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iMessage is an internet-based messaging service in the Messages app on iOS, iPadOS, and macOS. It differs from SMS in its use of end-to-end encryption and enhanced chat features. On Apple devices, iMessage chats appear as blue bubbles, while SMS conversations have green bubbles. It supports easy media sharing, message effects, and stickers.

● Requires Apple devices signed into iCloud
● End-to-end encryption
● iMessage App Store
● Stickers
● Memoji and Animoji
● New layout for stickers and apps in iOS 17

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Apple's iMessage is an instant messaging service baked into the Messages app on iOS, iPadOS, and macOS. It has end-to-end encryption for maximum privacy and a growing feature list that allows for greater self-expression than standard text messaging.

When a chat in Messages contains only Apple device users, the chat uses the iMessage protocol. All parties will need to have the service turned on and linked to their iCloud account in their device settings.

When you send a message on an Apple device, the Messages app will check with Apple whether the cellular number is registered with iMessage. This determines whether it will use iMessage or standard text messaging (SMS/MMS).

iMessages appear as blue bubbles in the Messages app, while SMS messages use green bubbles. Group chats will only use blue bubbles and iMessage protocols if every member of the chat has an Apple device with the feature enabled.

Blue bubbles appear when chatting via iMessageBlue bubbles appear when chatting via iMessage

Internet-based messaging services have become popular because of the number of features they enable. Stickers, TapBack reactions, and improved image quality are just some of the perks of using iMessage, WeChat, or Facebook Messenger. SMS is an old protocol that relies upon aging phone systems with limited text messaging length and few features.

Apple's iMessage has become popular, especially in the United States, because it resides within the default texting app and doesn't cost money to use. All of these features combined to create the "blue bubble" versus "green bubble" social split. Android users or anyone using SMS are often pressured to switch to iPhone due to the lack of iMessage features.

Some describe this as a feature lock-in on Apple's part, as well as a source of bullying for some users. Apple has acknowledged that it has a competitive advantage in keeping iMessage within its ecosystem but doesn't see it as a form of lock-in.

iMessage Features

The Messages app started out as a simple alternative to SMS with improved image and video messaging tools. It has evolved into an end-to-end encrypted advanced messaging service with apps, stickers, games, and more.

Apple rearranged some of the features for iMessage in iOS 17, placing apps, stickers, and the camera behind a plus button.

End-to-End Encryption

Apple encrypts iMessage on your device, so even they can't read them while they're in transmission between devices. The only way anyone could read your messages is if they had access to either an unlocked Apple device that was participating in the chat, its passcode or biometric login, or the device's backups.

Messages are encrypted on the local device Messages are encrypted on the local device

In your device's settings, you can choose to leave messages on your device for 30 days, one year, or indefinitely. Note that the other party will have access to any sent message even if it is deleted from your device, so no deletion is 100% gone.

Users who want even more protection for their messages can choose to enroll in Advanced Data Protection with iOS 16.2. Once every device attached to the user's iCloud has been updated to its corresponding current OS, users can turn on the feature, which brings end-to-end encryption to more iCloud services.

If Advanced Data Protection is not enabled, and the user has an iCloud backup that includes iMessage, Apple will have access to the encryption key for the messages. Again, even with Advanced Data Protection on, the people you're chatting with may not have it enabled, leaving your messages in a less secure state — at least with that individual.

Chatting in iMessage

The Messages app on iOS, iPadOS, and macOS supports both iMessage and SMS. Google has urged Apple to adopt RCS, a new internet-based messaging standard for Android, but it falls back on SMS too, so Apple doesn't seem to have reason to do so.

There are many features and apps for iMessage that won't work for SMS There are many features and apps for iMessage that won't work for SMS

If you don't use any effects, apps, or stickers, chatting in iMessage will look similar to texting with a contact through SMS. The primary difference is blue chat bubbles for iMessage and green bubbles for SMS. You will also see the light gray "iMessage" status in the empty text box for iMessage chats vs. a light gray "Text Message" for SMS.

Another significant difference is that you would see typing indicators (an animated ellipsis) when an iMessage contact typed in their text box. If the person you're chatting with has read receipts turned on, you would also see the words "Delivered" change to "Read" once they open the Messages app to read your message.

You can universally toggle the sending of read receipts on or off. You can also switch them on or off for individual chats. Receiving others' read receipts depends entirely on their settings, not yours.

iOS 16 introduces the ability to undo send or edit messages for up to fifteen minutes after being sent in an iMessage chat. The recipient also needs to be on iOS 16 or later to see the change take place.

Sharing Media

iMessage supports photos, Live Photos, videos, and animated GIFs.

