Apple’s iMessage isn’t just for talking to your friends, anymore.
Today Apple officially rolled out its new Business Chat feature as part of the iOS 11.3 update. First previewed during last year’s WWDC, Business Chat allows people to message companies in iMessage much like the way Facebook users chat with businesses on Messenger.
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Though Apple’s version of the feature is still in beta and only in the United States and Canda for now, it could mark the start of some serious competition for Facebook.
Much like Facebook Messenger, which has been enticing businesses for years, Apple’s new service lets users chat directly with companies using iMessage. The option will start to show up for participating businesses (Home Depot, Marriott, and Wells Fargo are among a handful of early partners) when you search for them in Maps, Safari, or Spotlight Search on your iPhone.
Once you’ve started a thread, you can ask questions or make purchases using Apple Pay.
While Facebook has a years-long head start in the space, Apple could pose a serious threat if they’re able to persuade businesses to sign on en masse the way Facebook has with Messenger. If users could chat with companies with one search from their iPhone, it would eliminate the extra step of turning to Facebook.
The release also comes at a particularly difficult moment for Facebook, which is currently grappling with a mounting controversy over how it’s handled users’ personal data. Earlier in the week, the company announced it was pausing new messaging bots in Messenger amid privacy concerns.
Though just a temporary measure, it could make Apple a more attractive alternative to developers frustrated by Facebook’s changing priorities.
Apple is touting Business Chat’s ability to let people “reach a live person to ask a question” — possibly a dig at Facebook’s bot-centric approach — and its commitment to privacy.
“Users are always in control of their contact information — businesses will not receive any personal data by default,” the company wrote in its announcement.