s a split between iPhone users who are primarily part of the Apple ecosystem (iCloud, Safari, Apple Mail, …) and those who are part of the Google ecosystem (Google Drive, Google Calendar, Chrome, Gmail, …).
iMessage is an exception. With iMessage you get to connect both with iPhone users in the Google ecosystem and iPhone users in the Apple ecosystem. For a lot of us here in the U.S., that’s just about everyone we know. It’s no coincidence that two of Google’s major Android initiatives this year are Allo and Duo, their answers to iMessage and FaceTime. I don’t think it’s going to work. iPhone users on the Google ecosystem might install Duo and Allo, and those who switch to Pixel phones will have them installed by default. But I don’t see why iPhone users on the Apple ecosystem will install either Duo or Allo in large enough numbers to make a difference. Anyone who switches to a Pixel phone from an iPhone is still going to miss iMessage and FaceTime.
iMessage and FaceTime are tied to the same Apple ID system, but there’s a subtle difference between their rises in popularity. iMessage gained traction by replacing SMS — you just did what you used to do before iMessage existed and the messages went over iMessage instead of SMS if both people were signed into iCloud. The way Apple usurped SMS for their own users and let SMS remain as a fallback for texting with everyone else was simply genius.
FaceTime, on the other hand, introduced something new: low-latency, high-quality video chat. FaceTime wasn’t the first video chat to exist, but it was the first one to matter in the mass market. I’ve lost track of the TV shows and movies where I’ve seen characters using FaceTime, often mentioning it by name. FaceTime is a meaningful part of the lives of millions of families.
Back to Goode:
Back in June, when Apple showed off a bunch of new iMessage features and said it would be opening up iMessage to third-party app developers, some people wondered whether the company would go even a step further and bring iMessage to Android phones. It was a valid question in the “who-really-knows-what-Apple-will-do” sense, but still, the idea made little sense to me. Of course Apple wasn’t going to allow iMessage to function on Android: iMessage is the glue that keeps people stuck to their iPhones and Macs.
The iMessage-for-Android rumor was started by MacDailyNews, and while I wouldn’t have bet on it, I wasn’t entirely dismissive. I still think it might happen sooner or later. Here’s what I wrote in June:
It’s a little surprising if true, but remember that Apple is now boasting about its prowess as a services company. Messaging is a service. And it makes even more sense if, as rumored, there’s a payments component coming to iMessage.
I’ve heard from little birdies that mockups of iMessage for Android have circulated within the company, with varying UI styles ranging from looking like the iOS Messages app to pure Material Design.1 iMessage for Android may never see the light of day, but the existence of detailed mockups strongly suggests that there’s no “of course not” to it.
As an iOS/MacOS exclusive, iMessage is a glue that “keeps people stuck to their iPhones and Macs”, not the glue. iMessage for Android would surely lead some number of iPhone users to switch to Android, but I think that number is small enough to be a rounding error for Apple. Apple wins by creating devices and experiences that people want to use, not that they have to use. Apple creates desire, not obligation. If the iPhone isn’t thriving simply by being the best, then Apple is already in deep trouble. I would argue that in some ways Apple might be better off releasing iMessage for Android, simply to remove a crutch.2
But for a company that has failed at most attempts to create social networks, Apple has inadvertently built one with all of those little blue bubbles.
There’s nothing inadvertent about iMessage’s success. ★
Apple Music for Android, for example, is very Material Design-y. It uses Android’s system font, the Android standard hamburger menu for the sidebar, Android’s sharing menu icon, Android-style navigation controller transition animations, and more. I may not be well-enough attuned to idiomatic Android UI design to notice where Apple Music is iOS-y, but I can categorically state that Apple Music for Android is far more Android-y than any of Google’s iOS apps are iOS-y. ↩︎
Every time I bring up FaceTime, at least one reader will pipe up asking about Steve Jobs’s on-stage promise at its premiere in 2010 to release FaceTime as an “open standard”. That went wrong two ways. First, the story I’ve been told is that releasing FaceTime as an open standard was a decision Jobs made unilaterally while working on the 2010 WWDC keynote. The FaceTime engineering team learned about it when we did — when Jobs promised it on stage. It wasn’t designed or engineered from the outset to be open, and so even under the best of circumstances, it might have taken years for FaceTime to go open. But even worse, Apple lost a patent lawsuit over FaceTime that required them to change FaceTime’s architecture.
