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Why I still use the admittedly-awful Messages

A while back, David Chartier tweeted this:

David really doesn’t like Messages (for many valid reasons), and has often tweeted and written about other, better messaging platforms, including his current best-of-breed example, Facebook’s Messenger.

And you know what? In general, I agree with David: Messages sucks. It’s got latency issues, messages sometimes vanish, shared URLs are ugly, search is troublesome, it lacks many features found in other apps, etc. Yet still, it’s my messaging app of choice, and will remain my messaging app of choice, probably forever. Why?

First of all, it’s bundled with every Mac and iOS device sold, which means that most of the people in my social group already have it and use it. I don’t have to send a link to someone and explain how to install the app, set up an account, find my name/phone number, add me to their group of friends, and initiate a conversation.

Does that make Messages good? No, just because an app is bundled doesn’t mean it’s excellent. (See previous generations of Internet Explorer on Windows, for instance.) But it does make it pervasive, and in a messaging app, that’s what I want.

But even beyond that—even if Messages were so abysmal it lost 50% of the messages I sent and often force rebooted my devices and remotely spilled my milk—I would probably continue to use it. Why? Because Apple isn’t in the business of making money off of who I talk to, what I talk to them about, or what devices I use to do that talking. Apple wants to sell devices, not data about how people are using Apple’s devices.

Many other third-party messaging apps—especially those from the “big names”—are essentially exactly the opposite of that: They exist to harvest information about you, about your friends, about your habits and interests, and use that information to sell and target ads at you.* I have no interest in supplying my data to anyone interested in using it to help sell me their products.

* See the end of this write-up for a list of non-tracking third-party apps.

(This may not be true of WhatsApp, but they’re owned by Facebook, which is a huge red flag in my book. I try my best not to support companies that exist primarily to place more ads in users’ eyeballs.)

Let’s take a quick look at Messenger as an example. At the Facebook F8 conference in April, the head of Facebook Messenger, David Marcus had this to say about the coming “bots” within Messenger (emphasis mine):

Facebook hopes to build machine learning into these bots so they learn your preferences over time – what types of items you like to buy, what news stories you prefer, what flowers you like and so on.

This rich data is a goldmine for a service like Facebook which is sustained by advertising. “We are testing if business bots can re-engage people on threads with sponsored messages, it’s a small tiny test,” Marcus said.

Yes, Messenger’s bots will do wonderful things for users. But they’ll also serve as an entry point for ads.

In a nutshell, Messenger (and the other third-party apps) watch and collect data on what you and everyone else using the platform is discussing, where you’re discussing, and what devices you’re using to hold your conversations.

To make you want to use the apps, they load them up with wonderful features—there’s no denying that many of Messenger’s features would be welcome additions to Messages. They make the apps feature-rich so that you’ll want to stay in Messenger, and/or stay on Facebook, so that they can harvest more data and sell more ads.

Speaking of ads, it seems the much-vaunted Messenger feature that lets you chat directly with companies (or their bots, at least) is planned as an entry point for ads, too:

The document, obtained by TechCrunch but kept private to protect its verified source, says businesses will be able to send ads as messages to people who previously initiated a chat thread with that company. To prepare, the document recommends that businesses get consumers to start message threads with them now so they’ll be able to send them ads when the feature launches.

When I’m chatting with someone, I have no desire to have any company looking to find ways to “monetize” (what a horrible, horrible word) the conversation.

And that’s why, at the end of the day, despite all of Messages’ numerous issues, it is and will remain my messaging platform of choice: Apple doesn’t care what I say, who I say it to, where I’m saying it, or which Apple device I’m using to say it. They just relay the messages—most of the time ;)—between myself and my chat partners, and keep out of the way. And I’m fine with that.


Addendum: Thanks to Dave Chartier for providing this list of not-tracking third-party apps.

There are probably more, but these are worth investigating if you’d like an alternative to Messages and Messenger that may have more features and yet don’t try to sell your usage to advertisers.

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  1. What is nice about Apple’s Messages is that I can send and receive text messages on ALL of my iMacs, MacBook Pros, iPhones, and iPads simultaneously.

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