Before writing this post, I want to stress that this is pretty idle speculation on my part. But what the hell. I’ve been inspired toward idle speculation by MG Siegler’s recent rants about how a good deal of what technology writers write these days is pretty much nothing but rumor and idle speculation. You report a rumor or two about what Apple or Google might launch soon, slap a tweetable headline on it and try to goose the pageviews of your site for the few hours or days that the rumor might be interesting or relevant. It doesn’t really matter if it’s well researched or true.

One of Siegler’s favorite targets seems to be Business Insider and specifically Henry Blodget, the CEO of BI, and also a frequent contributor. I’ve begun to pay more attention to the trolling headlines in the tech press, and I even commented on one lately myself taking on Matt Rosoff‘s “brilliant idea” to place an ATSC antenna in Apple’s TV product to bypass the cable companies.

As a guy who uses an antenna, I think it’s an interesting idea, but not some revolutionary idea to “Screw the Cable Companies” as the BI headline blared. Siegler’s point is relevant here though. This isn’t a story. Nobody talked to anyone at Apple. Not that they’d get anywhere, but stlll… Nobody talked to anyone at Time Warner or Comcast. Nobody talked to any of the thousands of antenna nerds who populate forums all over the Internet. Nobody talked to a broadcast engineer, a telecom lawyer, an FCC representative, etc. It’s just idle speculation by an experienced tech journalist who’s playing product manager, and is likely an Apple enthusiast who’s excited about a possible Apple iTV.

So that’s what I’m doing. Idle speculation. Because it’s fun and I think I have as much insight as tech journalists who appear to do the same thing every day.

So:

Apple announced its coming OS update last week, OSX 10.8 “Mountain Lion”. Much of the commentary focused on how OSX is introducing features that make Macs look increasingly like iOS devices. Those features include a Reminders app, a Notifications Center and Twitter integration at the OS level. Another iOS feature they’ve integrated is Messages, which interoperates with the iOS iMessage application.

I can’t really explain why iMessage excites me so much, but I think it’s because it takes aim at the ridiculous fees the carriers collect for SMS messages by routing iMessages around the carrier’s SMS network, making messages you send effectively “free”. Once you can confirm the other party is using an iDevice (by seeing a blue “send” button instead of a green one), you can text until your fingers fall off and the only thing it costs is the few bytes of data which should be covered easily in your plan even if you’re a heavy texter.Screenshot of Messages in OSX Mountain Lion

As I’ve pointed out, you don’t need someone’s phone number to send them iMessages. The Apple network also identifies you by your Apple ID, so if you can guess the email someone uses for their Apple ID, you can usually send them iMessages. Case in point: I’ve used this technique to send iMessages to both of my brothers recently. One was freaked out that I reached him on his iPad, and the other told me to stop sending him texts, since he thought it wasn’t covered on his AT&T plan.

So Messages extends the iMessage network to Mac desktops. i think this is cool, wonderful and long overdue. SMS, and now iMessage, had become the default way I communicated with many people. So even though I spend a good deal of time in front of my computer, I wind up pulling out my phone to engage in what is effectively Instant Messaging. Now I can respond to a good deal of SMS messages (ie – iMessages from other iDevice owners) from my computer. I find this much more effective, efficient and bizarrely satisfying.

But then I started idly speculating and playing product manager.

The Messages beta program that I installed replaced the previous Mac chat client, iChat. iChat has video and voice capabilities. These are still there, if the other side of your call is using iChat or Messages on a Mac. You can also open up Facetime video calls to iDevices from Messages by pressing the little video icon.

So what if:

  • Apple kills Facetime and integrates the capabilities into Messages in the next OS upgrade
  • Apple similarly kills Facetime on iOS and integrates the capabilities into iMessage on iDevices
  • Apple integrates text, voice and video messaging into one product across platforms, and causes huge problems for the carriers and their voice packages.

The truth is, Apple already has a voice product that can bypass the per minute charges of the carriers. It’s called Facetime. But they have intentionally avoided giving the product a “voice only” option, and making the carriers freak out. But maybe now Apple actually has the power to introduce this feature. Although whether they have the capacity is another issue.

Think about it. This is better than Skype. It’s better than Google Voice. IMessage and Facetime already identify you by your existing primary cell number, so you wouldn’t have to sign up for a new service, or tell contacts to reach you in a different place. And it would be integrated with the existing dialer, not a separate app.

To appease the carriers, Apple could make the voice and video calls available on WiFi only, but I’m not sure they need to. Skype and Google Voice both work on the iPhone over 3G. Why would Apple need to cripple the app if their competitors are offering the same capability and they have approved these apps in the App Store?

If Apple succeeded in doing this, imagine them taking it even further:

  • They develop a windows client to extend the platform to include text, voice and video communications across all computers (except Linux, which I suppose they could get to eventually if they felt like it)
  • They launch an actual VOIP product which allows you to call internationally and to landlines for super cheap rates, while keeping your existing phone number.
  • They develop an Android/Windows Phone/BB10 app to extend and unify the platform across all major mobile platforms

OK, so this last one is pretty much never going to happen, as they’re not going to dedicate resources to something that is just going to sell more Android phones. But it’s conceivable that they could allow manufacturers or Google access to an iMessages API and charge them a fee in order to make their devices compatible with iMessage.

Apple pretty much has the pieces to accomplish the first part of this plan now: Integrate text, voice and video messaging into a baked in product and tie it to your existing phone number. This alone should scare the crap out of the carriers.

But when you think about them starting a service similar to Skype that allows international calls and calls out to landlines and incompatible mobile phones, you can see that maybe the carriers should be terrified. Such a series of developments would make the carriers into their own worst nightmare: A regulated utility that runs a dumb data pipe with constantly falling access prices.

Now, that is some fun idle speculation.