Google takes on Apple over iMessage ‘lock-in’: Here’s why

Further, Google’s own approach towards messaging has been in sharp contrast as it tries to push Rich Communication Services (RCS) with its own Messages app for Android. RCS for those who are unaware is the next generation of messaging standards and protocols, designed to replace SMS and MMS. Here’s a look at what the controversy is about.

The WSJ report

The report highlights how teens, college students in the US are firmly hooked to their iPhones. Also, anyone who steps outside of the hallowed ‘blue bubbles’ gets ostracised or looked down upon. On Apple’s Messages app, when someone is messaging another iPhone user, all those messages appear in blue. But if someone chats with Android users, which is via regular SMS, then the messages appear in green.

Just like WhatsApp, iMessage also allows users to create groups. And when non-iPhone users message on these groups, theirs appears as green in a sea of blue. According to WSJ, “Apple’s iMessage has…helped to cement the iPhone’s dominance among young smartphone users in the US.”

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The report also quotes letters from Apple executives about why opening up iMessage to Android users would be a bad idea. These were revealed in the Apple vs Epic Games lawsuit. Apple’s chief software executive Craig Federighi wrote in an email in 2013 that allowing iMessage on Android would “simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones,” and that it would hurt Apple in the end.

It also quotes Justin Santamaria, a former Apple engineer who explained that the blue bubble was simply to differentiate between iMessage vs other kinds of messages when it first rolled out. He also stressed that the idea was not to keep users locked into an Apple device when it was first conceived.

But iMessage has evolved into more than just ‘blue’ vs ‘green’ bubbles over the years. Apple has added features such as Memoji, Animoji, Games, the ability to reply to messages, react with emojis, etc. All of these are exclusive to iPhone users and iMessage. And while Memoji can be shared via other apps such as WhatsApp, most of the iMessage features are off-limits to non-Apple users. Further, iMessages are end-to-end encrypted between users, a security feature that is obviously not extended to the non-iMessages on a device.

Google’s comments

Hiroshi Lockheimer, who is also quoted in the WSJ article, put out a thread, calling out Apple over the locked-in strategy. He said that “iMessage should not benefit from bullying. Texting should bring us together, and the solution exists. Let’s fix this as one industry.”

He also called this a “documented strategy” where Apple is using “peer pressure and bullying as a way to sell products is disingenuous for a company that has humanity and equity as a core part of its marketing,” adding that there are standards to fix this.

The Android SVP clarified that Google is not asking Apple to make iMessage available on Android. Instead, it wants the iPhone-maker to support “the industry standard for modern messaging (RCS) in iMessage, just as they support the older SMS / MMS standards.”

Lockheimer also explained that this was important because phone number-based messaging is something users ultimately rely on. “If you want to reach someone and you don’t know whether they use app x y or z, you have high confidence that sending them a text (SMS) will work. That’s because it’s a standard and supported by essentially all mobile devices. That’s probably why Apple supported SMS, to begin with,” he wrote.

He added that the new RCS standard is SMS evolved and it is better with many of the rich features that Apple already has on iMessage. It has features like ‘read receipts’ ‘typing indicators’ etc, and groups are coming soon.

“By not incorporating RCS, Apple is holding back the industry and holding back the user experience for not only Android users but also their own customers,” he wrote adding that they were “happy to work with Apple to make RCS interop a reality.”

What is RCS, where is it available on Android?

While Google is trying to put the focus on RCS once again, keep in mind these features have been in place for a while now. In November 2020, Google announced that its rollout of the RCS standard was now complete globally for the Message app on Android. In India, the RCS-rich version of the Messages app was rolled out in 2019.

Think of RCS as converting your boring SMS app into something as rich as WhatsApp or Telegram. But here it is linked to your phone number and operator.

The Messages app on Android with RCS support has a lot more features. This includes the ability to share high-quality videos and photos, chat over Wi-Fi or data, read receipts for messages, group chats, the ability to react to messages with emojis, etc. Keep in mind one has to turn on these chat features in the Messages app on Android.

Google also said it would roll out end-to-end encryption for the Messages app in November 2020. However, this was rolled out to the beta version of the app first and a broader rollout continued through 2021. End-to-end encryption is what WhatsApp, Signal also offer and this ensures secure messaging because no third party can read or access the messages. But right now this only works when both parties have the Messages app and chat features turned on Android.

Why is Google putting the focus on RCS again?

The timing is definitely interesting. There’s a lot of scrutiny on Apple and its ‘walled garden’ approach, especially since Epic Games’ lawsuit. iMessage is certainly one of the main apps that are yet to make a ‘cross-platform’ appearance. Apple has long been criticised for the approach it has taken. Incidentally, Apple has allowed users from other devices to join a FaceTime call now with a link, which was previously not possible.

However, Google has its own chequered history with messaging apps. It has tried to succeed with internet-based messaging apps such as GTalk (original version) Allo in the past (launched in 2016, shutdown in 2019), Hangouts, Buzz, etc.

The list of Google’s attempts in the ‘messaging app’ department is very long. And while Google is focusing on RCS right now, it has not seen the kind of success that Apple’s iMessage has tasted. It certainly does not have the kind of loyalty that iMessage has inspired among teen users in the US. Meanwhile, Android users in India–one of the biggest markets for the OS–are more dependent on WhatsApp, with other apps like Telegram, Signal making some mark as well.

There’s no doubt that if the RCS standard does get adopted by Apple, it could definitely boost the popularity of traditional messaging apps. And Google’s Messages app on Android would stand to benefit. But so would users.