Texting has been around for the last few decades. But don't be fooled into thinking there's no place for this communication method in the continually evolving digital era we’re living in today.

Texting is built-in to all mobile devices, even the latest offerings from major brands like Google, Apple and Samsung. The most frequently used channels for sending texts are SMS and iMessage. On the surface, they look the same, but there are some critical differences between them. This article explains everything you need to know about SMS vs iMessage, including why you might want to choose one over the other when texting customers or clients.

What are SMS messages?

SMS stands for Short Message Service. It’s the default messaging functionality on every mobile phone, enabling users to send short (160-character) text-based messages to other mobile devices. With SMS, texts are sent from and received into the same app.

What is iMessage?

iMessage is available only on Apple devices through the Messages app. It feels to users like an instant messaging service and is similar to SMS in that the message format looks the same. But iMessage can only be used between Apple users (you can't send an iMessage to an Android phone).

This sums up the main difference between SMS vs iMessage, but let's explore how else these two channels contrast.

iMessage vs text messages

iMessage and SMS differ regarding message features, message size, audience reach, delivery channel and security considerations.

1. Delivery channel

An SMS message is delivered only over cellular data networks. Whereas iMessage typically uses an internet connection. Does iMessage use data? Yes, unless WiFi is available. An iMessage can be transformed into a regular SMS text message and delivered via a cellular network if it’s not possible to use WiFi or mobile data – or the recipient doesn't have an Apple device. (Android phones can't receive iMessages).

2. Message size

As mentioned, SMS messages are limited to 160 characters only. If the limit is exceeded, a single text is then split into multiple messages, effectively doubling the cost. (Or tripling or quadrupling should the text be particularly lengthy!)

iMessage allows for much longer messages to other Apple devices. There isn't an official limit to the number of characters you can use; however, some users have reported problems with conversations getting cut off or error messages appearing if a message is very long. If messaging Android users, the iMessage is automatically converted to SMS and will end up as split messages if over 160 characters.

3. Features

SMS is compatible with text, numbers, simple special characters and certain emojis. If you want to attach a media file, such as an image or video, the SMS converts to MMS before being sent (multimedia messages are more expensive than SMS). You can include web links in an SMS text message too.

SMS is brilliant for mass texting your customers with marketing or customer service messages, but only if you use an SMS platform. Such solutions (Messente is one of them) simplify mass texting and often provide scheduling and automation tools, autoresponders and chatbots, contact management and valuable analytics.

SMS chatbot concept

iMessage allows you to send messages with both text and media (photos, videos, GIFs, audio messages and stickers). It also supports sending documents and zip files via phone and P.C. (you can attach files from iCloud and drag and drop files into the Messages app).

Like with SMS, you can share URLs, but iMessage also provides link previews. This type of 'rich content' enhances the user experience – it's great for marketing purposes when promoting a new product or landing page. Android users with access to RCS messaging can also receive rich content messages like this.

Another iMessage feature is its real-time typing indicator (which you'll recognise from instant messaging apps like Messenger and WhatsApp). iMessage offers read receipts, which SMS doesn't. However, if you use an SMS platform, this problem is eliminated, as delivery reports are all part of the service.

One major drawback of iMessage is that it doesn't work for bulk messaging. A mass iMessage converts to a group text where each iPhone user can see who's part of the group and read each other's responses. There's no anonymity or privacy. So if you want to broadcast a one-way text to iOS users, you'll need to use SMS, not iMessage.

Another downside to iMessage is that you can't schedule or automate messages. Still, you can access some advanced features if you use a messaging platform with an Apple Business Chat Account. However, few providers work with iMessage, so your options are limited.

4. Security

There have been some concerns around SMS over the years, with threats like smishing and SIM swapping. However, there are preventative and remedial measures you can take to avoid falling victim to such threats.

According to Apple, iMessages are secured with end-to-end encryption (this applies to both text-based and media messages). So even if an iMessage is intercepted, it won't be readable or 'crackable' to the scammer. Note, though, that texts to Android devices are NOT encrypted.

Another security risk to consider with iMessage is around general backups to iCloud – your Messages data could be uploaded without end-to-end encryption.

5. Reach

SMS offers a much greater reach than iMessages because SMS can reach all mobile phones (and other text-enabled devices), irrespective of whether the operating system is Android or iOS. That’s why SMS is used as the fallback channel when iMessages fail to deliver over WiFi or mobile data.

iOS holds the largest market share in the U.S. (one of the biggest consumer markets worldwide) and is almost as popular as Android in Japan and the U.K. This tells us iMessage is heavily used in these key regions. However, Android is the leading mobile operating system globally, with a 71.8% share (almost three-quarters of the total market share).

Android mobile on map - market share concept

Should I use SMS for texting?

iMessage and SMS are two channels used for sending SMS messages, and they have different features, benefits and disadvantages. iMessage is ideal for communication between Apple users and offers more advanced features than SMS. Sending rich content is easy with iMessage, but not all Android users will be able to receive rich messaging (they need to have RCS enabled).

On the other hand, SMS has a much broader reach than iMessage – important if your audience uses a mixture of devices and is located in multiple countries. Virtually every phone can receive SMS messages (even basic feature phones). Finally, SMS is best if you need to send mass messages to large groups of people while ensuring recipients' data is kept private.

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