It’s Time to Admit iMessage Is Holding Us Back
Apple found a great way to handle messages on iPhone that makes it harder to talk to anyone who doesn't own one. Now something has to change.
It’s a hard time for anyone who doesn’t want green bubbles. Beeper Mini, the Android messaging app that purportedly reverse-engineered Apple's iMessage service so that Android phones could communicate with iPhones as “blue bubbles,” was successfully blocked by Apple on December 8. Beeper's developers worked over the weekend and have since gotten the app partially working again, but Apple has made it clear that it intends to keep the cat-and-mouse game going until Beeper gives up.
Apple has every right to block something that illicitly accesses its service as Beeper has done. But this incident is also a good example of how deeply tying some of the value of the iPhone to a feature like messaging — a fundamental function of phones that should work the same for everyone regardless of platform or device brand — makes the company look anti-competitive.
A Better Option
Apple introduced iMessage as part of iOS 5 in 2011 as a better way to send text messages (SMS) between iPhones, iPads, and iPods. Unlike SMS, which can only be sent over a cellular network, iMessages also work over Wi-Fi. iMessage also introduced modern messaging features that simply aren’t possible with SMS such as delivery and read receipts, and typing indicators. Even better, iMessage made sending messages free as long as you were sending them between Apple devices.
Apple would go on to expand those features, bringing iMessage to more devices, adding in-chat apps, voice recordings, Animoji, and more, but the fundamental understanding that an iPhone got you a built-in way to message for free was a powerful draw in the early days of the iPhone.
iMessage was so seamless and has worked so well on iPhones that it's now considered a major reason why people stick with Apple's phone for the long term. For data hoarders, the fact that you can back up your entire message history to the cloud is another plus. (That Apple deliberately makes messaging anyone who doesn't have an iPhone worse probably seals the deal, though.)
Third-party services have risen up to try to replicate iMessage or port it to other platforms (namely Windows and Android) but with generally mixed results. Some apps use their own servers and essentially log you into a remote Mac to send messages, like Beeper's original “Cloud” app. Some keep the functionality local to your desktop computer, like Texts (now owned by the parent of WordPress, Auttomatic). And others, like Sunbird and its recent partner Nothing Chats, try to do the same thing as Beeper but with worse security.
What makes Beeper Mini unique is that it’s the first third-party app to communicate directly with Apple's iMessage servers, thanks to the work of a 16-year-old hacker who was able to figure out how Apple's messaging system and end-to-end encryption are implemented on native Apple devices. Beeper Mini uses an Apple device’s ID number to convince Apple's servers that it's a real iPhone, Mac, or iPad, and then sends messages just like Apple's own apps do. Until Apple blocked it, Beeper asked for $2 a month for the privilege. For a few days, Beeper was able to run the app unchallenged — it worked like a charm on my Pixel 6.
Security Concerns with a Seemingly Secure Method
Apple's motivations for blocking Beeper Mini are primarily security-based. The company claims that Beeper's method may not only expose user metadata, but also opens up its secure platform for spam and phishing.
The company shared the following statement to The Verge about its action against Beeper:
At Apple, we build our products and services with industry-leading privacy and security technologies designed to give users control of their data and keep personal information safe. We took steps to protect our users by blocking techniques that exploit fake credentials in order to gain access to iMessage. These techniques posed significant risks to user security and privacy, including the potential for metadata exposure and enabling unwanted messages, spam, and phishing attacks. We will continue to make updates in the future to protect our users.
As Daring Fireball’s John Gruber notes, there are larger financial reasons for putting the kibosh on an app like Beeper Mini, too. Apple offers iMessage, a service that likely sends billions of messages, images, and videos a day for free, without advertising or the implicit understanding it'll use your information to sell advertising. Beeper was charging a subscription for access to that service, essentially making money on top of a service Apple doesn't charge a dime for. It's not hard to see why that might bother a company as highly profit-driven as Apple.
Now Beeper maintains that its goal with Beeper Mini from the start was to make it easy and secure for Android users to communicate with iPhone users. Since Apple initially blocked the service, Beeper has made Beeper Mini free to use, invited Apple to ask for a third-party security review of its methods, and even suggested tagging messages sent with the Beeper Mini app if Apple wanted to block those messages outright.
