Why is iMessage audio such bad quality?
In 2001, I was working in Israel. I remember distinctly taking a taxi (I took a lot of them there), and the gruff driver was talking into his phone as if it was a walkie talkie. Moreover, the person on the other end was replying in short audio bursts, as if it was a walkie talkie! He was talking on it pretty much the entire journey, holding the phone as you do these days on speaker when you’re trying to pretend you’re not really on the phone while driving.
The Israelis are an technical bunch, and what I saw was a feature on their cellphone network where they actually had a physical walkie talkie switch, and could send audio messages as clips to each other, or multicast them to multiple people. It was genius – after all, SMS hadn’t really taken off as a way to replace phone calls yet, but being able to send a short voice message to someone else to pick up whenever was convenient, rather than a phone call they had to answer right then, or a voicemail they would have to go and pick up (and perhaps pay to collect), seemed such a convenient way to communicate.
This is all before iPhones, Facetime, Visual Voicemail, and pretty much everything else. Cycle forward a few years, and MMS was taking off as the next big thing. I had myself an Ericsson T68 – a small, innovative trailblazing phone (it had a camera attachment!) which pioneered many features that then found their way onto other later phones. One such feature was Voice MMSes.
If you pressed the joystick left, it immediately flashed up a tape recorder symbol and you could record a voice MMS to someone; just one nudge, less than it takes just to unlock your iPhone. Click the joystick, and it flashed up your address book – most recent first. Select an address, and boom – your voicemail was on its way. Three clicks to send a voice message to anyone. 12 seconds for a 20-word recording, including the voice recording itself. Try that with a text.
Nokia even launched a lipstick-sized phone – yes, seriously – which only had a click-wheel like a tiny volume dial for control. So – no texting, as no keyboard. Instead, it offered you voice MMS only. And why not?
Despite this – aside from those Israeli taxi drivers, voice messages never took off… I sent a few voice messages to people whenever the feature came back in some form, and I usually got a “What was that funny message type you sent me?”, or they read it, said “wow”… but then typed a reply, as a text.
Roll on to three years ago – and WhatsApp adds Voice Messages to its feature list. Finally! Again, I use it. Again… no others do.
I get an iPhone, and start sending ‘catch-up’ messages to my family – not by typing an email, but by recording a selfie video message to them, saying hi, telling them what I’m up to, and then emailing it. Why not? It’s as fast for me to send as it is for me to talk, they can receive it, and for those personal messages you want to keep to look back at sometime, what is better than a video recording? Other messaging apps like Viber and Facebook Messenger also offer this.
So – finally, Apple decides the market is mature enough (for the fourth time now?), and introduces audio iMessages. As always with Apple, they introduce a bunch of discrete features that make the entire thing so seamless and easy to use: for example, you can hold your finger on the button to record, then slide up to send, a seamless process. Or, you can tap the button, hold the phone to your ear, and it’ll start recording automatically. Take it away, and it’ll send the message automatically – no buttons to press. When you receive a reply, you hold it to your head, like a phone call, and it plays automatically. Simples!
It should be great – the native integration to the OS means it should be the best.
And yet it’s the worst of any of the apps!
Because they limit it to 8KHz audio, and keep the volume low. It’s almost unintelligible! For a company that originally refused to include 3G on the iPhone 2 because it would compromise the battery live, and refuse to permit Facetime to transmit any video at all if the connection isn’t fast enough for high quality, this is an incredible failure. The iPhone is patently capable of CD-quality sound, or better, because all the other voice messaging apps use it. And they can’t claim needing to support non-iPhone devices, because again, that’s never bothered Apple, and Facetime doesn’t either.
So, I’m stuck between trying to convince my friends and family to use this extremely convenient protocol with poor quality sound, or having to drop into another app such as Messenger or WhatsApp which is way less convenient and less recognised than iMessage.
Come on Apple. Get it right.