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Adventures with Mountain Lion: Messages


Gadgets on the go

Adam Turner is an award-winning Australian freelance technology journalist with a passion for gadgets and the "digital lounge room".

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Apple adds Messages to Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion.

Apple adds Messages to Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion.

Apple continues to blur the lines between SMS and instant messaging as Messages comes to Mountain Lion.

Last week I had a quick look at Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion and how the upgrade from Lion has given my MacBook Pro a new lease of life. This week I thought I might take a closer look at some of the more interesting areas where Apple has tried to united Mac OS on desktops and iOS on mobile gadgets. Today we'll dive into Messages and later in the week we'll take a closer look at Notifications.

With iOS5 Apple has combined its iMessage platform with the phone's SMS system, so the Messages app automatically uses Apple's messaging platform rather than the telco's SMS system when communicating between two iOS5 devices. The beauty of this is that it's seamless to the end user when texting between iPhones. The only difference they notice is that messages are now in blue bubbles instead of green. I've found it to be very fast and reliable between the iPhones in my home, connected to wi-fi or Telstra's Next G.

There are a few added benefits to using Messages instead of sending SMS messages. Firstly you are notified when your message has been received and you can see if the other person is composing a reply. Secondly, you've just used up a fraction of your mobile internet allowance rather than racked up another SMS on your phone bill. 

The real bonus of the iMessage system is that iGadget owners can message iPads and iPod touches just as easily as sending an SMS, even if these devices don't have SIM cards. And it's this advantage that Apple is bringing to desktops with the new inclusion of the Messages application in Mountain Lion.

Messages on Mountain Lion is an instant messaging application designed to replace the old iChat. It's important to appreciate that Messages doesn't bring traditional SMS to Macs in Australia. As with iChat of old, sending SMS is restricted to the US (where they're sent via AIM). The fact Australians can't uses Messages to send and receive SMS messages to non-Apple devices means it's unlikely to completely replace your use of a smartphone for sending text messages (there are other ways to send SMS from desktops if you're interested). 

What Messages on Mountain Lion does do is let you link the desktop application with your Apple ID. Interestingly it's also compatible with AIM, Jabber, Yahoo! and Google Talk. This is surprising considering Apple seems determined to lure people away from such competitors, but I guess Apple acknowledges that these are the dominant platforms and supporting them is a sensible way to get people to try Messages and then gradually shift them across.

Messages on Mountain Lion lets you message iOS5 devices and other Mountain Lion computers as easily as if you were texting them -- in theory. Apple's FaceTime video chat isn't baked into Messages, but the desktop application lets you launch the FaceTime application. 

All this sounds great but unfortunately the iMessage platform is not as seamless as you might hope. The first limitation is that it doesn't always sync your end of the conversation between your various devices, even though it's meant to. If you start a conversation with someone using Messages on your iPhone and then switch to Messages on your Mac, sometimes you'll see the full previous conversation on your Mac and sometimes you won't. The same if you move from a Mac to an iPhone.

It can also take iMessages a long time to arrive when going between phones and desktops, even though the phone says the message has been delivered. Other times the desktop claims a message couldn't be sent, even though the phone received it. When Messages on the Mac does eventually catch up with your conversation, your messages can appear out of order. This inconsistency is the dealbreaker for me and I certainly wouldn't trust Messages on a Mac to send or receive important messages when it's just as easy to reach for the iPhone in my pocket which I know I can trust.

I've seen other people complaining that Messages on Mountain Lion is unreliable and it would seem it might have some teething problems. It certainly makes a poor first impression and can leave you thinking iMessage is a fragmented mess. For people who encounter these issues, it could take Messaging a while to win back their trust, especially for sending important messages.

Another complication with Messages on iPhones is that when you send messages to other iPhones, by default it displays them as sent from your Apple ID rather than sent from your phone number. If the receiver doesn't have your Apple ID in their iPhone's contact list, they might not know it's you (and you might not want to share that email address with them anyway). Even if your friend does have that email address in their contact list, their iPhone will start a new message thread for your Apple ID rather than mixing your messages in with the previous messages they received from your phone number. This is a mess.

In the Messages settings on an iPhone you can switch the Caller ID details you send from your Apple ID and your phone number, but it doesn't seem to always work. Even switching iMessage off and on again doesn't fix it and messages can still appear to come from your Apple ID when you've set the Caller ID to your phone number. 

The way I found to force it to switch Caller ID was to sign out of my Apple ID in the Messaging app on the iPhone. I could still send iMessages rather than text messages to other iPhones, but now they appeared to other iPhone owners to come from my phone number. When I logged back into my Apple ID the Caller ID seemed to stay as my phone number, but after awhile messages started appearing as they were coming from my Apple ID again (even though the Caller ID was clearly set to my phone number). A search online reveals that people have been having various issues with this for a while. Hopefully it's something Apple can sort out with iOS6.

So what's the verdict? The iMessage platform shows a lot of potential but right now it's a bit of a mess. I certainly wouldn't trust Messages on Mountain Lion with important messages. Your mileage may vary and you'll need to spend some time with it to see how it works and whether you can trust it.

