I’ve generally refrained from comment on iOS 5 because there are only two features I really cared about and I wanted to see them in a final release form that I could play with. The first was notifications, which I loved since the first screenshots I saw. The second was iMessage simply because it intrigued me.
iMessage despite some claims isn’t the end of SMS, but it the beginning. To summarize how it works, it essentially abstracts the Messenger/SMS client so that to the user its protocol antagonistic. If it can use Apple’s network it does so, if not it uses SMS. The user does nothing but send messages like they always have. Apple does the magic. No app to download, no username to select and distribute, no new phone number. Just use it. Typical Apple brilliance.
Of course this poses a threat to carriers who make immense profits selling SMS packages which cost them almost nothing. I still wouldn’t be surprised it they find some vaguely worded patent and a patent war erupts to try and stop Apple. It’s a very real possibility.
However this alternative network only works between Apple iOS users… for now. Apple has three potential tricks up it’s sleeve to completely upset the market.
The App Route
This is the most obvious route. Release apps for BlackBerry and Android. As people adopt smart phones this becomes more awesome. Desktop clients will also satisfy since millions spend their day in front of a computer at work. Integrate into iChat and make an XMPP service for those using Adium or a third-party client on Windows. Release a Windows client. Get Meebo to make that a simple thing to add to your account. They could get it everywhere pretty quickly.
Third Party Integration
Apple could eventually open up an API to allow for third-party app integration. Allow me to explain how this would work:
Your Apple account right now contains two key identifiers: You’re phone number (duh) and email address. What Apple could do is let third parties like Facebook, Google Voice, etc. become alternative carriers with a higher priority than SMS. So if Facebook Messenger was an option, it would use that. Otherwise it would use Google Voice, Kik, or perhaps even BBM to send the message. Last ditch effort would be regular SMS.
The Telco Route
This is an interesting option, but not really unique. Google actually does some of this already via Google Voice. Skype offers similar functionality to a degree. What Apple would do is rather than use the carrier SMS, give the option of sending via iMessage which sends the text to anywhere in the US on your behalf. Again, Google and several other companies are already doing this. The caller ID can be spoofed legally, and replies would come back via a regular SMS, effectively making you a recipient only. In the client this is seamless. This would further disrupt carriers model by cutting texting in half asymmetrically.
Any of these methods has a major advantage for Apple by making iOS the center of people’s communication universe. They could route to other iOS devices, Apple TV, your computer etc. It’s what Google Voice is striving to be, but for text.
Of course Apple could, and likely will eventually make this service more than text only. Voice and video are obvious companions and likely to be added as iChat, FaceTime integrate. Apple could even add a pro service like SMS and voice to other countries for a fraction of what wireless providers charge putting them in competition with Skype or Google Voice.
The backside of this however is that wireless providers are likely to raise mobile data rates and add new charges to make up for SMS.