Teens’ technology habits change fast. It’s becoming well-established that they are indifferent to Facebook, even as Facebook becomes mainstream with adults of all ages. Now the same thing is happening with texting. Texting’s core advantage has been its lowest-common-denominator status–any cell phone sold in the last 7 years, even the dumbest dumbphone, supports it. But now smartphones have achieved critical mass among teens, and they are using all kinds of apps, containing various social networking elements, not only instead of Facebook, but increasingly, instead of texting.
As an Android enthusiast and parent of teens, I have only just become aware of this trend. I’ve become accustomed and inured to my teens complaining about Android and T-Mobile, and wanting iPhones and Verizon. Until now, I have written off these complaints as mostly superficial, simply a case of wanting the same thing their friends have, just for appearance’s sake (we live in a prosperous suburb where family budgets, for better or worse, often cover not only smartphones, but the top of the line). But in the past weeks, the discussion has shifted. Their friends are increasingly using the iPhone’s iMessage app. It combines a set of novelty and genuinely useful features in a way that cleverly fosters platform lock-in:
- “Emojis”–specialized emoticons in proprietary encoding that plain-vanilla texting doesn’t render
- Group messaging
- Instant-messaging’s continuous conversation and presence, but leveraging the universal and established “address” of a cell-phone number, rather than requiring yet another ID
- Read receipts
- Works over wi-fi (especially clever for this set, since they may not have data plans)
Are there Android apps that do these things? Probably. But network-effects are absolutely crucial here. Instantly, every iPhone and iPod user is part of this network. Android should have the advantage, given that its market share is larger than Apple’s. But the iMessage trend seems to have caught Google napping. They need to to something about this, and sooner rather than later. Android needs an iMessage competitor to be a built-in Google App, just like Maps and Gmail.
Once again, Apple is managing to leverage their walled-garden to strategic advantage. The beauty of texting, like email before it, has been its openness. Once again, Apple shows itself to be the sworn enemy of openness. Android needs to move quickly to stanch the bleeding.