Why Can't I Use My Phone Number on Messages.app?

Update: Gruber responded (!!!). Glad I got the blog on Jekyll last week… He hates my idea. So I followed up here.

The iMessage protocol doesn’t actually use a phone number as anything other than a unique identifier. What this means is that if you try to send a text message to someone and you are doing it from an iMessage-capable app (which right now only officially exists on the iPhone and iPad), a request is sent to Apple’s server to see if the person’s number you are sending to corresponds to another iMessage-capable customer. If the answer comes back yes, the app forgoes creating a traditional SMS clump to send over the channels reserved (and metered) for phone calls and text messages and instead sends the message as regular data through the iMessage protocol.

The practical result for the user on the other end is that the message is slightly slower (usually) to arrive, but it doesn’t count against any text message quotas they may have set up with their carrier. And it’s blue. There are other subtle differences, but the service is meant as (or as I will explain, should be meant as) a replacement and enhancement to traditional SMS. One obvious possible benefit over SMS would be the ability, while sitting at a computer or iPad, to respond from a quick window with full keyboard at hand. For me it always feels a bit silly pulling my phone out of my pocket and typing a text message on a little screen while I have a full-sized keyboard in front of me.

It would be cool if something like this were in the iMessages pipeline.

SMS is a mode of communication that is so ubiquitous that trying to change the way people think of it is not likely to be very productive. That ship has sailed. People love sending text messages, and they are used to it. It’s ultimately frustrating to people when you try to change something fundamental about a service they use every day and like. Apple has been pretty great about not frustrating its users, and yet, with Messages’s move from the iPhone to the iPad, and now to OS X as Messages.app, they are doing exactly that.

It’s worth noting that this wouldn’t be Apple’s first attempt at improving the texting experience. Their first try was, of course, brilliant, with the introduction of the threaded conversation, chat-client-like display of text messages that shipped on the orginal iPhone, and which virtually all other text message software on smartphones has copied since. The view we take for granted today replaced the embarrassingly recent, ugly, clunky, wonky POP3-like setup with Inbox and Sent “folders.” You can still see this implementation on dumbphones if you know anyone who owns one. For all of the talk of the lack of hardware buttons, the first ever usable touch interface, the great iPod, and a real web browser in your pocket, the original “SMS” app might truthfully have been the most important enhancement the first iPhone brought to my cellphone-using life. It improved so much on a function I was already using on my old flip phone, however awkwardly and painfully, that it opened up a whole new world of communication to me. The SMS app made SMS work. (Visual Voicemail was huge as well, I digress.)

Having Messages on my iPad has not enhanced my texting experience. Messages.app (beta) for OS X has not enhanced my texting experience. Messages on iPad and OS X are, in fact, completely unusable. This, and the fact that I am on a family plan with unlimited SMS messages, means that iMessages has had a net negative effect on my texting experience. “It’s like SMS, but a little slower and less reliable!”

It would only take one feature to make Messages on iPad and Messages.app useful. Allow me to use my phone number as my iMessages account. My phone number has always been my unique identifier through which I choose to receive these short bits of text (for good reason). If I can’t use my real “address,” there’s not much point in signing up for a different delivery company. The package will not arrive where I need it.

I could write a lot of theory about what makes a text message different from an email different from a tweet. Maybe I will some day, but all I really have to say about what makes a text message a text message is that out of all of these delivery methods, it represents the closest circle of intimacy. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable calling me to say hello, you shouldn’t feel comfortable texting me. Convenient that both of these services should be reached at the same number. Anyone reading this, on the other hand, can feel free to email or tweet at me.

iMessages, as an enhancement to SMS, should never use email addresses.

An obvious question: How could Apple release something as stupid and half-baked as this? Do they simply not care? Was iMessages really just the cynical answer to the BBM crowd? “You want your little BBM chew toy? Here, here’s your little shitty BBM where people can see if you read their thing and you can give them a whole different address from your phone number, here just make it your email address, I don’t know how about your fucking iCloud ID, no wait your Apple Store iTunes jimmyname, yeah that’s fine. Send eachother your little lol’s on that thing and then you can see if they read it yet or not. Happy?”

I hope this isn’t the case, but if it were, one might suppose that an Apple ID email would be better than a proprietary 9709868756789 BBM ID, and in theory it would be, if you didn’t take into account the confusion created by completely mixing up totally different, widely-used communication methods. Sending a text message to an email address is like faxing a Christmas card. So even if it were just a BBM appeasement strategy, it would still be a bad one.

Another possibility is that Apple didn’t want to spend the couple hundred dollars on a text-message opt-in for verifying the true owner of the phone number in the non-iPhone apps. They already have a whole ecosystem of Apple IDs (different from iCloud IDs), and so maybe they were just lazy.

Regardless of the reason, one thing I’m not going to do is to start sending text messages from a fucking email address. And neither will anyone else.

My bad: The Palm Treo had threaded SMS messages. Matt Ginzton set me straight on that. The Treo had, and still has, a dedicated fan base. The iPhone was my first introduction, and I would wager that’s the case for most people. But Matt’s right. Must give credit where it’s due.

posted Monday, February 20, 2012