Even when it works smoothly iMessage can be fragmented and Apple really needs to fix that Caller ID bug. As a workaround it should also offer the option to combine different feeds associated with the same contacts, so if someone receives an iMessage from your phone number or from your Apple ID it appears in the same thread. Considering all these issues, right now I'd say Messages on Mountain Lion is more trouble than it's worth and I don't intend to use it. It's worth trying for yourself, but test it out for a while before you trust it as much as trust sending iMessages between iPhones.

22 comments so far

  • Apple. "It just works". It would appear not

    Date and time
    July 30, 2012, 10:41AM
    • Meh, they can't always get it right... i'd rather they get this wrong than something important!

      Date and time
      July 30, 2012, 12:36PM
  • I have been running the Messages beta extensively on iMac and Macbook with Lion for a few months and now on the Mountain Lion platform. While I agree with all of Adam's comments, I still find it incredibly useful - its so much easier to bash out a message on a full sized keyboard.

    It almost feels that phone number and AppleID are treated as separate sending / receiving identities that are resolved into one window at the PC/Phone end. This is by far the most annoying aspect currently and I think the root cause of most of the issues with Messages.

    I find I get the best result currently by always attempting to send to an email address first to see if it is an appleID before attempting to send to a phone number, regardless of whether I am using phone, pad or computer. If they are an apple user on any device, they'll get the message everywhere. If not, the phone will default to SMS and the other devices will just reject the user - and as you can't send an SMS via pad or desktop anyway this cuts down on delays trying to send to a non apple user.

    All that said though, the upcoming release of iOS 6 is supposed to tighten up these issues and allow a more seamless integration between AppleID and mobile phone number.

    Once they integrate the two more closely I think we will see a far more useful and stable product.

    Full functionality within the Apple ecosystem and *some* compatibility outside it - as you would expect from any of the major I.T. players these days.

    Date and time
    July 30, 2012, 10:54AM
    • Works perfectly well for me. Once you set it up correctly it really is "instant messaging" as it is really, really fast.

      Vic Fkiaras
      Date and time
      July 30, 2012, 11:04AM
      • Pretty much agree. My experience is that its been patchy at best and hopefully the IOS6 update to the mobile devices will clean some of the bugs out. I've tried using it with the kids on their iPod Touches in the house but its not working. It may have to do with them all being on my account. I'd really like to use the feature.

        It would also be good to see who in your contact has an apple product so you could load them up into the side bar.

        Date and time
        July 30, 2012, 11:59AM
        • Greg - if all your kids devices are logged in as the same AppleID then in theory your 'sent' messages should appear as 'sent' on those devices, but they obviously won't get a notification of 'receiving' a message, and you would have to have someone to send it *to*! Messages can't tell they are different people if they all have the same ID...

          Date and time
          July 30, 2012, 4:46PM
      • I don't like to keep my threads. I always delete my messages on iPhone after reading them. It would be great if one day iMessages syncs your actions with iPhone.

        For example, if I read and delete a thread on my Mac, this should also do the same on my iPhone. At the moment if I read and delete a thread on my Mac I have to also read and delete on my iPhone too.

        I'm thinking Messages could behave similar to IMAP email if that makes sense?

        Date and time
        July 30, 2012, 1:00PM
        • Been playing with the beta release for a while and now with the full version on Mountain Lion and I love it. Yes, the Caller ID displaying your email address is not great, but you forgot one important mention: iMessage has solved the issue of MMS. You can send images and movies over iMessage for Free to an IOS5 phone. I don't think I have ever managed to send a MMS to anyone in the past.

          You need to spend time to set it up properly, as in adding all your email addresses in the iMessage settings on all your devices, and make sure - if possible - to set the same caller ID everywhere. I can assure you that my messages are all the same on all my devices (3 of them).

          Date and time
          July 30, 2012, 1:18PM
          • A comment I would make is that while I've found sync does work for addded messages, it does NOT work when you delete messages.... so anyone can pick up your iPad and read all your messages you sent on your phone while out of the house! I feel there's a social more that someone's phone is "private" but no so an iPad.

            Date and time
            July 30, 2012, 1:40PM
            • Here's why I've abandoned iMessage and disabled it on my iPhone:
              - It doesn't tell you when the message is not delivered. Sure, down there in the message list there's a tiny note. I want a ding-ding banner on the front screen
              - No option to fall-back to SMS. If iMessage can't get the message out, send it by SMS. It's a "smart" phone, yes?
              - No per-user disabling of iMessage. Some of my contacts don't get the iMessages, for a range of reasons.
              - It's no good where there is weak signal coverage. SMS will transmit with a very week signal. iMessage requires a data connection, which means a better signal.
              - With the number of SMS messages in my plan, I never come close to using the allowance. Why use an unreliable messaging service when there's a perfectly good one for no additional monthly charge (YMMV).
              - Telstra has a natty little app for the PC (Text Buddy) which enables me to bang out SMSs from the PC keyboard. If I'm on the Mac, my ISP offers a similar web product for a few cents per message.

              The SMS service sets the reliability bar very high. Until iMessage gets there, forget it.

              David M
              Date and time
              July 30, 2012, 1:47PM

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