Of all the Apple tools available, iMessage may seem the most designed for teens, friends, and families. The ease it offers when sharing media, stickers, emoji, GIFs, for example, makes it the ultimate consumer product. But it has been steadily engaged in a powerful business messaging solution and collaboration tool. You could even think of it as a basic – and free – alternative to Slack or Microsoft Teams. That’s a vision that will only become more real with iOS 16 and macOS Ventura, which will expand iMessage’s business capabilities when they arrive this fall.
iMessage has been around for over a decade and it offers quite a few advantages over standard SMS and MMS messages. It offers media and file support, group chats, read receipts, the ability to integrate content from a range of other apps, and tight integration with all of Apple’s major product lines.
Some recent additions make it even more useful for business users. Last year, Apple introduced a new Shared with You feature that displays content received in the Messages app directly in a companion app. For example, URLs appear automatically in Safari and songs or albums in Apple Music. In addition to expanding this feature across all platforms (including macOS Ventura), Apple will expand support for third-party apps and direct in-app collaboration.
More on that later. First, let’s see what you can do now.
Messages in iOS 15, iPadOS 15 and Monterey
While iMessage gets some serious collaboration boost in iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura, let’s take a look at how we can use Messages in the Apple operating systems that exist today.
There are three key components to any business chat and collaboration platform:
Secure communication. iMessage is end-to-end encrypted to a degree that complies with regulations for rules such as HIPAA in healthcare, as is FaceTime. Support for group communication. While individual chats are important, businesses need group communication and messaging threads, which iMessage has been supporting for some time. Group chats also allow you to message the entire group or specific individuals and support inline comments so you can easily reply to (and see replies to) specific comments in the thread. Status announcements. Knowing that people have read (or haven’t) your message can be crucial. Seeing if they are responding is also very helpful. iMessage supports both functions.
However, for a business tool to succeed, it takes more than these foundations. The ability to pin message threads and the option to mute notifications on specific threads are both important features for employees who need to manage business conversations.
The ability to share media, content or files is also important. While the Messages app for iOS/iPadOS 15 supports photo and video sharing, as well as link sharing and other network addresses, it doesn’t seem to support file and document sharing at first.
It can. And even if it’s not obvious, it’s easy. You just can’t do it directly from the app. Use the Files app instead. Tap and hold a file and choose to share it from the pop-up menu that appears. You can also share files from the app that created them using a standard share sheet. In either case, Messages will appear as a share option. Sharing in macOS is even easier: just drag a file to the chat in Messages. (You can also right-click the file’s icon in the Finder and select Share. Or you can share from the app that created the file.)
Once you share a file to the group chat, everyone in the chat will receive the file and can comment on and discuss it in the message thread. This provides a basis for collaboration. Everyone can see and discuss the same documents or files in real time. In many cases, this kind of discussion is easier than relying on features like Changes and Comment Tracking within a productivity app, because the discussion is interactive and the document doesn’t get cluttered with large numbers of comments and responses.
To make sure you can easily access communications wherever you are (and on whatever device you’re using), Apple offers Messages in iCloud. This backs up all your conversations in iCloud, keeps your messages synced across devices (including new devices when they’re set up), and lets you access your messages through the iCloud web interface if you don’t have access to your Apple devices. You can also extend Messages in iCloud to business environments through services such as Apple Business Essentials and Managed Apple IDs.
In addition to being used as a business communications solution, you can link Messages to FaceTime to provide your team with real-time video and audio calling capabilities. With FaceTime, you can share your screen in real time and display apps like Keynote or PowerPoint. As with Messages, corporate environments can associate it with Managed Apple IDs.
While this combination of features is not generally positioned as such by Apple, it solves many of the basic communication and collaboration needs of most business users. It’s not as purpose-built as Slack or Microsoft Teams, but the functionality is there anyway and at no extra cost; that makes it a viable option, especially for smaller business environments when used with Apple Business Essentials.
Coming soon… Messages as a powerhouse for collaboration
While iMessage as a platform already offers serious communication and collaboration options, macOS Ventura and iOS 16/iPadOS 16 will expand on these in some important ways, especially when it comes to integrating Messages collaboration with third-party apps.
The first expansion is in the Shared with You feature. Currently, a handful of Apple stock apps with this feature can pull content from Messages and make it immediately available in the appropriate app: links in Safari, articles in News, images or videos in Photos, songs and albums in Music, shows in the TV app , and podcasts in the Podcasts app. This makes it easy to view a message without worrying about saving the attached items so you can find them later.
Currently, Shared with You is limited to six apps and a relatively small number of content or media types. However, Apple announced at WWDC last month that this feature is coming to third-party apps. So any developer can add support for it to their app for all kinds of content that are suitable. The same Shared with You shelf design (the area in the app interface where items from Messages are displayed) will be available.
This has great potential for those of us who use these tools in a business context. During a workday, it is possible to share a wide variety of media and file types via Messages, across different threads. Being able to view your posts and easily retrieve the shared content later through the native apps enables extremely streamlined workflows and allows you to easily switch between the shared content and the message thread it comes from. This makes viewing and directly responding to the post about a piece of content easy. And it also helps avoid missing content while browsing message threads.
The second, and even more powerful, extension is the direct integration of Messages into apps that support collaboration. When an app with a collaboration feature (for example, one that supports Change Tracking, such as Word or Pages) is integrated with Messages, a collaboration workflow can be started in the app. The document can be shared with individual users or a group via Messages (as well as FaceTime).
When a collaboration is shared with a group, each member receives a copy of the document through Messages. When each person opens the document, their actions are reported to both Messages and the app. This happens on the devices of every person in the group. Messages will report to all users when someone makes a change to the document and will contain a direct link to the document where the change was made. Users can respond directly in line with the change notification to discuss the edits.
If a user has the document open, they can see all users who are currently working with or editing the document. This allows you to communicate and edit in real time at the same time. If multiple users open the document in real time, they can also turn the collaboration into a FaceTime audio or video call with screen sharing and group editing.
These features dramatically expand the existing change and comment tracking features that many business apps already support, linking this functionality to existing collaboration capabilities in Messages and FaceTime. The result is a single cohesive experience for communication, content sharing, group discussions, and collaborative editing. What’s particularly powerful is that this provides developers who may not have explored collaboration features with a relatively easy path to add real-time collaboration to their apps, going beyond the somewhat limited set of business and productivity apps that some versions have implemented or implemented. track changes, such as Office or iWork.
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