Tim Cook says buy an iPhone to fix green bubble messaging issues

Here's your regular reminder that iMessage is Apple's best platform lock-in tool

Google’s ongoing campaign to shame Apple into adding RCS — the search giant’s modern replacement for the SMS and MMS text messaging standards — has clearly had no effect on Apple CEO Tim Cook.

During a question period at Vox Media’s Code 2022 event on Wednesday night (via The Verge), Cook was asked how Apple founder Steve Jobs would feel about using the RCS standard on iPhones. Cook said it wasn’t something iPhone users were asking for and instead suggested anyone bothered by messaging issues should get an iPhone.

“I don’t hear our users asking that we put a lot of energy in on [RCS] at this point,” Cook said. “I would love to convert you to an iPhone.”

Vox Media’s LiQuan Hunt, who asked the initial question, followed up by pointing out the lack of interoperability in messaging between iPhone and Android, noting that people like Hunt’s mother can’t see videos he sends to her.

“Buy your mom an iPhone,” said Cook.

No surprise — platform lock-in is the point

The response has created quite a stir among tech writers and spawned several blog posts (like this one) about messaging between iPhones and Android devices. But here’s the thing: this absolutely is not a surprise. We’ve known since the Epic Games trial that Apple relies on iMessage to keep people on iPhone. Emails shared during the trial revealed Apple senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi said that “iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones.” Federighi wasn’t the only one, with the general sentiment from Apple execs being that iMessage was key to locking people into the iPhone platform.

Here are the basics of what’s going on, and why it’s such a problem. For years, phones used SMS and MMS as the standard for texting and picture messages. Except, SMS and MMS is old and lacks several features expected from modern messaging platforms, like high-res video and picture sharing, texting over Wi-Fi, and more.

So, Apple added iMessage to its products. iMessage is a closed messaging system that kicks in automatically when you send a message from one Apple device to another. However, since iMessage is only on Apple devices, iPhones drop back to the SMS standard when you text someone with a non-Apple smartphone. The switch between standards is designated with blue text bubbles for iMessage and green bubbles for SMS. That’s where the problems come in — for iPhone users, texting with Android users becomes an awful experience. It breaks group chats, pictures and videos come across as blurry or low-res, and popular iMessage features stop working.

That difference is part of what keeps iPhone users on iPhone. It creates pressure from iPhone users on other smartphone users to get an iPhone and be part of the blue bubble crew. It’s even problematic with youth, where it’s become common for kids to be excluded from groups because they have a green bubble.

There are solutions, but Apple won’t like them

To be fair, this seems to be a distinctly North American problem, since the split between iPhone and Android adoption is about even in the U.S. and Canada, while smartphone users in other places like Europe or China largely rely on third-party messaging platforms like WhatsApp or WeChat that are available on all smartphones. Still, the iMessage issue is a problem, and one with several solutions (none of which Apple will get on board with).

The first is RCS. It isn’t iMessage, and it’s not trying to be. Google worked with carriers (but later ventured out on its own) to introduce RCS as a replacement for the ageing SMS and MMS standards that formed the backbone of texting for years.  RCS modernizes texting and improves things like group messaging, and Google’s working to bring end-to-end encryption to RCS chats too. The clear solution to most people (aside from Cook) would be to replace SMS with RCS everywhere, including iPhones. Then, iPhone users could still benefit from using iMessage when chatting with other iPhone users, but messaging Android users wouldn’t be such a jarring change.

Judging by Cook’s response to the idea, that won’t happen.

Some have speculated that Apple could bring iMessage to Android as a subscription service. That also won’t happen, and if you’re wondering why, scroll back up and read the part about how Apple execs consider iMessage as a tool to lock customers into iPhone again.

So, where does that leave us? Well, people could use third-party messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, etc. The only real issue with that is people gravitate towards the default option and, in my experience, it can be incredibly difficult to get people to use a messaging platform if they have to go an install an app (especially people who aren’t tech savvy).

Perhaps we could get RCS adoption to the point where it’s a ubiquitous standard like SMS and then have carriers deprecate SMS in favour of RCS. At that point, Apple will either need to add RCS or break the ability for iPhone users to message Android users entirely. But, that could take years, if it ever even happens. Plus, there are no guarantees carriers would drop SMS, or that Apple wouldn’t willingly break messaging with Android users out of spite.

You could, as Cook so eloquently said, just buy an iPhone. Give into the monopolistic machine and join the blue bubble crew. Or flip it on its head — next time an iPhone user is upset they got a blurry photo from you, remind them that the photo you sent was high-res, but their iPhone couldn’t receive it because it uses an ancient messaging standard.

Source: The Verge