iMessage: Biting RIM’s style & sticking it to carriers

The iOS 5 upgrade introduces a lot of changes for Apple’s (s aapl) mobile operating system, but iMessages is one of the most significant. It lets iPad, iPhone and iPod touch owners send messages back and forth, including photos, videos, locations and contacts, all free of charge and without limits. If you’re thinking it’s the BlackBerry Messenger of the iOS world, you’d be right, and that’s bad news for RIM, (S RIMM) but also for carriers.
BBM is one of the few remaining advantages RIM’s aging platform has over its younger competition in the smartphone market. (Check out this tweet representative of reaction toiMessage’s announcement if you don’t believe me.) People appreciated the way it integrates tightly to your device, and its delivery and read receipts let you know your messages aren’t getting lost in the ether. It’s been a life raft for RIM in the violent sea of the ongoing mobile battle BlackBerry faces with iOS and Android (s goog).
However, iMessage brings a lot of what’s good about BBM not only to the iPhone, which just passed RIM in terms of U.S. smartphone ownership trentds, but also to all iOS devices. With iPad and iPod touch users factored in, the potential audience for iMessage is huge, and it should cause at least some BBM-faithful to flee RIM’s platform for greener pastures.
But while Apple’s aggressive move against a competitor is easy to understand, iMessage also represents a more subtle attack on some of its closest partners: the mobile operators.
The service iMessage works over both Wi-Fi and the cellular network, and is unlimited and free. Text messaging, while often bundled with other cell phone services, is seldom free and only sometimes unlimited. Using MMS services almost always costs more money on top of that, and text messaging doesn’t have delivery receipts or work across multiple devices simultaneously.
Like BBM, iMessage is limited only to devices from one hardware maker, but it didn’t hurt BBM’s popularity, and it’ll hinder the uptake of Apple’s service even less. iOS is a growing platform, and since iMessage can work even without a cellular connection on non-phone devices, it appeals to a much broader swath of mobile users. It’s like that iMessage use will cut into text messaging, and it will lead to a decreased ability to generate revenue from that vector for carriers.
Apple wrestled control over the user’s relationship with device software away from carriers with iPhone OS and the App Store, and then it won even more autonomy by requiring iPad data plans be available without contracts. Reports say that it also wanted to go after the SIM card, arguably one of the carrier’s best tools for maintaining control over the customer relationship.
But if Apple didn’t make this power play, Google would have. Google has already made inroads with Google Talk, Google Chat and Google Voice on Android devices. A unified messaging platform was the next logical step for Google, as Om suggested in a post earlier this year. Facebook acquired group messaging startup Beluga, and has already begun building out its own cross-platform rich messaging product, so it too is interested in this space.
Apple may just be taking a first step with iMessage, which basically mimics BBM but expands availability to different device categories, but it’s just a first shot in a battle that will include all major mobile players, and in which carriers may end up suffering the greatest losses.