Apple is adding a major new feature to its iMessage app in iOS 11.

On Apple's Developer site, there is a new section outlining the feature, called Business Chat, even though Business Chat wasn't directly mentioned by Apple during its WWDC 2017 keynote in June. Based on how the feature is described on the site, we know Apple wants to provide businesses with a way to make themselves available for quick chats in the iMessage app for customer service purposes.

From what we can tell, you can find a business using Safari, Maps, Spotlight, or even Siri, and then you can initiate a text-based conversation with the business through Apple's iMessage app. You can get answers to questions, resolve issues, and complete transactions, and more. Here's everything you need to know about the feature, including how it works and when you can start using it.

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Business Chat is a new tool that will allow businesses to offer real-time customer support. A similar feature exists in Facebook Messenger. But unlike that offering, Apple won’t require businesses to have a social media account. Customers can search for a business in iOS via Safari, Maps, Spotlight, or Siri, and from any of those services, they can open iMessage and chat with the business.

Customer support

During a WWDC session, Apple explained Business Chat in more details, including how it works, according to The Verge. When in a chat with a business, you can shop, schedule appointments, ask general inquiry advice, file a dispute, and more - all from the same chat thread. There are also other built-in features, like predictive text, which will load an address or number a business asks for it.

Shop

Just like in Messenger, you can shop and buy products directly from chat. But your only payment solution will be through Apple Pay, of course. Businesses can show items in stock in a list format, which will appear in the conversation and doesn't require you to open a new window.

If you want to use Business Chat for appointments, the feature will link up to your own calendar and smartly suggest time slots that won't conflict with your schedule. Businesses may sometimes direct you to download an iMessage app to complete certain request. An airline, for instance, might have a separate app that helps you select a seat. This can all be down within the conversation.

Customers can find a business either through Safari, Maps, Spotlight, or Siri, and they can initiate a conversation with that business from Apple's updated iMessage app on their iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. You will see a different thread for each business you're chatting with. 

Any business can register, integrate their customer service platforms, and develop their own custom features, like a separate iMessage app to complete certain tasks. A handful of companies have already signed up, including LivePerson, Salesforce, Nuance, and Genesys. Business Chat therefore isn't limited to retail or businesses with retail locations. We suspect more will be signing up soon.

Apple is currently offering Business Chat in a developer preview. Businesses can register here. The feature won't officially be available for all customers to use until iOS 11 rolls out this autumn.

Check out these iOS 11 and iMessage guides: