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The first text message I ever got on an iPhone was this, on August 23rd, 2008:

"Barack has chosen Senator Joe Biden
to be our VP nominee. Watch the first
Obama-Biden rally live at 3pm ET on Spread the word!"

That's right, historically significant spam! Thanks Obama!

And since that day, I never deleted my messages, because they weren't really in the way. But then Carrie and I adopted a dog and would text each other pictures of him doing funny things, and then we had a baby and you know that gets out of control with a quickness. Suddenly we had to pay money to store our constantly-ballooning iCloud backups.

Sorting through the list of what apps are taking space on the phone...where the hell was it all going? Turns out: iMessage. Lots and lots of baby pictures. And then we started using iMessage for lots of things:

"Hey, I'm at the grocery store, is this the brand of cereal you want?"
[5 megabyte picture of a Corn Flakes box]

And then one day I woke up and iMessage has devoured 25 gigabytes of my phone, with eight years of texts. Over ninety-eight thousand messages!

I hate throwing data away. But y'all: iMessage holds your data hostage. Message searching sucks, both on iOS and macOS, there's no option available to migrate your data out of it, hell, you can't even reliably scroll back in the damned chat window. It's a non-optional part of your iCloud backup, which means you have to pay to store it as it balloons up to fill your phone, or delete it forever.

I finally decided to do something about it.

Here's a fairly complex perl script I wrote called imessage_archive. It will take your iMessage chat database and turn it into emails, which there are already lots of tools to work with, for searching, sorting, storing.

It works with both the Messages app's database in Mac OS X^W^W^WmacOS and the iOS database pulled from an unencrypted phone backup you can do with iTunes. Later runs will know where it left off, so you can run it in a cronjob and archive just the new messages that were sent/received since last run.

My plan was to archive all the chats from my phone this way (since it has every message ever), and then move over to archiving from a cronjob on my Mac, which has everything from the point where Mac OS X 10.8 shipped.

The script can write out text and HTML versions (both in the same email, so it can be read from most email clients and look nice in pine/mutt). The HTML version looks like iMessage chat bubbles, it inlines thumbnails of photos you took, and turns videos into simple animated .gifs, to give you a good idea of what the chats actually looked like. Original files are added to the emails as attachments, if you want a pristine archive, but can also be resized before attaching to reduce the size, or eliminated if you just want the conversation and inline thumbnails. You can still optionally keep all the other attachments (vcards and audio clips, etc). You probably already have high-quality copies of all those photos organized elsewhere anyhow.

For me, with full attachments, my 25 gigabytes of Messages became like a 35 gigabyte email archive. With just the inline thumbnails/animations, it was like 2 gigabytes. With no attachments and no thumbnails, it was 75 megabytes.

An email consists of every text between two people that happened without 30 minutes of silence. It seems to work pretty well for finding the edges of conversations.

User info is pulled from your Mac's (or iPhone's backup's) address book, so you get real names in the chat archives.

Anyhow, I hope this is useful to you. Send me comments, questions, complaints, and patches!


When this .plan was written: 2016-06-22 01:44:39
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I am not throwing away my shot.