Share a photo or make a sticker Share a photo or make a sticker

Media can be shared via a plus button located next to the text entry box starting in iOS 17. Alternatively, you could choose a photo from the Photos app and share it directly or even convert it to a sticker.

You can take a picture or video directly from an iMessage chat by choosing the camera app in the plus menu. After taking a pic or recording a video, you can edit it or add effects. You can also use Markup to draw on photos before sending them.

Audio messages have also been relocated to the plus menu and will be transcribed so the recipient doesn't have to listen to the sent audio. By default, the Messages app deletes audio messages after two minutes, but you can change that setting to allow them to stay on your device indefinitely.

You can attach any other kind of file in iMessage using the Share Sheet from the Files app.

SharePlay has made its way to iMessage, so users can start a SharePlay session and chat via iMessage instead of starting a FaceTime call. The feature works the same as it does on FaceTime with synced video and audio playback with individual controls.

iMessage Filtration and Blocking

The Messages app allows you to mute conversations, so you no longer receive notifications from them. To do this, swipe left on the chat from the conversations list and choose "Hide Alerts" (on iOS 14, it is a purple bell icon with a cross through it).

You can block iMessage contacts by navigating to their contact info and choosing "Block this contact."

If someone contacts you and you want to report it as spam, you'll see an option to "Report as Junk" at the bottom of their unsolicited message. This option will only be there for incoming messages from unknown numbers.

Apps, Effects, and Tapback

Starting with iOS 10, Apple enhanced iMessage with effects, stickers, reactions, and support for third-party apps. While this app store didn't become wildly popular, it is still available in iOS 17.

Check In lets loved ones keep an eye on you when you travel Check In lets loved ones keep an eye on you when you travel

Effects send a message with an animation that your recipient will see on their screen. Holding down on the send button brings up the option for bubble effects (slam, loud, gentle, or invisible ink) or screen effects (echo, spotlight, balloons, confetti, love, lasers, fireworks, or celebration).

iMessage apps reside in a menu beside the text box in an iMessage chat. Apple gives you default iMessage apps for the following:

  • Photos - share your images and videos
  • Stickers - create custom stickers from photos or use stickers from apps
  • Music - share Apple Music songs, albums, artists, and playlists
  • Cash - send Apple Pay Cash
  • Digital Touch - send haptic animations like a heartbeat, sketch, tap, etc.
  • Check In - share when you leave a location and arrive at a destination with someone you trust
  • Memoji - share animated or sticker versions of yourself or a cartoon animal
  • #images - search for GIFs and images to share
  • Location - share location with the chat
  • App Store - discover third-party iMessage apps, games, and stickers
Custom stickers will show up alongside stickers purchased from the App Store Custom stickers will show up alongside stickers purchased from the App Store

iMessage apps can include games, where friends in the same chat can play together. Third-party iMessage apps don't have access to any of your info or data.

Stickers differ slightly from regular images or GIFs. If you send a sticker on its own, it will appear as an image or animation, but you can also drag and drop one or more stickers on top of chat bubbles, photos, videos, or other stickers.

Tapback make it easy to react to a message Tapback make it easy to react to a message

Tapback lets you react to a specific message without typing a new message. Long-pressing or double-tapping on a chat bubble enables you to choose from several emoji reactions: love, like, dislike, laugh, emphasize, and question. The emoji appears as a pop-up bubble on top of the chat bubble.

Google began rolling out support for Apple's Tapback reactions in its messaging client on Android. Now some Android users will see emoji reactions in conversations with iPhone users.

Memoji and Animoji

Introduced with the iPhone X in 2017, Animoji are animal characters that play your voice and mirror facial expressions using Face ID sensors. The following year, Apple added Memoji, which does the same with an avatar that you can customize to look like you.

Memoji can be used for Contact Posters Memoji can be used for Contact Posters

In addition to these tracked animations, you can also send static Memoji and Animoji stickers, posing in various pre-designed reactions such as thumbs-up, laughing, in love, and mind blown.

Memoji have spread to various parts of the operating system and can be used for contact images too.

Messages in iCloud

Messages in iCloud syncs messages – both iMessage and SMS – so they're automatically in sync on all your Apple devices. It saves attachments in the cloud to free up device storage, and if you delete a message on one device, it disappears on all of them.

Messages in iCloud can be toggled on and off in device settings.

Group Chats in iMessage

In addition to one-on-one chats, iMessage supports group chats with up to 32 participants. Users can easily begin a SharePlay session or collaboration project directly from these chats.

Group chat Group chat

The Messages app allows you to name the group and add or remove members.

iMessage chats support all iMessage features. However, if one or more group members are non-iPhone users, all messages will send as standard text messages (MMS) rather than iMessage, and that chat won't have any enhanced features.