iOS 8: will Apple's new Message leave users confused?

Tim Cook

Apple is taking a calculated risk with its iOS 8 software, due in autumn. It's tweaking the Messages app, normally used to send text messages, with pictures or videos attached if you want, so that it can also send short voice snippets.

Not only that; it's building in Snapchat-like or WhatsApp-like functionality, so that the snippets will auto-delete within a few seconds of the receiver listening to them, as will photos or videos taken via a newly-introduced function in the app.

Why is this a big risk? Because the Messages app is, like the SMS app on any smartphone, the one that on average people use most frequently (even if they don't spend the longest time in it compared to other apps). Tweaking how a popular app or function works is as dangerous as defusing a bomb; get it wrong and you can just be left with wreckage.

The obvious example of messing something up is Microsoft's dramatic change to the interface in Windows 8, which got rid of the Start button, familiar since 1995's Windows 95, in favour of a tile-based interface. While power users delighted in it, the reaction I've repeatedly seen from ordinary users familiar with Windows 7 and its forebears is puzzlement, followed by frustration, and then a search for alternatives And that's just the process for launching apps.

What Apple is doing with Messages isn't so dramatic, but iMessage is a cornerstone of Apple's mobile strategy. Introduced in 2011, it now handles more than 40bn messages a day between the half-billion or so iOS devices (iPhones and iPads, principally). And it only works on and between Apple devices, because of how its security system works – a competitive edge for Apple.

The new functions – record a quick video, take a picture, or record a quick voice message – are being added by the medium of the "long press". Long press on the camera icon (left of the text entry space), and you go to the live camera settings. Long press on the microphone icon (on the right of the text entry space) and you can record and send a quick slice of audio. (Apparently the latter is very popular on apps in China — where "typing a quick note" isn't quick because the character set is more complex than our Roman script.)

Obviously, teens who love iMessage will figure this out within minutes of updating to iOS 8. But I'm more intrigued by the less frequent or eager users, who will probably discover the new features completely by accident, and may wonder what they've done to make it happen. But will they be able to extricate themselves from it if they accidentally fall in? That's the real test of how good the user interface is.

You can see some early screenshots on Apple's website – where you can decide if undoing a long press is easy or not. For photos or videos, it looks as if it might be: a pretty clear "x" suggests you can undo what you're up to.

But with the short voice messages, it's trickier. The microphone icon is in the space that used to say "Send". It's only there if you don't include any text, though; start typing and it vanishes (because you can't send a voice/and/mail message). On that basis, lots of people won't discover it. Apple's probably fine with that.

But if by chance you do press and hold the microphone icon, it starts recording straight away. That's going to puzzle people who didn't really mean to press it. How do you stop it? There's a small "X" in the space to the left of a "play" icon; above that is an "up" arrow. Hit Play? Hit X? Hit "up"?

I suspect the "up" arrow will be hugely tempting for people trying to reverse out of what they perceive to be a wrong turn — to some, it will suggest "get me out of here!" Instead, it will send the recording to the recipient. I foresee that once iOS 8 is in widespread use (on past patterns, less than a month), iPhone users may have to get used to receiving puzzlingly silent voice messages text as its creator fumbles for the right buttons.

Even so, Apple must feel that some puzzlement is a necessary evil in the interests of keeping users on iMessage – and thus the iPhone. The risk to its integrated phone platform comes if its key functions are unbundled so that iPhone owners start using someone else's app for maps, another for messaging, another for browsing. You can already get apps that will do all those on the iPhone, of course, but Apple is counting on retaining users by offering more integrated functionality. The evidence is that people do stick with Apple's defaults. But as apps gain more functions, it can't count on that. Thus Messages, as the iPhone's most-used app, is the essential place to start on a retention campaign. You've been warned, though: expect a few pregnant pauses in the autumn.

Powered by article was written by Charles Arthur, for The Observer on Sunday 13th July 2014 10.30 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010