So I don’t think we’re ever actually going to see FaceTime as an open standard. But I think the sentiment that drove Jobs to want it to be an open standard applies to the idea of releasing iMessage for Android. Apple doesn’t need to rely on platform-exclusive lock-in. ↩︎︎
After my link today to Greg Koenig’s excellent explanation for why the new ceramic Apple Watch Edition does not presage the use of a similar material in next year’s iPhone (in short: Apple needs to produce up to one million iPhones per day, and the ceramic process Apple is using for the watch would take way too long to meet that demand), several readers asked if Apple might go the Apple Watch Edition route: make a special ceramic iPhone Edition that sells at a much higher price.
Apple certainly could do this. But I don’t think they would. I’ve often said that the iPhone reminds me of Andy Warhol’s great quote about Coca-Cola and America:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
A significantly more expensive limited edition ceramic iPhone would break from this, and in my opinion it would take away from the iPhone’s brand. iPhones aren’t cheap, but they are affordable for many, and everyone who gets one knows they’re getting the best phone in the world. An expensive limited edition iPhone would mean most iPhone buyers would know they’re only getting second best.
Apple has done this with the watch — in spades last year, with the $10–20,000 gold models — but watches are different animals. Watches, in general, have never been like Coke. There have always been low-cost watches and luxury watches.
Let me add here a note about something that’s been bothering me for months: the notion that Apple is going to do something “special” next year to commemorate the iPhone’s 10th anniversary. I would wager heavily that they won’t. Apple under Tim Cook is a little bit more prone to retrospection than it was under Steve Jobs, who was almost obsessively forward-thinking, but only slightly. They made a 40-years-in-40-seconds video to commemorate the company’s 40th anniversary this year, for example, but it was only 40 seconds long. Blink and you missed it.
Apple is not going to make a special edition of any product — let alone the iPhone, their most important product — just to mark an anniversary. Don’t tell me about the 20th Anniversary Macintosh — that was a product from the old Apple that was heading toward bankruptcy, and a perfect example of why they shouldn’t do something special to mark something as arbitrary as an anniversary.
A lot of this 10th anniversary of the iPhone speculation is regarding the rumors that next year’s new iPhones might sport a new industrial design, with edge-to-edge displays that eliminate both the top and bottom bezels from the front face. If such a design does appear next year, the timing will be purely coincidental.
What’s the logic otherwise? That Apple could have debuted that design this year, but didn’t, simply because they wanted to hold off until the iPhone’s oh-so-precious 10th anniversary? That is not how a technology company operates. To maintain its position as the leading phone-maker in the world, Apple must push forward as fast as they can. They only know one way to play the game: as hard as they can.
Nothing gets held back from any Apple product just to make the next one more special. If there is going to be a new edge-to-edge iPhone design, it will appear as soon as it is ready — no sooner, and no later. It would make no sense to hold back a more visually impressive and practically superior1 design just to be able to call it the “10th anniversary iPhone” a year from now. That would mean selling fewer iPhones this year while sticking with the familiar 6/6S form factor, and not selling any additional iPhones next year. No one — no one — is going to buy any new iPhone just because it’s the 10th anniversary edition.
