Anyone in a text message group chats with participants spread across iOS and Android probably understands the annoying reaction texts arriving from iPhone users, usually formatted as Person A Liked/Disliked “Person B’s message.”
After Google implemented a workaround inside its text message app on Android, Apple did something about it with iOS 16. After the update, it will hide those written messages and output them as the expected bubble icon next to the message it was in reaction to.
Earlier this year, Google’s fix on the Android side worked similarly by adding iOS-friendly emoji reactions to the Google Messages app. Apple’s iMessage Tapbacks have since appeared as proper emoji icons on Androids using Google Messages, but the issue largely persisted in iPhone “green bubble” threads.
Tap backs started with iOS 10 in 2016 when iMessage received its most defining upgrade with features like full-screen message effects and stickers. However, while iOS 16 iMessage is adding more new features than it has in the six years since — like the ability to edit / unsend messages — it still won’t include support for RCS, the SMS-successor messaging technology Google is focusing on.
SVP of Android proposes an open invitation to help Apple put RCS texting on the iPhone. Google has worked hard to speed up the adoption of RCS so that it could do more than parse spammy reaction messages between platforms, but it seems Apple prefers this workaround over adopting a new standard. Perhaps RCS might need some work against actual spam before Apple considers it.
The relation to the color of group text messages—Android users divert Apple Inc.’s iMessage into green bubbles instead of blue—emphasized one of the challenges of her experiment. Her group chats no longer work seamlessly with other peers, almost all of who used iPhones. As a result, FaceTime calls became more complicated, and the University of Michigan sophomore’s phone didn’t display an app she used to find friends.
That pressure to be a component of the blue text group is the product of Apple executives’ decisions starting years ago with little fanfare. It has built iMessage into one of the world’s most widely used social networks and helped cement the iPhone’s dominance among young mobile users in the U.S.
How that ensued came to light last year during Apple’s courtroom fight against “Fortnite” maker Epic Games Inc., which asserted the tech giant held an improper monopoly over the distribution of apps onto the iPhone. As part of the battle, thousands of internal records were made public. Some indicated a long-running debate about whether to suggest iMessage on phones that run with Google’s Android operating system. Apple made a critical conclusion: Keep iMessage for Apple users only.
“In the absence of a process to become the primary messaging service for the majority of cell phone users, I am concerned the iMessage on Android would simply aid to empty an obstacle to iPhone families sharing their kids Android phones,” Apple’s chief software administrator, Craig Federighi stated in a 2013 email.
Three years later, then-marketing chief Phil Schiller created a similar issue to Chief Executive Tim Cook in another email: “Moving iMessage to Android will harm us more than benefit us,” he said. Another warning that year came from a former Apple executive who described his old colleagues in an email that “iMessage amounts to serious lock-in.”
From the beginning, Apple got creative in protecting iMessage’s exclusivity. For example, it didn’t ban the exchange of traditional text messages with Android users. Instead, it branded those messages with a different color; when an Android user is part of a group chat, the iPhone users see green bubbles rather than blue. It also withheld certain features. There is no dot-dot-dot icon to demonstrate that a non-iPhone user is typing. For example, an iMessage heart or thumbs-up annotation has long been conveyed to Android users as text instead of images.
Apple later took other steps that enhanced the popularity of its messaging service with teens. It added popular features such as animated cartoon-like faces that create mirrors of a user’s face to compete with messaging services from social media companies. Apple’s survey of iPhone holders made public during the Epic Games litigation found that customers were particularly fond of replacing words with emojis and screen effects such as animated balloons and confetti. Avid teen users said in interviews with The Wall Street Journal that they also liked how they could create group chats with other Apple users that add and subtract participants without having to start a new chain.
Apple’s software, hardware, and services work so harmoniously that it is usually called a “walled garden.” The idea is central to current antitrust scrutiny and the Epic vs. Apple case.
The cultivation of iMessage is consistent with Apple’s broader strategy to tie its hardware, software, and services together in a self-reinforcing world—dubbed the walled garden. It encourages people to pay the premium for its relatively expensive gadgets and remain loyal to its brand. That strategy has drawn scrutiny from critics and lawmakers as part of a more extensive examination of how all tech giants operate. Their core question: Do Apple and other tech companies create products that consumers find indispensable, or are they building near-monopolies that unfairly stifle competition?
In its fight against Epic Games, Apple denied it held improper monopoly power in the smartphone market, pointing to intense competition globally with other phone makers and Android’s operating system. “With iMessage, we built a great service that our users love, different from those offered by other platforms,” the company said in a statement.
Apple and other tech giants have long worked hard to get traction with young users, hoping to build brand habits that will extend into adulthood as they battle each other for control of everything from videogames to extended reality glasses to the metaverse. Alphabet Inc.’s Android operating system is the dominant player among smartphone users, with a loyal following of vocal people about their support. Among U.S. consumers, 40% use iPhones, but among those aged 18 to 24, more than 70% are iPhone users, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners’ most recent survey of consumers.
According to data and interviews with a dozen of these people, Apple’s iMessage plays a significant role in the lives of young smartphone users and their parents. However, teens and college students dread ostracism with a green text. The social pressure is palpable, with some reporting being ostracized or singled out after switching away from iPhones.
Many of the new iMessage features—such as the 3D-like digital avatars known as emojis—exist fundamentally as a reason to own an iPhone and don’t make money for Apple directly. Last year Apple also made it possible to share FaceTime connections with Android users—a slight crack in Apple’s self-reinforcing ecosystem as video calling became more prevalent during the pandemic. However, it has incorporated some moneymaking elements in recent years, including Apple Pay and e-commerce links to other businesses such as Starbucks.
“We know that Apple users appreciate having access to innovative features like iCloud syncing across all their Apple devices, Tapback and Memoji, and industry-leading privacy and security with end-to-end encryption. All of which make iMessage unique,” Apple said in a statement.
Apple’s iMessage uses the internet to send text, video, and photo messages, while iPhone users communicating with non-Apple users use old-school cellular channels such as SMS and MMS. Apple said its closed, encrypted system ensures messages are protected from hackers. However, apple also disputes that users are locked into iMessage, saying users can easily switch to other smartphones.
A Google executive said Apple could make it easier for iMessage and Android users to communicate. “There are no technical or product reasons for this issue,” Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s senior vice president of platforms and ecosystems, said. “The solutions already exist, and we encourage Apple to join with the rest of the mobile industry in implementing them. We believe people should have the ability to connect without artificial limits. It simply doesn’t have to be like this.”