On iMessage’s Stickiness

Lauren Goode, writing for The Verge a few weeks ago, “iMessage Is the Glue That Keeps Me Stuck to the iPhone”:

As someone who vacillates between iOS and Android fairly often, but who considers a lightly cracked iPhone 6S her daily driver, I’m also considering whether the Pixel phone is the next phone to buy. All of the software I use now is available on Android: all of my top email, calendar, music, fitness, photography, task-based, work collaboration, and social networking apps are there.

But one app is not, and that’s iMessage.

There is a lot of truth here, especially for people who are largely in the Google ecosystem for email, calendaring, photos, etc. A lot of them use iPhones with Google apps, not Android phones. I know several people who think iPhones are better client devices for Google’s ecosystem than Android devices running Google’s own operating system. In particular, I think this is very common in Silicon Valley. I notice it frequently when I see the homescreens on iPhones used by members of the press who cover the wider industry (as opposed to those who focus more on Apple). That’s who I think Google’s Pixel phones are aimed at: not the mass market, per se, but the technical elite who are currently using a lot of Google services on iPhones. Another way to put it: if the Pixels don’t get Google employees who use iPhones to switch, nothing will.

See, for example, this year-old BuzzFeed column by Charlie Warzel, “Apple’s Junk Drawer Problem”:

There’s a folder on the homescreen of my iPhone affectionately labeled “Apple Crap.” Inside, a colony of flattened, painstakingly designed app icons gather dust. With the exception of the Health and Podcast apps, I’ve become accustomed to relegating Apple’s (undeletable) native apps to the junk drawer. The containment strategy started back in 2012, when Apple Maps suggested I head to a work meeting in the middle of the Hudson River, and I’ve never looked back. An informal office poll also concluded that I’m not alone. We’ll wait hours in line in the cold/heat/rain/snow for a shiny new piece of Apple hardware — but once we get it, the first thing we do is fill it with third-party services, leaving Apple’s proprietary apps tucked away in lonely folders on third or fourth screens.

That doesn’t sound like a typical iPhone user, who is likely to use all or most of Apple’s built-in apps. Apple Maps, for example, is far more popular on iOS than Google Maps. But Warzel’s description sounds exactly like the sort of iPhone users who might be tempted by the Pixel. There’s a split between iPhone users who are primarily part of the Apple ecosystem (iCloud, Safari, Apple Mail, …) and those who are part of the Google ecosystem (Google Drive, Google Calendar, Chrome, Gmail, …).

iMessage is an exception. With iMessage you get to connect both with iPhone users in the Google ecosystem and iPhone users in the Apple ecosystem. For a lot of us here in the U.S., that’s just about everyone we know. It’s no coincidence that two of Google’s major Android initiatives this year are Allo and Duo, their answers to iMessage and FaceTime. I don’t think it’s going to work. iPhone users on the Google ecosystem might install Duo and Allo, and those who switch to Pixel phones will have them installed by default. But I don’t see why iPhone users on the Apple ecosystem will install either Duo or Allo in large enough numbers to make a difference. Anyone who switches to a Pixel phone from an iPhone is still going to miss iMessage and FaceTime.

iMessage and FaceTime are tied to the same Apple ID system, but there’s a subtle difference between their rises in popularity. iMessage gained traction by replacing SMS — you just did what you used to do before iMessage existed and the messages went over iMessage instead of SMS if both people were signed into iCloud. The way Apple usurped SMS for their own users and let SMS remain as a fallback for texting with everyone else was simply genius.

FaceTime, on the other hand, introduced something new: low-latency, high-quality video chat. FaceTime wasn’t the first video chat to exist, but it was the first one to matter in the mass market. I’ve lost track of the TV shows and movies where I’ve seen characters using FaceTime, often mentioning it by name. FaceTime is a meaningful part of the lives of millions of families.

Back to Goode:

Back in June, when Apple showed off a bunch of new iMessage features and said it would be opening up iMessage to third-party app developers, some people wondered whether the company would go even a step further and bring iMessage to Android phones. It was a valid question in the “who-really-knows-what-Apple-will-do” sense, but still, the idea made little sense to me. Of course Apple wasn’t going to allow iMessage to function on Android: iMessage is the glue that keeps people stuck to their iPhones and Macs.

The iMessage-for-Android rumor was started by MacDailyNews, and while I wouldn’t have bet on it, I wasn’t entirely dismissive. I still think it might happen sooner or later. Here’s what I wrote in June:

It’s a little surprising if true, but remember that Apple is now boasting about its prowess as a services company. Messaging is a service. And it makes even more sense if, as rumored, there’s a payments component coming to iMessage.

I’ve heard from little birdies that mockups of iMessage for Android have circulated within the company, with varying UI styles ranging from looking like the iOS Messages app to pure Material Design.1 iMessage for Android may never see the light of day, but the existence of detailed mockups strongly suggests that there’s no “of course not” to it.

As an iOS/MacOS exclusive, iMessage is a glue that “keeps people stuck to their iPhones and Macs”, not the glue. iMessage for Android would surely lead some number of iPhone users to switch to Android, but I think that number is small enough to be a rounding error for Apple. Apple wins by creating devices and experiences that people want to use, not that they have to use. Apple creates desire, not obligation. If the iPhone isn’t thriving simply by being the best, then Apple is already in deep trouble. I would argue that in some ways Apple might be better off releasing iMessage for Android, simply to remove a crutch.2

But for a company that has failed at most attempts to create social networks, Apple has inadvertently built one with all of those little blue bubbles.

There’s nothing inadvertent about iMessage’s success.

  1. Apple Music for Android, for example, is very Material Design-y. It uses Android’s system font, the Android standard hamburger menu for the sidebar, Android’s sharing menu icon, Android-style navigation controller transition animations, and more. I may not be well-enough attuned to idiomatic Android UI design to notice where Apple Music is iOS-y, but I can categorically state that Apple Music for Android is far more Android-y than any of Google’s iOS apps are iOS-y. ↩︎

  2. Every time I bring up FaceTime, at least one reader will pipe up asking about Steve Jobs’s on-stage promise at its premiere in 2010 to release FaceTime as an “open standard”. That went wrong two ways. First, the story I’ve been told is that releasing FaceTime as an open standard was a decision Jobs made unilaterally while working on the 2010 WWDC keynote. The FaceTime engineering team learned about it when we did — when Jobs promised it on stage. It wasn’t designed or engineered from the outset to be open, and so even under the best of circumstances, it might have taken years for FaceTime to go open. But even worse, Apple lost a patent lawsuit over FaceTime that required them to change FaceTime’s architecture.

    So I don’t think we’re ever actually going to see FaceTime as an open standard. But I think the sentiment that drove Jobs to want it to be an open standard applies to the idea of releasing iMessage for Android. Apple doesn’t need to rely on platform-exclusive lock-in. ↩︎︎