By John Gruber
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The Wall Street Journal ran a doozy of a story by Tim Higgins last weekend: “Why Apple’s iMessage Is Winning: Teens Dread the Green Text Bubble” (News+ link). Few Americans don’t have U.S.-centric blind spots — I’m certainly guilty of that on numerous fronts — but this take is so U.S.-centric it beggars belief. The article’s subhead says it all:
The iPhone maker cultivated iMessage as a must-have texting tool for teens. Android users trigger a just-a-little-less-cool green bubble: “Ew, that’s gross.”
The article’s foundation is a handful of personal anecdotes, starting with the lede:
Soon after 19-year-old Adele Lowitz gave up her Apple iPhone 11 for an experimental go with an Android smartphone, a friend in her long-running texting group chimed in: “Who’s green?”
The reference to the color of group text messages — Android users turn Apple Inc.’s iMessage into green bubbles instead of blue — highlighted one of the challenges of her experiment. No longer did her group chats work seamlessly with other peers, almost all of whom used iPhones. FaceTime calls became more complicated and the University of Michigan sophomore’s phone didn’t show up in an app she used to find friends.
100 words in and already so much to correct. How this ran in the WSJ’s Technology section is beyond explanation. Messages is Apple’s messaging app for iOS and Mac; iMessage is Apple’s proprietary messaging platform. Messages doesn’t render texts from Android green, per se — it renders all SMS messages as green. Messages has no idea what type of device sent an SMS, it just knows it’s an SMS message. An SMS sent from an iPhone user will be green, too.
Until three months ago, FaceTime was exclusive to Apple devices. Starting in October (and announced last June at WWDC), FaceTime users can create web links that Android and Windows users can use to join calls. But yes, Apple’s proprietary voice and audio call platform works more seamlessly on their own devices. Shocker.
Find My for finding iPhone-using friends doesn’t work on Android either. Again, filed under “Duh”. The whole point of Apple — the entire company — is to offer superior products and services to customers willing to pay for them. Higgins quotes from internal emails from Craig Federighi and Phil Schiller — emails made public during discovery in last year’s Epic v. Apple lawsuit — arguing against releasing a version of iMessage for Android as though it’s scandalous, rather than obviously strategic. It’s not like iMessage was at any time cross-platform and Apple dropped Android support (which, even if it had been the case, wouldn’t necessarily be nefarious in the least) — it was conceived as a proprietary platform for iPhones, iPads, and Macs.
Back to the WSJ:
That pressure to be a part of the blue text group is the product of decisions by Apple executives starting years ago that have, with little fanfare, built iMessage into one of the world’s most widely used social networks and helped to cement the iPhone’s dominance among young smartphone users in the U.S.
As Harry McCracken quipped on Twitter, iMessage was not introduced with “little fanfare” — it was a tentpole announcement from Scott Forstall at WWDC 2011.
From the beginning, Apple got creative in its protection of iMessage’s exclusivity. It didn’t ban the exchange of traditional text messages with Android users but instead 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, and an iMessage heart or thumbs-up annotation has long conveyed to Android users as text instead of images.
The Messages app for iOS has always rendered SMS messages as green — going back to the first version, when the app was named “Text” and its icon had “SMS” in the bubble. The color of SMS messages on iOS was green before iMessage was introduced, and remained green after. And iMessage messages should be visually distinct from SMS — they’re different in important ways, not the least of which is that iMessage is and always has been end-to-end encrypted and SMS isn’t and never will be.
There’s no dot-dot-dot indicator for SMS because the primitive SMS protocol doesn’t support it. Android users sending SMS messages to other Android users don’t get a dot-dot-dot typing indicator either, because it’s not technically possible. Message reactions — hearts, thumbs, ha-has, !!’s, and ?’s — are sent as text via SMS because they have to be. Apple’s only other option would be not to send these reactions at all.
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 own 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.
Higgins paints these features as though they’re the digital equivalent of advertising cigarettes to children with a cartoon mascot. They’re just fun features, and there’s nothing teen-specific about them. I get confetti and balloon iMessage effects from both my mother and mother-in-law, neither of whom have been — or even lived with — teenagers for a while.
There’s nothing teen-specific about iPhone users being annoyed at Android users in group chats. In fact, such complaints might be far more common among adults, because so many teenagers have iPhones they don’t encounter it as often. Last year I linked to a story from Mirin Fader’s Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP that claims former Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd made the entire team run because one player had an Android phone and messed up the team’s group chat. (For what it’s worth, the player in question claims the story isn’t true. It’s the fact that the story resonated that matters.) Here’s a story from October about pro golfer (and well-known oddball) Bryson DeChambeau messing up the U.S. team’s Ryder Cup group chat because he was the lone Android user.
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 — that 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 larger examination of how all tech giants operate. Their core question: Do Apple and other tech companies create products that consumers simply find indispensable, or are they building near-monopolies that unfairly stifle competition?
Putting aside broader antitrust arguments and focusing solely on messaging — the point of the WSJ’s story — it’s ridiculous to argue that Apple is in any way “stifling competition”. The complete opposite is the case: via the App Store and APIs in iOS, there is a rich and vibrant global market for messaging apps on iOS. WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, Line, Signal, and others are all thriving and popular. For teenagers and college students, Discord is huge, and far more of a hangout than iMessage. Also, a little app called WeChat is somewhat popular in China. And they’re all cross-platform.
