Apple likes to change the world.
The introduction of the iPhone in 2007 and the launch of the iPad in 2010 mainstreamed touchscreen phones and tablets, respectively. That was world-changing.
This change took place via products Apple makes — “computers,” if you will. Apple changed the world of computers.
More impressively, Apple once changed a world outside the computer industry: the music business, through iPod and iTunes, in the early 2000s.
Apple ripped music lovers away from CDs (pun intended) and got them to download their music instead. (Apple and iTunes later changed the world again by introducing podcasts.)
Transforming the music business was made possible by a single inconvenient truth: iTunes was cross-platform.
When Apple introduced the Windows version of iTunes in April 2003, the iPod and iTunes really took off. (In fact, for many years, a majority of iPod owners and iTunes users were Windows users.)
Cross-platform support was a necessary condition for Apple to change the music business.
Had Apple kept iPods and iTunes exclusively within the Apple ecosystem, the company would have never gained the user numbers and clout to change the world.
Fast forward to today: Android is the biggest operating system in the world, and streaming music (as with Apple Music) is the listening experience du jour.
And guess what? Apple makes an Apple Music app for Android.
Apple Music for Android is Apple’s only real Android app. (Technically, it has two other Android apps: a tool for migrating users from Android to iOS, and a Beats Pill app that’s left over from Apple’s acquisition of Beats.)
To fuel Apple’s need for continued growth, the company will need to disrupt and dominate other industries external to the computer business, just as it did with the music industry.
The most promising business for Apple to disrupt is e-commerce.
The future of buying stuff
When the chatbot phenomenon picked up steam two or three years ago, a consensus formed that individuals might use messaging apps to interact with bots or agents that provide personal assistance.
Since then, virtual assistant appliances such as Amazon Echo and Google Home have driven that usage model to virtual assistants rather than chatbots.
While the personal assistant use case is fading on messaging platforms, the B2C communication space is succeeding. Consumers apparently don’t want to talk to a personal assistant via chat, but they do want to interact with businesses that way.
Trends in China suggest that a B2C chat platform that also supports commerce evolves into a major way that consumers buy things. The chat medium is proved to authenticate the business and provide secure means for e-commerce that also comes with an element of hand-holding customer service.
A messaging app that supports B2C communication is a gateway drug to a new world of e-commerce.
Much of the world, including and especially the U.S., lags behind China in messaging app e-commerce, but the rest of the world is catching up fast.
Facebook claims that more than 330 million users of its Messenger app communicated with businesses on that platform and that people prefer to interact with businesses via messaging app rather than by phone.
Apple wants to compete with Facebook in this realm, and so it announced in June. around the time of the company’s WWDC developers conference, a new feature of iMessage called Business Chat.
This week, Apple announced that Business Chat will show up as a feature of the forthcoming iOS 11.3, which was released this week for developers only and which should be made available to the public in “spring.”
Business Chat enables customers to start live chat conversations. These can be centered on customer service, appointment scheduling or tech support.
Apple says it will test Business Chat first with partners Discover, Hilton, Lowe’s and Wells Fargo.
Apple’s Business Chat enables customers to chat with a customer service or other company representative, make payments (via Apple Pay) and schedule appointments.
Crucially, Business Chat enables interaction with businesses without giving the user’s identity to those businesses. While this may vex businesses, it could thrill privacy-conscious customers.
An alarming number of media outlets are misleadingly reporting that Business Chat will be available “directly from the iMessage app.” Unfortunately, iMessage isn’t an app.
iMessage is a cloud-based messaging service based on the proprietary Apple Push Notification Service protocol.
“Messages” is the name of the app that Apple makes that is designed to access the iMessage service. Messages is available on macOS, iOS and watchOS operating systems. Messages supports both iMessage and SMS.
Apple needs to create Messages for Android. And it also needs an Apple Pay app for Android.
Why? Because without Android customers, Apple won’t change the world of e-commerce.
Instead, Facebook will.
Just last week Facebook’s WhatsApp launched an Android app called WhatsApp Business, which is dedicated to enabling businesses to provide various kinds of chat-based customer service.
Only businesses actually use the WhatsApp Business app directly; customers interacting with WhatsApp Business-using companies do so with the regular WhatsApp app.
The app identifies companies as “businesses” and even authenticates those businesses, presenting authenticated businesses to the public as “Confirmed Accounts.”
The app can auto-reply to customers with “quick reply” information about the business, as well as answer frequently asked questions.
Behind the scenes, WhatsApp Business can generate reports about the effectiveness of different kinds of chat communication, and other metrics.
WhatsApp Business is available in the U.S., the U.K., Mexico, Italy and Indonesia, and Facebook promises to make it available “around the world in the coming weeks.”
WhatsApp Business is aimed at small businesses. But Facebook’s monetization scheme is to charge large enterprises for special tools that automate and optimize chat communication.
It’s also inevitable that Facebook will introduce a payment method for use with the context of WhatsApp Business.
All that comes later.
The current version of WhatsApp Business runs on Android, but the company did promise support on “other platforms” in the future, no doubt including iOS.
Facebook has some serious advantages over Apple.
WhatsApp is used by some 1.3 billion people worldwide and is the de facto messaging app in many major markets.
Facebook’s other messaging app, Facebook Messenger, also boasts around 1.3 billion users.
Apple and Facebook aren’t the only players.
Tencent’s WeChat has nearly a billion users, mostly in China. WeChat is the leading chat application for e-commerce. Customers can use the company’s WeChat Pay system for buying things online. WeChat pay has more than 300 million users.
Even Twitter offers tools for businesses to provide customer service. Twitter’s Customer Service settings page for businesses enables automated Direct Message conversations, called “quick replies,” and other options.
It’s possible that Apple may have the most elegant solution. And it’s likely that it will have the most secure one.
But Apple won’t change the e-commerce world the way it did the music world unless it goes cross-platform the way it did with iTunes.
WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Twitter all support (or will support) both iOS and Android.
Only Apple’s Business Chat is not cross-platform. And that’s a problem.
Businesses and enterprises wishing to chat with customers around the world on all platforms should choose Facebook’s solution, not Apple’s.
They could choose both, and many companies will.
But many other companies will focus their energies on the biggest platform, which will come from Facebook.
If Apple wants to dominate and change the coming world of messaging app-based e-commerce, it will have to follow the iTunes and Apple Music playbook and go cross-platform.
Apple needs Android versions of both Messages and Apple Pay, or e-commerce will remain little more than a hobby for it.