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iMessage: Biting RIM’s style & sticking it to carriers

The iOS 5 upgrade introduces a lot of changes for Apple’s (s aapl) mobile operating system, but iMessages is one of the most significant. It lets iPad, iPhone and iPod touch owners send messages back and forth, including photos, videos, locations and contacts, all free of charge and without limits. If you’re thinking it’s the BlackBerry Messenger of the iOS world, you’d be right, and that’s bad news for RIM, (S RIMM) but also for carriers.

BBM is one of the few remaining advantages RIM’s aging platform has over its younger competition in the smartphone market. (Check out this tweet representative of reaction toiMessage’s announcement if you don’t believe me.) People appreciated the way it integrates tightly to your device, and its delivery and read receipts let you know your messages aren’t getting lost in the ether. It’s been a life raft for RIM in the violent sea of the ongoing mobile battle BlackBerry faces with iOS and Android (s goog).

However, iMessage brings a lot of what’s good about BBM not only to the iPhone, which just passed RIM in terms of U.S. smartphone ownership trentds, but also to all iOS devices. With iPad and iPod touch users factored in, the potential audience for iMessage is huge, and it should cause at least some BBM-faithful to flee RIM’s platform for greener pastures.

But while Apple’s aggressive move against a competitor is easy to understand, iMessage also represents a more subtle attack on some of its closest partners: the mobile operators.

The service iMessage works over both Wi-Fi and the cellular network, and is unlimited and free. Text messaging, while often bundled with other cell phone services, is seldom free and only sometimes unlimited. Using MMS services almost always costs more money on top of that, and text messaging doesn’t have delivery receipts or work across multiple devices simultaneously.

Like BBM, iMessage is limited only to devices from one hardware maker, but it didn’t hurt BBM’s popularity, and it’ll hinder the uptake of Apple’s service even less. iOS is a growing platform, and since iMessage can work even without a cellular connection on non-phone devices, it appeals to a much broader swath of mobile users. It’s like that iMessage use will cut into text messaging, and it will lead to a decreased ability to generate revenue from that vector for carriers.

Apple wrestled control over the user’s relationship with device software away from carriers with iPhone OS and the App Store, and then it won even more autonomy by requiring iPad data plans be available without contracts. Reports say that it also wanted to go after the SIM card, arguably one of the carrier’s best tools for maintaining control over the customer relationship.

But if Apple didn’t make this power play, Google would have. Google has already made inroads with Google Talk, Google Chat and Google Voice on Android devices. A unified messaging platform was the next logical step for Google, as Om suggested in a post earlier this year. Facebook acquired group messaging startup Beluga, and has already begun building out its own cross-platform rich messaging product, so it too is interested in this space.

Apple may just be taking a first step with iMessage, which basically mimics BBM but expands availability to different device categories, but it’s just a first shot in a battle that will include all major mobile players, and in which carriers may end up suffering the greatest losses.

20 Responses to “iMessage: Biting RIM’s style & sticking it to carriers”

  1. @travisaacson

    I agree that the big losers on this will be the carriers and Blackberry. An alternative to SMS has been brewing and trying to be invented for some time now so the carriers shouldn’t be surprised.

    As others have already commented, to truly win the messaging game the solution must be device and carrier agnostic. The problem is that Apple, Google and Blackberry don’t want to let the other kids in their own sandbox. It’ll be interesting to see this unfold.

  2. This won’t have a big an impact on SMS fees as we think. That is unless the iMessage service also integrates (for free) with non-iOS device SMS. Which I’m pretty sure it does not.

    Think about it. Anyone who has kids. Even if they have iPhone/Touch devices. A decent part of their day is spent texting their friends via good old SMS.

    Eventually iMessage does away with SMS/MMS. I just don’t see it happening immediately – or at least not until/unless regular received/sent SMS can integrate to iMessage and eliminate all need for SMS on an iOS device.

    The real loser here is BlackBerry. I think BBM was one of the last beloved features of a dying RIM architecture. Will RIM open up BBM now and make it cross platform in a dying last gasp attempt to retain defectors? Even if they were able to cross platform it they’d probably be unlikely to reach into iMessage.

    Prediction: The real winner will probably long term be Facebook messaging. It’s the single common element most people use. As has been pointed out — everyone has friends on different technology (iPhone/Android/BlackBerry/DumbPhone) but the common area everyone is likely active in is Facebook. This is probably where the biggest chance for a true unified messaging will come from.

  3. Peter

    A small correction: SMS does have delivery confirmations, but not read receipts.

    Whether your network supports delivery confirmations is another matter.

    MMS has both, and again, perhaps some US carriers don’t support these features.

  4. Stephen_mc

    I’ve done full circle; started with Blackberry > iPhone > Nexus > Blackberry.

    For playing games: iPhone
    For Business: Blackberry
    Hybrid: Android

    The long term winner will be Android!!!

  5. Allister

    Thinking about iMessage makes me want to buy iPhones for the whole family. But of course that’s a fairly expensive prospect. So… now would be the PERFECT time to debut the iPhone Nano!

    • I don’t think there’s much point to an iPhone Nano (Unless you really want a smaller device, let’s see if HP Veer takes off) – you can already get the 3GS for near to nothing, but you’re still stuck with the same data plan for two/three years, and that cost far outweighs what you save upfront with the cheaper handset…

  6. Dennis

    Nobody uses MMS anyways.

    The mobile operators had the chance to make MMS big years ago. They also had the chance to make video telephony a mass market, long before FaceTime. They failed in both because

    1) they were too greedy and it was simply too expensive to regular people
    2) all their thinking evolves around creating new sources of income, not around making great products or delivering real value.

    I expect the position of the network operators to weaken, as more and more communication is based on pure IP data packets, as opposed limited unflexible overpriced services with custom billing for each kind of information exchanged.

    They need not complain, because they are still too strong, especially in the US. I live in Germany where the situation is a bit better (you can buy officially unlocked iPhones in the store, use them with any network you like and switch as often as you like). But data plans are still too expensive. In some Asian countries the situation is more customer-friendly.