Apple’s iMessage and the death of texting as we know it

A recent New York Times article suggested that Apple’s iMessage, which enables free messaging between iOS 5-equipped devices over data networks, could be putting a sizeable dent in AT&T’s bottom line — a phenomenon with serious implications for an industry that cashes in on costly texting plans. If AT&T’s feeling the pinch, after all, surely other carriers are too, which could sound the death knell of texting as we know it.

iMessage, if you didn’t know, is the Apple equivalent of BlackBerry’s proprietary BBM. It empowers iOS 5 users to message one another over Wi-Fi or 3G networks, for free. Well, technically you’re subjected to data charges for messages sent over 3G, but the point is you’re not boxed in by a pricey plan.

And Apple’s entry has another SMS-killing feature: It’s more immediate than sometimes-laggy texts. What’s more, it puts to rest the question that’s crossed every frustrated texter’s mind: Why haven’t I gotten a response? With iMessage, you’ll know if your life-and-death message has been read or gone unnoticed, thanks to optional read receipts. And you’ll see, in real time, when the other party’s responding. It’s an insecure texter’s dream.

It’s not, however, revolutionary. Similar services exist, like BlackBerry’s BBM and standalones Whatsapp and KIK. But iMessage is seamless. It’s not a separate app, as are Whatsapp and KIK. Rather, it’s folded into the iPhone’s familiar SMS app, making iMessages indistinguishable from their traditional, costly cousins.

That same seamlessness led me to overlook my own migration from texting to iMessaging. I’ve never been an especially prolific texter, and haven’t approached the 7,000 messages per month claimed by Jenna Wortham in her New York Times article, but when I pulled up a PDF of my recent usage, iMessage’s impact was clear as day. After the service’s October introduction, my SMS habit dropped off abruptly, which you can see for yourself in the picture below.

imessag data Apples iMessage and the death of texting as we know it

This trend, one not limited to me or Jenna, hasn’t gone unnoticed by AT&T. The nation’s second largest carrier is in damage-control mode. Gone are the tiered texting plans of yesteryear, which allowed users to pick their poison — 1,000 texts for $10, for instance. In their place is an all-or-nothing proposition: You can fork over $20/mo for unlimited texts, or you can go without and risk 10 cents per message.

Clearly carriers are desperately clinging to what’s been one of their biggest money-makers. And what a money-maker text messages are, with a nearly 7,000 percent inflation rate (that’s not a typo). In fact, I’d wager texts command a higher profit margin than any other product carriers offer, which explains the shameless way they’ve promoted text-friendly feature phones for years. It’s their bread and butter.

But don’t expect them to board up the windows just yet. According to the same New York Times article, text messaging is still on the rise globally, particularly in Finland and Hong Kong. But that growth is slowing significantly, and soon carriers will be confronted with a choice not unlike the one mulled by finally-retired Brett Favre: Accept that the glory days are over and adapt, or stubbornly persist with a product everyone’s grown tired of, risking it all in the process.

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