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How iMessage could be Apple’s next big app platform

But Apple still has a long, long way to go.

With iOS 10, apps can now be written within the Messages app. Apple

The debut of apps that can run inside the iMessage chat system could prove to be one of the most far-reaching changes in iOS 10, provided Apple can get more developers to play along.

Ideally, Apple would like to see iMessage follow in the footsteps of WeChat, which is used for way more than just messaging, especially in China. There, people use WeChat to do everything from hailing rides to paying bills to reading celebrity blogs.

For now, iMessage apps are a lot more limited. You can use Venmo to send money, check the forecast on the Weather Channel or discuss potential travel plans with Airbnb. But you can’t do a whole lot else.

Most of the excitement is around the stickers you can use to add character and personality to your text messages. Already there are Keith Haring stickers, Cookie Monster stickers, Super Mario stickers and many more.

In part, the lack of deep interactions is due to the fact that Apple only announced the ability to build iMessage apps at its June developer conference. That made sticker packs the easiest way to jump quickly into the category.

The first group of iMessage apps also includes a number of games, including word games and things like chess, checkers and tic-tac-toe.

Here, Apple faces a decidedly uphill battle to make gaming within chat apps a thing. Many others have tried and failed, including Yahoo, which offered in-chat games for years, but pulled the feature a couple years back amid dwindling interest.

The long-term opportunity for both Apple and developers lies in adding apps with more complicated interactions, especially around commerce.

“I think Apple opening up iMessage is as big of an opportunity as when Facebook opened up its web platform in 2007,” said JibJab CEO Gregg Spiridellis. JibJab already has its namesake title as a featured iMessage app along with two other titles. “I have completely redirected my product road map,” Spiridellis said.

Facebook, too, is looking to turn its Messenger app into a platform for things like shopping and news consumption. Since Facebook announced a developer bot platform earlier this spring, developers have launched more than 11,000 bots on Messenger that do all kinds of things, from providing the weather to responding to you using Donald Trump quotes. Facebook even rolled out a payment feature for Messenger this week, which means users can make purchases directly in a chat.

It’s still early, though, even for Facebook. Most of the artificial intelligence that bots use feels elementary, even when it’s built for the president of the United States. It’s so early, in fact, that Facebook Messenger boss David Marcus even told a crowd at TechCrunch Disrupt this week that the space is “overhyped.”

One of the things Apple has going for it is the fact that apps built on its chat program can do things on the iPhone that you can’t do in other apps because Apple controls the operating system so tightly. In particular, Apple has a big advantage when it comes to shuttling people in and back out of the App Store to download new programs.

“There’s a structural advantage that Apple has that third parties don’t,” Spiridellis said.

Plus, iMessage is heavily used by iPhone owners. Although Apple doesn’t break out specific numbers, it’s fair to say it’s used by somewhere between 500 million and a billion people each month, Spiridellis said. And it’s used a lot.

“This is where most normal people spend most of their time communicating,” he said.

Apple’s biggest challenge is that where Facebook Messenger, WeChat, WhatsApp and most other big messaging platforms run on Android and iOS, Apple is iOS-only. (The new iMessage apps also require the device be running iOS 10, but Apple users are pretty good about upgrading so that shouldn’t be as big a hurdle.)

The company could always decide to bring iMessage to Android, something Spiridellis said he would welcome.

“If iMessage were to launch on Android, they’d be on an even playing field with everybody else,” he said. “Google doesn’t own messaging on Android the way Apple owns messaging on iOS.”

Additional reporting by Kurt Wagner.

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