There’s a history of “adversarial interoperability” that in some ways backs up Beeper’s viewpoint. When a company has a dominant position and no reason to make a product work well on another platform, or exist at all, the only course for a platform operator who stands to benefit from that product is to reverse engineer it. Author and Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Cory Doctorow cites Apple reverse-engineering the Microsoft Office suite’s various file formats to make iWork (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) competitive as that exact kind of adversarial interoperability. You could argue that’s what Beeper’s doing, but a file format is not the same thing as a messaging protocol.
Wait, Didn't We Solve This with RCS?
If this whole fight over who can send blue messages, and who gets second-class treatment on Apple devices sounds familiar, it's because we've been having a version of it over the Rich Communication Services protocol, a replacement for SMS and MMS that includes several modern chat features like typing indicators and support for larger images and videos that up until recently Apple has refused to support.
Apple decided to support RCS a few weeks ago in a sudden turn that only feels sudden if you weren’t aware the company was currently being probed by the European Commission over whether or not iMessage should be regulated by the EU's Digital Markets Act, which calls for gatekeeper platforms and services to be opened up and made more interoperable. Notably, even though Apple said it would support RCS, it deliberately said it wouldn't use the modified version of the protocol Google created for its Messages app that has end-to-end encryption. Instead, Apple plans to use the less secure vanilla version of RCS and work with the GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications), the non-profit that created the protocol, to develop a more secure version. It’s a great move in the long run, but one that could mean that messaging Android users on an Apple device will remain less secure than iMessage even after Apple adopts RCS.
If you wade through fanboy skirmishes over whether Beeper should be allowed to access iMessage in the first place, and how righteous Apple is for stopping them (why are people so invested in the business of a trillion-dollar company? Why do they believe uncritically that everything the company does benefits their security and privacy?), you'll catch a whiff of genuine disappointment that Beeper failed and some kind of universal messaging experience continues to not exist.
And while technically the dream of a messaging app and platform that everyone uses does exist outside of North America, you’ll have to port your life, and your friends’ and family’s lives, to another app. Unless you're comfortable with Meta, the owner of WhatsApp, or Tencent, the owner of WeChat, controlling access to your social life, you’re out of luck. In North America, where over half the phones are iPhones anyway, according to Statista as of October 2023, and most people don't want the annoyances of switching, that’s not an easy sell.
There Is an Obligation to Create Something Better
The feeling that something better can and should exist happens because Apple itself isn't competing on a level playing field. iMessage became successful, and quickly, because it piggybacked on the iPhone’s default messaging app, trapping your phone number and texts in a beautifully designed service that's harder to leave the longer you use it. While there is a way to escape iMessage, like turning it off in the Settings app and unenrolling your phone number, speaking from experience as someone who's had to switch back and forth between Android and iOS for work, that isn't a completely foolproof solution. Nor is it a reasonable one to expect your parents or grandparents to choose.
Intentionally or not, iMessage makes the act of switching phones harder. And I hate to break it to everyone, but Apple knows this and likes it that way. In fact, thanks to Epic's lawsuit against Apple, we now know the company considered developing an iMessage app for Android, but decided not to do it because it would make it easier for kids to switch to Android.
Intentionally or not, iMessage makes the act of switching phones harder.
But competition breeds innovation, and Apple has every right to exclude competitors if it leads to a better product, right? The fact of the matter is, Apple hasn’t created a wholly better product. Defaulting to SMS and MMS, as iMessage does when chatting with a non-Apple device, means that messages are less secure and less useful. Images are compressed, videos are grainy, and there are actual limits on how long of a text you can send. And group chats break in inexplicable ways. We can point to the psychological impacts of Apple’s strategy, but this goes beyond green and blue bubbles. Apple makes talking to Android users worse on purpose, and it's been doing so for years after a better alternative was created.
Apple has no obligation to run a service for a platform it doesn't control, but if it truly cares about the user experience of its customers and more importantly, their privacy and security, it does have an obligation to pursue other options to make its existing offering fully secure. It could have adopted RCS earlier. It could have been working with the GSMA to make RCS end-to-end encrypted earlier. Hell, it could have participated in the development of an entirely different and more Apple-influenced alternative. We know Apple is willing to play ball on open standards. Look no further than Matter, the smart home standard that makes devices interoperable between smart device platforms.
Instead, legal or not, iMessage workaround services — and anyone looking for a better, more secure experience that works across platforms — are forced to roll the dice on security or wait for Apple to squash it outright. Messaging is one of the ways Apple keeps users on its platform and until it's forced to play ball with others that will never change.