Every year, Apple releases the best iPhone it is able to make. That’s it. It makes no more sense for a tech company to hold back a new design for an entire year just to mark an anniversary than it would for a, say, 99-year-old sports team to bench its star player for a year to make their 100-year-anniversary team even more special. I do believe that Apple leads the industry, but they don’t lead by such a margin that they can afford to pull their punches just for an “anniversary” marketing gimmick.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple never even mentions next year that 2017 is the 10th anniversary of the original iPhone. And if they do mention it, I think it will be a brief passing reference on stage, not a part of any advertising or marketing campaign.2 New iPhones — new Apple products, period — are marketed as new. Anniversaries are about getting old. ★
If Apple goes with an edge-to-edge display, they can either keep the display sizes the same (4.7- and 5.5-inch) and greatly reduce the overall size of the devices, or they can keep the device sizes the same as they are now and greatly increase the size of the displays. Either way is a win. (My guess though is that Apple will shrink the devices — Apple likes smaller devices.) ↩︎
I’ll enjoy a nice serving of homemade claim chowder if Apple goes and names next year’s iPhone the “iPhone 10” and makes the anniversary central to its branding. ↩︎︎
So why does Siri seem so dumb? Why are its talents so limited? Why does it stumble so often? When was the last time Siri delighted you with a satisfying and surprising answer or action?
I have an answer for this: when I discovered during the NBA playoffs that Siri can tell you the Vegas betting odds for sporting events.
In recent weeks, on multiple Apple devices, Siri has been unable to tell me the names of the major-party candidates for president and vice president of the United States. Or when they were debating. Or when the Emmy awards show was due to be on. Or the date of the World Series. […]
Google Now, on the same Apple devices, using the same voice input, answered every one of these questions clearly and correctly. And that isn’t even Google’s latest digital helper, the new Google Assistant.
If you try most of these broken examples right now, they’ll work properly, because Apple fixed them after I tweeted screenshots of most of them in exasperation, and asked the company about them.
Indeed, Siri now knows the date and time of the next U.S. presidential debate, but where Siri fundamentally falls apart is its inability to maintain context and chain together multiple commands. Here was my interaction trying this just now, transcribed exactly as Siri heard me:
Me: When is the next presidential debate?1
Siri: The third 2016 presidential debate will take place from 9:00pm to 10:30pm ET on Wednesday, October 19 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Me: OK add it to my calendar.
Siri: OK, tell me the date and time of your event.
Me: Add the next presidential debate to my calendar.
Siri: I didn’t find any appointments about ‘presidential debate’ in the next three months.
Me: When is the next presidential debate?
Siri: The third 2016 presidential debate will take place from 9:00pm to 10:30pm ET on Wednesday, October 19 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Me: Remind me about it one hour before it starts.
Siri: OK, I’ll remind you to ‘It starts’. When would you like to be reminded?
Five years in, this seems like a reasonable (and useful) thing to expect Siri to be able to do.2
For instance, when I asked Siri on my Mac how long it would take me to get to work, it said it didn’t have my work address — even though the “me” contact card contains a work address and the same synced contact card on my iPhone allowed Siri to give me an answer.
Similarly, on my iPad, when I asked what my next appointment was, it said “Sorry, Walt, something’s wrong” — repeatedly, with slightly different wording, in multiple places on multiple days. But, using the same Apple calendar and data, Siri answered correctly on the iPhone.
These sort of glaring inconsistencies are almost as bad as universal failures. The big problem Apple faces with Siri is that when people encounter these problems, they stop trying. It feels like you’re wasting your time, and makes you feel silly or even foolish for having tried. I worry that even if Apple improves Siri significantly, people will never know it because they won’t bother trying because they were burned so many times before. In addition to the engineering hurdles to actually make Siri much better, Apple also has to overcome a “boy who cried wolf” credibility problem.
I think “assistant” is the exact right term for this class of software. But I can’t imagine how stupid an actual human assistant would have to be not to understand a request like “Find out when the next debate is and put it on my calendar.” ★
Even worse: If I ask “When is the next US presidential debate?” (note the “US”), Siri parses it correctly but instead of answering, falls back to an offer to display search results from the web. It seems wrong that a more specific query would fail. ↩︎
To be fair, I tried the same two-step sequence (when’s the next debate?; add it to my calendar) with Google Assistant running in the Allo app on Android, and it failed in the same way. I remain unconvinced that Siri is behind the competition, and even if it is, I don’t think it’s by much. ↩︎︎