The Bubble Wars

the distracted boyfriend meme where the boyfriend is looking at a blue caption bubble while the green caption bubbble is looking at him
There’s been an increasing tension around the exclusivity of Apple’s iMessage product, and it feels like that tension has hit a peak over the last month or so.

Here’s a handful of the iMessage related events in recent history:

  • Automattic (the WordPress people) acquired the Texts app, a universal messaging app with support for, among other things, iMessage
  • The makers of the Nothing Phone started offering iMessage support, only to shut it down when it was revealed how terrifyingly insecure its implementation was
  • Apple announced it would be bringing support for the RCS protocol to iPhones next year, allowing rich iMessage-like features (like typing indicators and better support for media and groups) between iPhones and modern Android phones
  • Beeper, the makers of another universal messaging app, announced support for Beeper Mini, a new app that offers iMessage support by having the app itself behave like a real iPhone connecting to the iMessage system. Apple was able to promptly stop it from working

Despite what article headlines might have you thinking, this isn’t merely about the color of the text messaging bubbles iPhone users see when they message another iPhone user as opposed to a plain SMS message. iMessages work a lot better. Messages send back and forth a lot faster, and there’s an indicator when the other person is typing, which is handy when you’re having an actual conversation. You get things like delivery confirmation and (optionally) read receipts. You can send larger media items like high-res photos and videos. There’s also support for some extras like stickers, reactions, and native support for stuff like Apple Pay (and other iMessage apps). Finally, iMessage messages are end-to-end encrypted, ensuring that your messages aren’t getting snooped on in transit for governments or advertising networks to see.

Apple’s had internal conversations over the years about making an iMessage app for Android, and they have decided against it because it gently locks users into Apple’s ecosystem. iMessage is nicer enough than SMS that a user considering trying an Android phone might shy away from making the switch.

But it might be time for Apple to reconsider this move, given that there are obviously a lot of third party players trying to bridge this gap themselves, often disastrously. Most of the existing universal messaging apps add iMessage support by either using real Macs or Mac VMs in the cloud that you have to give your real Apple ID credentials to, and those Macs relay the messages to your messaging app, which breaks end-to-end encryption (Automattic’s Texts is an exception to this, but it worked on your Mac by talking to your Messages app with scripting/accessibility support). And although Beeper Mini was considerably more secure because it wasn’t sharing data with other parties, reverse engineering the Messages app is brittle and prone to breaking at Apple’s whims.

A lot of people are working hard to make iMessage work on other platforms, and the best way to stop them might be for Apple to suck the oxygen out of the space by making official iMessage clients for other platforms. Apple confirmed recently that one of the reasons they blocked Beeper Mini was to protect iMessage users from spammers and such, and the existence of a non-Apple made app that lets you send iMessages makes it really easy to start spamming iMessage users en masse. Spammers are lazy, and if the market dries up for a third party iMessage client, they won’t keep up the effort to make one of their own.

The New Halo Effect

Privacy aside, though, one might wonder what’s in it for Apple to make an Android iMessage client. It’s not likely Apple would be able to charge users for iMessage access (though Beeper certainly tried making a go of it); why give a free messaging app to these non-customers?

Well, first off, Apple wouldn’t just be giving Android users a glass of ice water; they’d be making Apple users’ lives better by letting them communicate with friends using a nicer messaging system. It’s useful for Apple users who happen to have an Android device as a secondary device (maybe for work). And sure, maybe it’ll cannibalize some iPhone sales, but “if you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will”.

But more broadly, this is a power move for a company where online services are their biggest growth opportunity. You could argue that iMessage is one of the biggest social networks on the planet already, and this gives Apple a chance to grow and dominate. Growth for growth’s sake alone isn’t exactly the most virtuous thing, but as a services company it’s worthwhile. It would be worth something to Apple to build out iMessage to be the world’s most widely used messaging app. If nothing else Apple can sell it as doing a public service to the world by giving widespread access to end-to-end encrypted messaging.

But there’s a legit opportunity here too: iMessage might very well be Apple’s foot in the door to sell other paid services to people not currently in the Apple ecosystem. If Apple makes a really nice iMessages app on Android and an Android user downloads it to appease an insufferable friend with an iPhone, they might realize it’s actually kind of nice, and later be inclined to try out something else Apple makes, like Apple Music, or Apple TV+. Suddenly the billions of users not on iOS are potential Apple customers.

And if these people become Apple services customers and like it enough, they might start even thinking about going whole hog with it and buying their first Apple device.

When you’re Apple-sized and your market cap is measured in trillions and investors breathe down your neck looking for several percentage points of growth every year, you start needing to look harder for growth opportunities, and you start maybe thinking about stuff you wouldn’t have considered before.

It’s an opportunity worth pursuing, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple take the path of least resistance, rolling out RCS support on iOS and hoping people stop caring about iMessage support afterwards. After all, they didn’t go bold with the Apple Silicon version of the Mac Pro (and no, I’m not going to stop being bitter about that one).

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