Right Now iMessage Is Like The Ping Of Texting

iMessage is awesome, in theory. All your messages, on all your Apple devices, free! But in practice, it’s kind of broken right now.

We were talking about girls on my iPad. Then Jesus (this one) said something that seemed awfully familiar. Didn’t he say something just like that to me the other day? Eery. Meanwhile, this response from this girl about an art installation doesn’t make any sense, since we’ve been talking about tea. It’s like we’re having two different conversations or something. Text messaging must clearly be ruining the way we communicate.

It turns out, we were having two different conversations, from two different periods of time, at least on my end. And Jesus had said something similar — in fact he’d said that exact same thing 18 hours before. This is what it’s like to use iMessage right now.

It’s been called everything from a BBM killer to “the future of IM.” These things might be true, if iMessaging weren’t broken at the moment.

At a basic level, and for a lot of people, iMessage is simply a free text messaging service between other people with Apple products which also happens to work over Wi-Fi. It doesn’t siphon away from that precious monthly bucket of SMS and MMS messages, or cost 20 cents a pop. It also uses blue chat bubbles, not green ones.

On another level, it’s one of the death-by-1000-cuts attacks against insanely overpriced, totally ridiculous text messaging fees. (Just Google “text message ripoff” for funsies, or read this piece I assigned once.) If your friends use iMessages, you practically don’t need text messages — goodbye pricey plan.

On another ‘nother level, it is maybe that future of IM/text/talking/COMMUNICATION thing, promising to let you seamlessly move from device to device to device, carrying on unbroken chains of conversations beyond the limits of the spacetime continuum or whatever, just like Google Talk and webOS’s old Synergy setup (though they were not quite so full frontal in their assaults on the SMS racket).

There are a few problems with iMessage, though. Like the real possibility of messages still being sent to stolen/lost phones. You can’t keep people from sending you an iMessage, if they know your address or phone number. There’s the occasional disappearing messages, that requires a force close of the app. But I want to focus on how broken using iMessages can be.

Ironically, the more Apple products you own and use with iMessage, the worse the problem gets, since if you have one device, you’re not going really to deal with syncing messages across them. The basic situation is this: You’re having a conversation with somebody on one device — like an iPad — and then you switch to your iPhone and finish up there, ditching the iPad for the rest of conversation. You pick up the iPad the next day, and pick the conversation back up. A lot of the time, it works! Your iPhone conversation is there and integrated and it’s like you never stopped and COOL THE FUTURE. But sometimes you start talking again, and then your messages from the night before start showing up. Slowly. One or two at a time. Interrupting your current conversation. Scrambling your brain and all sense of reality. Once I had old messages trickle in for two hours. It was impossible to talk to the other person. And I’m not the only person seeing this, after asking around.

Note the scrambled timestamps.

It happens occasionally with the iPhone/iPad. It happens way more frequently on the Mac, with the Messages beta. Which is, yes, a beta. But Silicon Valley has successfully (whether it wanted to or not) raised the expectations for what “beta” products should be in terms of stability and functionality. (Siri, shipping as part of the 4S, is “beta” software. So was Gmail, for like ever.) And you know what, the occasional bug in beta products is fine! Cool. I use a lot of them. Not being able to IM people for like an hour because I’m in a rubber band time warp mindfuck with totally broken syncing isn’t. Particularly because the problem affects more than the beta software, it affects a final, shipping products with the iPad. (Relatedly, I most certainly do not have 121 iMessages waiting for me, though Messages on Mac is convinced I do. That’s the kind of beta bug I’m cool with, though.)

There’s also the issue of how they’re delivered, and to whom. Do I send an iMessage to your phone number or your Apple ID? Which Apple ID address? If you sent an iMessage using your phone number and then you switch to your iPad — meaning I need to reply to your Apple ID, not your phone number — how do I know that? What if I just want to send you a good old fashioned text message, just this once (without turning off iMessages completely)? This in particular isn’t an easy situation to solve, the weird iMessage split between an iPhone’s number and a person’s Apple ID, because the situational context can be tricky, among other things: For one, how to indicate a person is on a phone and maybe you shouldn’t carpet bomb them with messages, like you can with standard IM? And do you really want to spend time telling people who have your phone number not to message you there, but to use this email address for messaging? It requires altering expected behavior: I hit you on your phone, using your phone number, or vice versa. Normal people don’t want to deal with figuring this stuff out. Which all illustrates part of the problem with mashing iMessage into existing messaging frameworks when it doesn’t fit completely perfectly: Things can become conceptually messy, even if the overall idea — that it shouldn’t matter whether a message is an SMS or an iMessage or a Google Talk blast — is a good one.

The funny part, in a way, is that texting and IMing is social and internet-y in the most basic possible way, and here’s Apple, the company who gave us Ping and MobileMe, sort of not nailing it again.

So what needs to happen? Well, syncing between devices needs to work perfectly, all the time. I should pick up my phone or switch to my Mac and my last converation is there, waiting, on time. And ideally, whether you iMessage my phone number or my Apple ID, it should get to me, whether I’m on my phone or my Mac or iPad. I think that’s what people are expecting, anyway.

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