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Tuesday November 22, 2011 3:45 pm

Introducing Ask Andru: Apple’s iMessage, explained

Posted by Andru Edwards Categories: Apple, Smartphones, Features, Handhelds

How does iMessage work?

I'm a big fan of GeekWire, so when one of my Twitter followers suggested that I start a regular Q&A column for the site, focusing on consumer electronics and gadgets, I figured "Why not?" I talked with the crew, and the result is Ask Andru. In case you're curious about what qualifies me to answer your nagging questions about the devices that have become such an integrated part of our lives, well, I've been running Gear Live for over seven years now. If you're unfamiliar, Gear Live is one of the top gadget news and review sites in the world, and I absolutely love what I do. If you've got a question you'd like me to answer, drop me a line at askandru@gmail.com, and I'll throw it in the queue.

Our very first question deals with iMessage, a new feature introduced to iOS devices with the release of iOS 5:

After upgrading to iOS 5, sometimes I see an iMessage reference in my text-messaging app, and sometimes not, and it doesn't seem to be correlated to whether or not I'm on WiFi or 3G. I also see different colors. I know the idea is to be able to send text messages without going over the wireless carrier's network, but how the heck does this work and what's actually going on?

iMessage is one of my favorite new features of iOS 5, but Apple could have done a better job of explaining what exactly is going on. When you are sending real, true text messages to someone else when using iOS 5, the "Send" button will be green, along with the color of your chat bubbles. The person you are texting with either has an iPhone that isn't yet running iOS 5, a phone that isn't an iPhone, or has neglected to enable iMessage if they do happen to be on iOS 5. All you need to know is that, when you see green, you are sending and receiving text messages as far as your mobile carrier is concerned. If you don't have an unlimited SMS plan, then you're being docked for each one.

iMessages go through Apple's network, circumventing the mobile carrier SMS system altogether. When you are sending and receiving iMessages, instead of green, you'll see a blue "Send" button and blue chat bubbles. The conversation will work the same, except now, you are just sending data. This works whether you are on Wi-Fi or 3G -- as long as you have a connection to the Internet, you can send and receive iMessages. The nice thing here is that they tend to go through much faster, and they aren't text messages. This means that, if you're someone who doesn't have an unlimited texting plan, iMessages don't come out of your monthly texting allowance. Nice, right?

Even better, since iMessages aren't text messages, Apple was able to spread the functionality over to the iPad and iPod touch. Similar to the iPhone, as long as you're connected to the Internet on either of those devices, you can send iMessages. Since neither of those devices support text messaging, you'll always see the blue messages on those, never the green. iMessages can include delivery and read receipts, as well as typing indication, so you know if the person has received your message and if they are typing back

All that said, iMessage has the carriers shaking. For example, right before the launch of the iPhone 4S, AT&T did away with the popular 200 SMS for $5 per month plan, as well as the 1500 SMS for $15 per month plan. Now, you can choose to pay-per-text, or pay $20 for unlimited test messaging. They knew that there'd be plenty of people who were going to downgrade to a cheaper SMS plan now that iMessage was available.

Do you have a question you'd like Andru Edwards to answer? Send it to askandru@gmail.com.

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