With the release of iOS 10, iMessage Apps are here - the prospect of iMessage apps is innovative, interesting and powerful, and they are being undervalued.

For the most part, Stickers are dominating the Apple Messages media coverage. Apple are also chiefly focusing their own marketing efforts on these stickers by branding them as a way to allow “people [to] express themselves in richer ways”. This is in spite of them being a blatant feature poach direct from apps such as Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and Google Allo.

Why would Apple gear their marketing this way? It could be that they believe the demographic that are using stickers on competitor platforms would be easily swayed to use iMessage if they matched this functionality. Or ostensibly it could be because they genuinely think this is the most exciting update to be made to iMessage. Regardless, it is diluting and cheapening the impact that iMessage apps are having and undermining how they could potentially revolutionise how people view and use messenger applications. iMessage can finally be considered a full-blown platform on iOS with doors now wide-open for developers to utilise.

At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) this year the updates to the Messages app were announced. Despite the sheer size of the update to Messages, developers were educated on the new functionality and APIs available to them in only two sessions, dubbed “iMessage Apps and Stickers Part 1 & 2”. The talks mainly focused on the new Stickers functionality and when the iMessages Apps themselves were discussed and demoed; it was purely from a collaborative sticker sharing (image building) experience. It did not really incite much inspiration or show the true power of the new APIs. However, they did conclude the talk with the overworked, “…we can’t wait to see what you do with it!”. Again, it wasn’t clear whether Apple were intending for iMessage Apps not to be the focus or if they just had not come up with any innovative applications of the technology themselves yet - myself, as an attendee, was certainly underwhelmed after attending the talk.

“Messages apps allow people to collaborate by using your app. […] people can work together to accomplish a task within the conversation.”

As of 23 September 2016, there have been 1,251 sticker packs and 402 iMessage apps uploaded to the new Apple iMessage App Store; with games actually being the largest category at 91 games. Premium Stickers packs are the majority with over 75% being paid for. According to SensorTower, “Just one week in, there are nearly as many iMessage enabled apps as there were apps of any kind on the App Store when it launched in 2008.”.

“…1,251 Sticker packs and 402 apps uploaded to the new Apple iMessage App Store”

The premise of the iMessage app from a development standpoint is that it allows a user within the Messages application to access functionality from a regular app (or act as a standalone iMessage app) that they have installed on their device. This app functionality should allow them to collaborate with their chosen contact(s) and “accomplish a task”. These tasks could be anything from decision-making, content sharing, playing games and even making payments - all within the Messages application.

As mentioned, Sticker packs and iMessage apps can exist as standalone packs/apps that are available for direct download from the App Store for iMessage. They can also exist as extensions of other apps that a user may choose to download from the standard App Store, indicated by the badge ‘Offers iMessage App’, or one that they already have installed on their device. This badging approach is identical to the approach taken for Apple Watch app extensions. Standalone iMessage apps are a great surprise from Apple, in the past we generally have not seen extension functionality of other system apps available for download as standalone applications, for example, see how Apple approached the release of watchOS apps and Notification Center widgets.

App extensions were introduced with the release of iOS 8 in 2014; the goal of them was to enable an app user to access an “app’s functionality and content throughout iOS [and macOS]”. Since then, year-on-year, Apple have expanded the app extension offering available to developers (and by proxy to users) to break down the “walled-garden” and expose more of the system to third-party iOS apps - drastically improving app usability in a secure and safe way. iMessage apps are one of these app extensions.

Outside of iOS it is quite common for an operating system to allow software more liberal access to the other system libraries and data - and although this allows for more rich functionality to be available to the end-user it does pose security concerns. Part of the reason app extensions and iMessage apps themselves have been slow to fruition within the iOS ecosystem is because of Apple’s security and privacy concerns. Apple puts securing personal user information at the forefront of all of their new features and decisions. Because of this, it has a taken a considerable amount of time for Apple to slowly roll out new extensions and integrations, such as Siri, Maps and of course Messages. These security concerns are also clearly visible within the iMessage app APIs that are available to developers. iMessage apps do not have direct access to any personal information or the ability to determine who a user is talking to. Apple have used an approach where the app can only access Universally Unique Identifiers (UUIDs) that act as placeholders for an app to use. When the system runs the application and acts on these identifiers it will replace them with the relevant personal content. For example, a developer has access to a property localParticipantIdentifier and remoteParticipantIdentifiers on the MSConversation class, these act as placeholders representing the name of the sender and the name(s) of the receiver(s) of the respective messages being sent.

Apple’s care about the user’s privacy is a huge market differentiator for them and over the past two years, particularly since the celebrity iCloud leaks and the FBI-Apple encryption dispute after the 2015 San Bernardino attack, they have been singing the privacy and security anthem loud and clear. This includes Messages - an app where most of us have highly personal information and Apple are making it clear that iMessage apps do not compromise this data.

“People have entrusted us with their most personal information. We owe them nothing less than the best protections that we can possibly provide.” - Tim Cook

Part of adding any new feature to an existing application requires thorough User Experience (UX) considerations and this is where I believe, and I am not alone, iMessage apps and Sticker packs have fallen short.

