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You probably read about Apple’s new augmented reality platform and its HomePod music speaker. You may know less about Business Chat. But Apple’s move to open up iMessage for customer care and shopping is a pretty big deal, says Tim Green…

As many MEF member know, messaging is right at the heart of the future of mobile.

It’s what users spend most of their time doing. And thanks to the growing richness of the medium, people can do much more than just chat inside a messaging app. They can see pictures, share video, click on links, access maps.

This, of course, is of great interest to businesses.

Have I insulted your intelligence yet? You know all this. After all, MEF already has a Future of Messaging Programme.

But what you may not know is that Apple has now moved aggressively into the space. Last month, it beta launched Business Chat.

Apple previewed the feature at its WWDC 2017 conference. If you missed it, that’s understandable. All the attention was on the company’s moves in AR, in extending Apple Pay and – most of all – on launching the Apple HomePod speaker.

But Business Chat is big news.

This new feature of iOS 11 gives businesses a platform for talking to their customers through iMessage. Needless to say, they can already do this. There’s nothing to stop a company setting up as an iMessage contact and then exchanging info with a customer.

  Apple’s move strengthens the case for messaging apps as business tools, and intensifies the clamour to participate in the space.

Business Chat adds richer features, such as:

  • Users can share photos and videos so a business can answer a query better
  • Businesses can add an Apple Pay checkout form. It means users can pay with a fingerprint in seconds
  • Businesses can integrate messages with the calendar to set up appointments
  • Users can enter an iMessage chat direct from search, Maps and Siri. No need to open the app or search for a contact number inside a website
  • Business Chat can detect location, language and keyword to re-route a customer to the right agent
  • Messages are ‘long lived’ so when a user returns after a long period, the agent still has access to the chat history
  • Businesses can generate links that users can click on to go straight into a chat session

For the moment, Business Chat is in beta only. Apple says it wants developers to stress test it first (though they can whitelist users to make the service run as if live).

However, the move clearly strengthens the case for messaging apps as business tools, and intensifies the clamour to participate in the space.

Facebook's David Marcus is leading the drive to make Facebook Messenger a business platform

Facebook’s David Marcus is leading the drive to make Facebook Messenger a business platform

As the MEF community knows, A2P text messaging is booming. It will generate around $70 billion in 2018, says mobilesquared.

And companies like OpenMarket, Nexmo and CLX Communications are now working with Google to see how the next-gen SMS platform rich communications services (RCS) can help the commercial sector.

Meanwhile, Facebook has been positioning Facebook Messenger as a business-friendly tool since 2015.

That was the year the company’s head of messaging David Marcus started to talk about ‘conversational commerce’.  Shortly after, Facebook launched its bot platform to let businesses build virtual agents that could talk to users as if they were real people. And this year it added a new tab called Discover for users to ‘find the businesses they care about’.

Users and businesses seem to welcome these additions. Bots can answer most basic questions pretty quickly.

But when it comes to accepting payments, Apple has an advantage – for now. With Apple Pay built in, businesses can offer quick, seamless and safe payments inside any chat session.

Obviously this applies only to iOS users. Shoppers with Android phones are a different story. They are waiting to see what happens next with Android Pay and messaging.

At present, Google offers a variety of messaging products from Allo to Google+ to Hangouts. However, the default messaging choice in Android remains SMS. In time, it could become RCS – especially as Google is now building out the platform with the world’s MNOs. If this succeeds, it’s possible that a future version of RCS would support payment forms linked to Android Pay.

Overall, it seems the dream of fast, intuitive and secure shopping inside messaging apps is finally gathering pace.

It’s exciting. Though it is three years since the Chinese did it.