Hands on with Messages for Mac

One of the new features of OS X Mountain Lion(s AAPL), coming this summer, is Messages for Mac. Messages replaces iChat and brings Apple’s iMessage service, first introduced with iOS 5 on iPhone and iPad, to the desktop. A beta version is available to download for use with OS X Lion today, and the final version should be made available this summer when Mountain Lion is released. I had a chance to take Messages for a spin, and there are some nice improvements to the iChat app.

On the surface, the functionality is roughly the same as previous versions of iChat. It supports text instant messaging with one person or in a group “conference room” and video chat with up to three other people. You can still enter multiple accounts from different services like AIM(s AOL), Google Talk(s GOOG) and other Jabber-based accounts. What’s new is that you can now connect your Mac to the same iMessage account that you use on your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. When setting up an iMessage account, you can choose to use your email address, and you can optionally attach your phone number during setup.

Messages walks you through a quick setup when first launched and reveals a somewhat familiar window layout, with conversations listed on the left and the chat pane on the right. The “Buddies” window is still available to show which of your friends are online and available to chat. One thing that might look different is a Mail-like address bar labeled “To:” at the top of a new conversation, where you can just start typing the name of the recipient. It will find all the matches in your address book and present the various choices of phone numbers, email addresses and accounts associated with different chat services for that name. This is particularly important when using the iMessage service, where email might be associated with the Mac and the phone number might be associated with an iPhone.

The iMessage service supports “delivered” notifications just like on iOS, and optional “read” notifications to be returned to the sender after you’ve viewed their message. These settings are controlled in the app preferences, where you will also find general preferences, account setup, message settings, alert styles and audio/video settings.

When you launch a video chat with someone using Facetime, it actually launches the Facetime application on your Mac. AIM video chat is still available in the Messages application itself.

When I tried Messages out this morning, replies to an iMessage chat showed up in Messages on my Mac, but also appeared as notifications on my iPhone sitting next to me on the desk. I could switch back and forth between the two devices and continue the conversation on either one. The entire conversation was visible on both my Mac and my iPhone and the entire experience was completely seamless.


The importance of this seamless transition between devices for me is the ability to keep the context of the entire conversation in front of me, no matter where I chose to pick up and continue with my next reply. I might get some iMessage “texts” on my iPhone, but when I get back to the office, I can open my laptop and continue right where I left off.

It happens fairly often that clients (or my wife and kids) will text me about something that I need to look up on the computer to answer. As long as they are on iMessage, I can see the original question on my Mac and easily reply from there.

One nice detail is that the repeat notifications on the iPhone are muted when you read the message on your Mac. I left my iPhone untouched beside me while chatting with a friend on my Mac. I saw that the repeat notification that I usually get for text messages never showed up. This is great as long as the iMessage service knows that I read the reply in Messages for Mac. When I turned off Messages for Mac, the continued conversation now triggered repeat notifications on my iPhone.

The area that might require a little more polishing is that, when the message is unread on the Mac, it still appears to mute the repeat notification on the phone. If you left your Mac running unattended, you might not get repeat notifications of new messages on your iPhone. Obviously, this feature doesn’t affect everyone as some people might disable repeat notifications, but it does point out the necessity of being careful about working with betas and figuring out how things work, and what might change over time as Apple refines the Messages application.

Overall, I am pretty positive about the new features. I think Messages for Mac will actually be a big help in my professional and personal life and will make text/IM even more convenient. As for the big picture, I think the overall theme of Mountain Lion (including this beta of Messages for Mac on Lion) is not so much that iOS features and apps are coming to the Mac, but that the apps will work across both iOS and Mac in a completely seamless experience.