Apple Just Reinvented Its Biggest App

Here are four ways to understand the company’s extremely weird iMessage makeover.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software, announces new iMessage features at a developer event in June.
Tony Avelar / Reuters

This week, Apple released the weirdest, most idiosyncratic product I can remember from them in the past decade: the new iMessage for iOS 10.

iMessage is the company’s default texting app—if you’ve ever texted on the iPhone, you’ve used it. Where the previous version of the app let you converse with friends in an austere series of bubbles, the new one imposes a giddy array of choices on the user. You can make a text inflate to fill a user’s screen and then “slam” onto the page. You can make a shooting star animate above a text. You can attach communicative symbols—a thumbs up, a thumbs down, the words “haha!”—to another person’s text.

It is hard to describe how jarring this is. A piece of software from Apple—white-walled, pale-wood, bland-faced Apple—now lets you initiate a Tron-like laser show on other people’s smartphone screens at will. The old iMessage was a clear-flowing stream through which your friends could be gazed at. The new one is a goofy, pink poodle leaning out of a tree, asking “Do you like my hat?”

So no matter how you feel about the new iMessage, it is a departure for the company. Here are four different ways to think about the oddest iPhone feature in years.

1. As the triumph of the group text

One of the hottest startups of the past two years has been the corporate-focused instant-messaging product Slack. It creates instant-messaging rooms for companies that are supposedly faster and easier to use than email.

Culturally, Slack satisfies all the demands of the moment: It is sheltered, frantic, insider-y, un-turn-off-able, and impossible to purchase. (Instead of buying a Slack license, you rent its cloud software and storage at high cost.) It is also popularly recognized and widely discussed, in part because the journalists and programmers most likely to adopt it are also likely to blog about it.

The consumer equivalent is the group text—that is, multiple people texting each other in one thread at the same time —which may be one of the most important but least discussed media of the mid-2010s. iMessage helped bring the group text into being, because it doesn’t break up threads like old-school SMS sometimes did. The new version further rewards group-texters by expanding and previewing content like tweets and news stories in the app. That may sound like a minor improvement, but for anyone using the app to talk about the news—and by that I mostly mean sports news—it makes iMessage a more compelling choice over GroupMe or one of its standalone competitors.

2. As The Skeuomorph Strikes Back

Three years ago, the Apple design overlords famously gutted the skeuomorphs from iOS. This made the news (because Apple), but first commentators had to explain what a skeuomorph is: a design element that mimics a previously functional component for usability or ornamental purposes. A clay goblet that nonetheless has rivet-like bumps is skeuomorphic; so are the “tabs” that previously organized

When the iPhone debuted, it deployed skeuomorphs throughout the interface. The Notes app looked like a notebook, down to the leather portfolio purporting to contain it. The Calendar app even had would-be stitching. After six years, the company’s designers decided people knew they could take notes in an app even if the app didn’t look like a notebook. The company’s design czar Jony Ive described it as an emancipation. “There was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally,” he said. “We were trying to create an environment that was less specific.”

Poor Jony. It’s 2016 and the company is appropriating entirely new specifics to reference—an explosion of confetti, a mess of balloons, a laser light show. And it’s not even doing it for the sake of usability: If anything, these new elements make the operation of iMessage even more opaque. No, Apple is doing this to be quirky and fun.

This little parable suggests that any ongoing software project as large and successful as iOS will long be engaged in a cycle of skeuomorph. Strike the devils down in one place and they’ll spring up in another: first as usability, then as farce. (To be fair, however, there have been only a handful of software projects as large and successful as iOS.)

3. As a play for Chinese consumers

When the new iMessage was announced in June, Jan Koum tweeted that he was “flattered to see Apple ‘borrow’ numerous WhatsApp features.” Koum is the founder of WhatsApp. He became a billionaire when Facebook bought that product two years ago.

If there’s an aesthetic that the new iMessage really borrows from, however, it’s WeChat’s. WeChat is the leading Chinese messaging app with 700 million monthly active users. Ninety percent of its users live in China. WeChat broadly uses a distinctly Sino-tech aesthetic. Confetti, stickers, and sound effects all defined WeChat before they deployed elsewhere. In adopting these elements, iMessage would seem to be aiming for WeChat’s market, especially in China.

In some ways, it’s a downmarket version of the company’s $10,000 18-karat gold Watch. With that device, Apple was making a play for the globally wealthy: The company has grown to be the largest in the world partly on the size of its profit margins, and if it could have $9,000 margins on a $400 gadget, all the better.

With the confetti-fied iMessage, it may be aiming for a different group of non-Westerners. And it’s demonstrating again that it will adjust its spartan design ethos to do it.

4. As a revision of what the iPhone is.

One of the first iMessage extensions that Apple encourages you to install is Venmo. It bumps the social payment aspect of Venmo from the main app to the iMessage pane. In other words, instead of handling rent or beer payment in a separate app, now you can send your friends money without ever leaving the text thread.

Other standalone messaging apps have allowed app extensions like this. You can already call an Uber from within Facebook Messenger, and Snapchat has let you send money to your friends for almost two years. But they’re not iMessage, which exerts considerable influence simply by handling all text messages by default.

The Venmo extension suggests that any app with a major social component can be respun as an iMessage extension. (There is also already a Words With Friends app for iMessage.) More and more interactions will start from within iMessage—something that will be even easier, as iOS 10 now lets you launch an app from the unlocked home screen.

When the iPhone 6S was released last year, I wrote that new iPhones were primarily compelling to consumers by dint of their being upgraded cameras. The new iMessage fills out this realist (and, honestly, simplistic) vision. Never mind the phone in the name: An iPhone is a camera that also sends magical, invisible telegrams.