“I had over 60 negative written reviews of Phoneys, and several more 1-star reviews, on its app store page, ranging from people not knowing how to find iMessage apps, to people not understanding how to peel stickers” - Adam Howell, Developer of #1 sticker pack ‘Phoneys’

There are now two additional buttons on the iMessage interface, one is to access the new digital touch/drawing functionality. The other, indicated by the classic App Store ‘A’, gives them access to a new app drawer, which by default will contain some stickers and a selection of apps the user can swipe between. It is by no means obvious how a user can add more apps, even though the user has just pressed a button with an App Store icon. There is also a toolbar at the bottom of this new panel, which allows you to expand to fullscreen or open a tray which contains all of your iMessage apps. You can then select the ‘Store’ button, which is visualised with a ‘+’ symbol. This now opens a full-featured App Store which resembles the layout of a standard App Store - where you can also ‘manage’ your existing apps. The key oversight for me is that by default, the option to ‘Automatically Add Apps’, is disabled - I feel this is an oversight because it will make initial iMessage app discovery that little bit slower for users with apps already supporting an iMessage app.

SensorTower have also reported that it is not the larger number of apps and sticker packs that are available that are confusing the user, but “user complaints we’ve seen so far have focused more on its confusing interface than an overwhelming number of choices.”. I think that we can expect vast changes in the interface, interaction and information architecture for iMessages apps and Stickers come iOS 11 - or maybe even sooner via a minor release of iOS 10.

The question now is how far will Apple (and third-parties) take this? There is large scope for what these apps can do and achieve; we are currently less than one month into their debut, and they are already gaining massive traction. A major factor in innovation will be around Apple Pay and payments within iMessage Apps; payments are already supported, but we are still yet to see many innovative uses of payments within a collaborative experience on iMessage - perhaps concert tickets, collaboratively chosen and individually purchased all within a single iMessage group chat.

As mentioned previously, it is also possible to release an iMessage app as a standalone app rather than just as an extension of an existing fully-featured iOS app. I think there is a very good chance we will now enter an era of standalone iMessage apps that solve a separate and specific problem related to messaging and collaborative communication rather than just being an additional piece of functionality to an existing app. Currently, games are dominating this category on the App Store but productivity and utility based apps will almost certainly begin to gain popularity. This makes Apple, again, the creator of an entirely new market of niche apps to solve specific problems.

There is now an interesting opportunity for companies to start pushing their brand through the use of Stickers. Although this doesn’t benefit the user (or consumer) directly, this has never stopped the advertising industry from trying, but I think we can expect marketing campaigns being angled towards stickers within iMessage very soon. We are already seeing sticker packs for games, such as Super Mario and Fallout. Will we soon see McDonald’s and Starbucks in there? Will they become the next stage of evolution for emojis where we start using particular brands and their stickers to articulate and express ourselves in Messages? This will be the ultimate goal for a brand’s identity within the new iMessage platform.

Message applications have not just been revamped by Apple - Apple’s other key competitors in this field have also put their messaging apps and platforms on steroids over the past year - this probably being the driving force in such a drastic change to the iMessage platform overall. Facebook Messenger is definitely a key competitor and probably the industry catalyst for adding such seemingly dated sticker (cast your mind back to MSN Messenger) functionality to the modern messaging client - but it worked, and now Facebook Messenger has over 1 billion users with a platform allowing developers to build chatbots - Facebook’s answer to integrating with other applications, brands and industries. Google Allo is one of the main competitors, announced at Google I/O in May 2016 and released in September 2016, it introduced the majority of the new features that Apple Messages has replicated - excluding the third-party app extensions. The commonalities between the platforms are extensive. Even interactions such as determining how ‘loud’ you want your message to be are accessed via essentially the same buttons across both applications. Google’s strength however, as always, is data analysis. Their implicit disregard for user privacy has the strong perk that their machine learning algorithms and message analysis are far stronger than Apple’s Messages application and always will be leaps ahead in terms of intelligence. This allows features such as predictive and suggestive text, handwriting analysis and quick response options - e.g. TapBack, to be far superior. As cliché as it sounds however, with great power comes great responsibility and Allo still has a lot of refinement to go in terms of suggestions (interruptions) that it is offering mid-conversation for its users. Allo is also coming under heavy criticism within encryption circles, due to their encouragement of only using the offered ‘Incognito mode’ for sensitive information - not quite the goal that privacy evangelists would advocate for. This is because Allo’s rich feature-set is reliant on being able to observe messages in transit in order to perform the contextual analysis - this can’t be done if there is end-to-end encryption, a feature of the incognito mode.

2016 has been huge for messaging clients and despite apps’ like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger holding such a huge portion of the market share, I do not think we have seen the end of this and Google and Apple’s answer to Facebook’s acquisition and dominance has certainly not gone unnoticed.

In conclusion, third-party app vendors should certainly be focusing on integrating their existing apps with iMessage. It is a brand-new marketplace and there is still plenty of opportunities for everyone to capitalise on. There are countless ways companies could bolster their marketing and advertising campaigns through the use of the sticker packs. Games companies should certainly be getting their hands dirty and getting great, collaborative in-message games created. Games are currently the largest category on the iMessage App store for both extensions and standalone apps (free and premium) and I am sure this will be the case for quite some time. Over the next year, we can expect to see UX and UI overhauls of the messaging interface in order to reduce its complexity and make features more discoverable and accessible - this could potentially be seen as early as iOS 10.2.

Are iMessage apps and Stickers the most important aspect of iOS 10? Probably not, but it definitely was the largest update to any individual feature in the Apple ecosystem this year.