Teens, change, fickleness, and Apple’s iMessage

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.

Posted in Droid. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Teens, change, fickleness, and Apple’s iMessage”

  1. Arica Michelle Says:

    Android is an open sourced market…the opposite of Apples closed ecosystem functioning. I don’t foresee Google creating an texting app that is exclusively for Android users. Instead, as they always have and probably will continue to do, Google will let a third party developer create a app that will do all the things iMessage does and more. Actually there are already apps (WhatApp, MightyText, Google Voice, Google+ , GTalk…just to name a few) that are equivalent or better than iMessage.

    • Erik Neu Says:

      The point is not exclusivity, it is universality. The enhanced messaging features are a new, powerful draw to the closed ecosystem of iOS. Not because the features are better than anything available for Android, but because, in the absence of interoperability, iMessage enjoys powerful network effects–enough, in the case of some teens, to be a deal-breaker for Android.

      So my point is that Google needs to create something similar for Android. The most obvious way to do that would be to create a standard GApp (like Gmail, Search, Maps, Play, etc)–something that by default MUST be installed on any Android-standard phone. That would provide the necessary universality to achieve a competitive network effect. (Regarding non-exclusivity–I’m sure Google would be happy to create a version for iPhone–if Apple would approve it, which I doubt they would.)


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