There once was a time I texted without fireworks. I’m never going back.Â
Honestly, is there a better way to say you have a stomachache than with virtual pyrotechnics? Nope, and it doesn’t even stop there. You communicate your malaise with fireworks and then toss in an animation of an obese cat eating pizza. And ice cream.Â
This is what it’s like to text with an iPhone in 2017. Apple’s iOS 10 update transformed iMessage, the iPhone-to-iPhone texting service, allowing users to speak to one another with a variety of ridiculous effects. You could call it indulgent, but a better word might be “personal”. iMessage has become the most individual form of texting on the market, and it’s good enough to keep me, a lapsed Android-lover, on Apple’s system forever.
That’ll cost me. iPhones aren’t a great value: iOS is inferior to Android in a number of ways, and the devices are expensive (peep the latest rumor that the iPhone 8 could cost upwards of $1,000). Off-contract, the iPhone 7 starts at $649. More likely: You pay for the gadget on an installment plan, perhaps via Apple’s own “Upgrade Program,” a brilliantly designed treadmill wherein you’ll fork over at least $32.41 every month for as long as you want to use an iPhone.Â
This scheme mirrors what you’ve probably seen from your carrier, the chief difference being that you’re filling Apple’s coffers directly, without the chance to ever switch from an iPhone to a Galaxy phone, say. (Google, for what it’s worth, offers a very similar financing plan for its Pixel phones.)
This seems tangential to a celebration of iMessage fireworks, but it’s not. Now more than ever, Apple needs strategies to lock users into their universe, because it’s easier than ever to switch from iPhone to an Android. Some time ago, that wasn’t really true: Android was clumsy compared to iOS, with a confusing UI that typically ran on phones that felt a lot clunkier than the iPhone. Today, Android is totally user friendly, easy on the eyes and runs on sleek, modern handsets that have challenged the iPhone’s design if not overtaken it entirely.
So, there are two strategies: Lock users into company-specific payment plans, or hook them on software. Because in an era when basically any high-end phone is amazing, software like iMessage or Google Assistant can be the tipping point that keeps someone on a platformâand that means bank, with millions upon millions of people upgrading their phones every year or two.
Which takes us back to this:
It seems absurd, but it’s true: An iPhone might cost you upwards of $649, but the most compelling reason to have one is its free, built-in texting app. It’s a fast, standardized and secure way to talk to your friends. You know they’re seeing the same thing you are, whether it’s an embedded tweet or, yes, a cat sticker, and the communication is near-immediate.Â
There is literally nothing else about my iPhone 7 that I would describe as “superior” to high-end Android phones
A lot of this will depend on your personal circumstances, but almost all of my friends and family own iPhones. I text much more than I make phone calls. The quality-of-life improvement that came with switching from an Android to an iPhone last fall shocked me, purely on the basis of text messaging. On my Note7 (again, R.I.P.), group messages with iPhone owners became garbled. Things would arrive and send out of order. I couldn’t keep pace. There was no option to “send with fireworks.” My text bubbles displayed in a toxic green.
Months later, there is literally nothing else about my iPhone 7 that I would describe as “superior” to high-end Android phones (or even a midrange device like the OnePlus 3T). I used the Google Now assistant all the time and never touch Siri. The design I was so keen on at first (“its butt looks fantastic“) is prone to greasy smudges, and it’s too small (alas, I’ve also found the 7 Plus to be uncomfortably large).Â
And despite the old Mac credo (“It just works”), I’ve found the iPhone rarely functions in quite the way I want it to. Apps must be snapped to a standardized home screen grid; a step back from the highly customizable Android home screens. I assumed, as it had on my Android phone, that Google Maps would track my full location historyâas I want it to. Just yesterday, I figured out that I hadn’t given the app quite the right kind of access in the separate Settings app for that to happen. Cool.
And installing a third-party keyboard is a friction-y mess. Say you download Word Flow: You open the app, and then there’s a stupid, static set of instructions on screen that guide you into your settings to make a series of changes that will enable the keyboard.Â
There are steps to enable a keyboard on an Android phone, of course, but the platform is a bit more lenient about apps messing with your settings: If you download Swift Key on Android, it’ll tell you to “enable” the keyboard but allow you to tap a button to go directly into your settings and do so.
Anyway, this is all arcane mumbo jumbo that most sane humans wouldn’t care about. The point is that, in aggregate, I vastly prefer Android, as a platform, to iOS. But the aggregate doesn’t make a difference, because the one most important thingâmessagingâis so much better on an iPhone. I couldn’t convince my friends and family to change instead to WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook Messenger or Allo (lol), because they would see no reason to: iMessage is perfectly fine.
And so, in a sense, Apple has trapped me. iMessage, for the foreseeable future, will be the reason I stay on an iPhone, the reason I update my iOS software and ultimately the reason I buy a new iPhone when upgrade time rolls around.
It’s fitting, I suppose: Even with actual phone calls in decline, Apple wins out for making direct communication easy, personal and fun. It really is that simple.
Or in my case, not so simple: