Closed ranks: Lack of open access to FaceTime and iMessage is good for users

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In June of 2010, shortly after announcing the launch of FaceTime’s beta program, Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs stated that the company’s engineers had built the technology entirely on well-known standards, and that the company was prepared to open up the service so that users of competing mobile platforms would be able to take advantage of it.

Fast forward four years, and a number of things have changed. In 2011, the folks from Cupertino launched iMessage, which brings rich media messaging to all of the company’s operating systems. Meanwhile, FaceTime has continued to evolve, jumping from iOS to OS X and, as of last September, gaining the ability to handle voice-only calls—which, in addition to reducing data usage, also allow you to make a call without having to stare at someone’s chin for minutes on end).

Alas, something has stayed the same: None of these technologies work (at least officially) on anything but Apple’s own devices and computers, leaving us to wonder why the company seems to have changed its corporate mind—and whether keeping things the way they are would be a good idea.

The little services that could

Although I was initially indifferent to both, iMessage and FaceTime have grown considerably on me.

For one thing, they surpass their “legacy” counterparts—MMS messages and phone calls—in a number of obvious ways. A phone call requires a phone number, which is usually tied to a particular device; calling someone at home or on their mobile requires knowing (and dialing) two different numbers, whereas FaceTime reaches them wherever they are. Ditto with iMessage, which has the added benefit of telling you when your messages have been delivered to and read by their intended recipient, regardless of where they might be.

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Despite its original commitment to openness, Apple has, so far, not licensed FaceTime to third parties.

And then there’s the stick-it-to-the-phone-company factor. I resisted using SMS for a long time due to the ridiculously high prices imposed by cell providers, which are even more ridiculous once you realize that transmitting messages costs said providers literally nothing. With iMessage, I can communicate with all my contacts back and forth at a fraction of the price, or even for free if I can piggyback on an existing Wi-Fi connection.

The same applies to FaceTime, which also happens, at least to my untrained ears, to provide much higher voice clarity than a plain-old telephone line. Ever since the service gained voice-only support, which uses less data and is much more discrete than its video counterpart, I have found myself using it to call more and more people on my contact list.

Private and confidential

Another great advantage of Apple’s messaging system is that it has proven to be reliably free of annoyance. While the deregulation of the telecommunication industry has brought us amazingly low prices on phone service, it has also brought the cost of down to commodity prices the use of the telephone as a medium for spam, which—at least in my household—means that the majority of phone calls we receive these days are blatantly fraudulent in nature.

Robocalling and telemarketing have always been a problem, but phone service on a large scale used to be expensive enough to make outright fraud hard to justify from a return-on-investment perspective. When phone calls cost fractions of a penny, however, you only have to convince a small number of victims that they have won the lottery or are about to receive a large inheritance from a recently-deceased Nigerian prince in order to turn a profit.

This has never been a problem with either iMessage or FaceTime, since there is essentially no way to use either unless you use them through an approved device. Although figuring out a way to contact me can’t be too hard—my e-mail address is, after all, quite easy to find—I’ve never had to deal with so much as a single unwanted iMessage, which has made Apple’s services surprisingly efficient in the signal-to-noise department.

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Apple never promised to open up iMessage to players outside its ecosystem—giving us a mostly nuisance-free messaging environment.

Safe haven

Finally, one of my favorite features of both services is the complete lack of a public or social layer. For example, neither FaceTime nor iMessage provide any kind of directory through which it’s possible to look up a user’s contact information. iMessage has no social-media features: There is no public timeline to which users can post timely details about their lives, and no way to “friend” other people (other than adding them as a contact, of course). 

In my eyes, this makes both services great communication media for young people who haven’t quite yet had an opportunity to understand and appreciate the value of their privacy. As it turns out, most of my kids’ friends count an iPad among their family possessions, and both FaceTime and iMessage make great ways for them to keep in touch, at least once you’ve explained to them what constitutes an “acceptable usage policy” of their video- and photo-sharing capabilities.

Compared with pure social-media plays like Facebook, whose focus on advertising translates into an environment that tries in every way possible to convince users that their privacy is worthless, Apple’s approach allows children to enjoy the benefit of modern communications without giving up the kind of control over their public life that they have a right to preserve until they can appreciate its value.

The right decision?

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to see the downsides of Apple’s refusal to open up its communication platforms. If it so happens that your best friend is an Android fan, iMessage and FaceTime aren’t going to do you a lot of good, and, while there are plenty of alternatives, the fragmentation that they bring about makes keeping on top of your communications much less convenient.

By the same token, the focus on privacy that makes these technologies excellent personal communication tools also makes them nearly useless from a business perspective. Sure, I don’t get telemarketing calls over FaceTime (yet), but I also can’t use it to get customer support from the companies I actually do want to do business with, or to communicate with all but the business contacts I have a very close relationship with.

In the end, however, Apple’s strategy seems to have worked out for the best. The availability of so many different third-party alternatives means that opening up FaceTime and iMessage to third parties would give users only minor benefits, while perhaps undoing those features that make them excellent services in the first place.

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