If you missed WWDC, Apple’s annual developer conference, this year, then you missed some big updates on how Apple’s operating system, is going to change. While things were fairly quiet on the hardware front at this year’s WWDC, Apple announced major updates to some of its key native apps. There were a lot of updates announced at the conference, but one in particular has big implications for mobile app development. Messages, one of the most-used stock apps that come with the iPhone, is getting a major overhaul.
In terms of functionality for the user, Messages is significantly expanding its capabilities. In case you don’t know, Messages is the stock app that Apple includes with all iPhones for texting – it’s the one with a green square icon with a white speech bubble in the middle. Before we dive in, it’s important to note that Messages, the app, is separate from an “iMessage,” which is a communication format that Messages can send. iMessages are more detailed than traditional text messages and can include things like emojis, pictures, videos, or GIFs.
It’s iMessages that are going to gain a lot of functionality with the new version of the Messages app. Some of these changes are mostly cosmetic or will have only a small effect for the user – but we predict that others are going to change the landscape of mobile app development.
Apple focused a lot on the idea of the user’s “self-expression” at WWDC, and they’re upgrading the emoji functionality to reflect this. If you’re not familiar with them, emojis are similar to the emoticons that once graced the chat screens of instant messenger programs like AIM.
Emojis in iOS 10 will be larger than their current form, and Apple has even added in a predictive emoji feature. As you type, Messages will highlight words that it thinks it can replace with emojis. You can then tap them to change them into an emoji, eliminating the need to hunt through a library to find the one you want.
Apple’s also adding new functionalities to textual iMessages. Users can now send their handwriting, drawn with their finger in a sort of “doodle” box that takes the place of the keyboard, instead of just a typed message. Additionally, a new feature called “Invisible Ink” will let users send messages, photos, or videos that are blurred over until the recipient taps on them to remove the blur. We won’t comment on what people will use this last feature for, although the Internet has its own opinions.
Aside from obscuring “sensitive messages,” the new Messages app will also let users add effects to text bubbles and even send along full-screen effects with certain messages, including an EDM-inspired laser effect. A new feature called Tapback lets users send icon-based responses to iMessages with the tap of a finger.
Messages will now incorporate Rich links, which means that links sent through the app will feature a short description and a preview photo pulled from the URL, making the linking format within Messages feel much more like sending a link through Facebook Messenger.
Apple has also made Messages integrate more seamlessly with other apps, letting users launch the camera from directly within Messages and use other apps without leaving the Messages app. Apple’s taken advantage of this capability to allow users to share, send, and play songs from Apple Music directly within the Messages app – which may give its proprietary streaming service a new leg up on competitors like Spotify or Tidal.
Altogether, the new updates are sure to make the Messages app more engaging, more powerful, and more fun to use – but the new features are just the tip of the iceberg.
The new features we’ve discussed are exciting, but mostly a cosmetic improvement. The real change, though, is on the backend. For the first time, Apple has opened up its Messages app to developers. This means that iOS apps no longer live only as colorful squares on the homescreen of the iPhone – they can now be written to integrate with – or written exclusively for – the Messages app itself.
Users can open apps from directly within Messages, use the apps, and go back to Messages all without leaving the app. Additionally, Messages will now include its own app store, allowing users to browse through apps that either integrate with or exist solely for the Messages app itself. This opens up a whole new front for mobile app developers.
For developers, the new functionalities of Messages offer a lot of opportunities. For starters, upgrading existing mobile apps to integrate with the new Messages app is likely to become a major priority for developers. Allowing users to use your app from directly within Messages will make them more likely to use and interact with your app, and it’ll also help to increase the “mindshare” of your app, reinforcing your branding and user loyalty. We won’t know the full impact of the update for some time, but it’s entirely possible that Messages compatibility will become a must-have for iOS app development.
Furthermore, the new app store within Messages opens up a whole new world of possibilities for developers. In addition to the already vast ecosystem of apps in the app store, Apple’s Messages update has effectively created a new plane of existence for apps. No doubt, we’ll soon see apps built specifically for Messages start to pop up in the mobile app space, which might create another “gold rush” similar to the rush that the App Store has seen in the last few years.
The new Messages app store is effectively a brand new market for mobile app development. It opens up a new platform and new possibilities to mobile app developers, entrepreneurs, and tech enthusiasts alike. But we’re betting that as significant as this new development is, it’s only the beginning of a much larger change.
What Apple’s done with this new update is effectively turn Messages – just one stock app on the iPhone – into a brand new app marketplace. This creates new possibilities for developers, and it also allows Apple to take its 30% share on everything those developers make. But think about it – Messages is only one app. Why would Apple stop there?
We’re betting that the new functionalities of Messages is just the first of many updates to come. Why, for example, shouldn’t Apple do the same thing for its stock Notes app? Or for the Stocks app? For its Phone app? Mail? Even Weather?
Thinking about it this way, this new update opens the door to turn every stock app on the iPhone into a possibility for a brand new app marketplace. With subsequent iOS updates, Apple could continue to open up new apps to third-party mobile app developers, creating entirely new frontiers for iOS app development.
It’s not just Apple that’s adopting this strategy. At this year’s F8, Facebook’s developer conference, the social media titan announced it would be opening up its own Messenger service to third party developers. This effectively does the same thing that Apple is now doing for Facebook Messenger – it turns the app, which was once just a standalone button on a phone, into an entire marketplace for new apps.
Facebook painted a slightly different picture of the future, however, instead focusing on the idea of bots – chat-based programs that can communicate with users through text and artificial intelligence – instead of apps. This means developers could write programs that can literally “speak” with users, taking instructions the same way we might ask our friend to pick something up for us at the grocery store.
It’ll be interesting to see how the fields of apps and bots compete and evolve over the next few years, but one thing is certain: the mobile app development environment is diversifying. As the new messaging-based marketplaces continue to evolve, the functionalities, platforms, and natures of apps available to users will continue to expand and deepen. In all likelihood, we’ll start to see more and more apps turn into marketplaces, transforming what were once single-function programs into marketplaces with unique sets of opportunity and risk.
We’re not sure exactly where this all will lead – no one is. But one thing’s for sure: it’s an exciting time to be in mobile app development.