In fact, these third-party messaging platforms exemplify the gaping hole in the center of the WSJ’s premise: iMessage’s extraordinary popularity in the U.S. is a global outlier. This story created a stir on Twitter over the weekend, and a very common refrain from observers who live outside the U.S. was utter bafflement that iMessage was popular anywhere, because other messaging services are so dominant elsewhere — including with iPhone users. iMessage is obviously only popular where iPhones are popular, but iPhones are popular in countries around the world where iMessage (and SMS) are seldom used.
The U.S. is just different on this front. I like Ben Thompson’s simple theory why, which I’ll
steal paraphrase here. Pre-iMessage, the U.S. was an outlier for SMS, because U.S. carriers made SMS text messages free, or included so many SMS monthly text messages in their plans that they were effectively free. Whereas elsewhere around the world, SMS text messages always cost at least 10 cents a pop — often more — to send, which was a big motivation to find alternative messaging services. The original point of iMessage was to make a better messaging service to replace SMS for messages between iPhone users. Apple asked, “What sucks about SMS/MMS?” and made iMessage to address those shortcomings. So it makes sense that iMessage is most popular here in the U.S., where SMS was (and remains!) widely used, and is less popular in countries where people started moving to alternative messaging platforms before iMessage even existed.
iMessage is just one proprietary Apple nicety among hundreds for iPhone users. Is it a reason to buy and stick with an iPhone? Of course. Is it the reason, or even near the top of the list, for anyone? No.
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.
Apple has never, and I hope will never, use the word “metaverse” in an ostensibly straight-faced manner.
Globally, Alphabet Inc.’s Android operating system is the dominant player among smartphone users, with a loyal following of people who are vocal 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’s most recent survey of consumers.
That there’s a significant difference in iPhone market share between younger and older people has been widely known ever since the iPhone hit the market. Teenagers wanted (and got) iPhones then, and they want (and get) iPhones today.
The crux of Higgins’s report for the WSJ seems to be that this age discrepancy in iPhone market is largely about the color of text messages in the Messages app, and that Apple has created this culture deliberately. What a pile of clickbait horseshit.
Teenagers’ preferences and tastes are different from adults’ across the board. They watch different movies, watch different shows (teenagers watch YouTube videos; adults watch TV), listen to different music, and wear different clothes. This has been the case for everyone alive today when they themselves were teenagers.
A much simpler nutshell explanation is that teenagers have a keener sense of cool, and care more about what’s cool, than adults. And the iPhone always has been and remains today cooler than any Android phone. I don’t think that explains the entire situation very well either — it’s quite a bit dismissive of the fact that teenagers actually use the hell out of their phones and thus are perfectly positioned to want iPhones for the entirely practical and rational reason that they’re better, not just cooler — but it sure as shit is closer to the mark than talking about green vs. blue text bubbles.
If text bubble color was all that mattered, everyone could switch to Android and their SMS messages would all be blue, because most Android phone makers, including Google, have their built-in SMS messaging apps set to render SMS messages as blue, because they’re spooked by the whole green bubbles are lame thing too. It’s silly. In an alternate universe where Apple’s Messages app rendered SMS messages as blue and iMessages as green, the whole thing would be reversed and iPhone users would be looking askance at blue bubbles in their group chats. There’s nothing wrong with green. Green means go. Green is money. Green means success. Neither Mr. Pink nor Mr. Brown would’ve complained if they’d been Mr. Green. And most notably — and I’d say inexplicably — Apple’s own app icon for Messages is green:
The truth is, SMS sucks and iMessage has features SMS never will or could. That opens the door to the whole RCS controversy, of course, but “RCS” never even appears in the WSJ’s article, which is bizarre. It probably should have been the whole thrust of the piece, if they want to argue that there’s something nefarious about iMessage being a proprietary messaging platform that excludes Android users. That was Google exec Hiroshi Lockheimer’s hamfisted take. (If anyone knows how to make a new messaging platform, it’s Google.)
Yet grabbing users so early in life could pay dividends for generations for Apple, already the world’s most valuable publicly traded company. It briefly crossed $3 trillion in market value for the first time on Jan. 3. “These teenagers will continue to become consumers in the future and hopefully continue to buy phones into their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s,” said Harsh Kumar, an analyst for Piper Sandler. The firm recently found that 87% of teens surveyed last year own iPhones.
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that an analyst who’s willing to project which devices today’s teenagers are going to be using 50 years from now is not an analyst you should be quoting.
87 percent of U.S. teens using iPhones, though, that’s interesting. But if you think that number would be significantly different if Apple released a Messages app for Android, or added support for RCS to iOS, you’re nuts.
The clear implication of Higgins’s piece is that teenagers’ decided preference for iPhones is entirely superficial. I posit that it’s anything but. We can argue about the merits of iMessage vs. other top-tier messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram, feature-wise and UI-wise (iMessage “replies” are rather deficient, for example), but there’s no denying that iMessage is leaps and bounds better, more useful, more reliable, more supported on non-phone devices, and profoundly more secure and private than dumb old SMS. But Higgins presents all these differences as things Apple withholds for competitive spite, and that teens are suckers, seduced by a brand, for caring about them.
What, pray tell, should Apple do or have already done differently?
Develop and support an iMessage client for Android? I’m unsurprised that Apple has seriously considered this — and when a rumor dropped in June 2016 that Apple was going to announce iMessage for Android at WWDC that year, I thought it plausible. I’m also completely unsurprised that they ultimately decided against it. iMessage isn’t a standalone service — it’s a part of iCloud, and has hooks into features built into iOS and MacOS. iMessage is a competitive advantage — not just for iPhones, but for iPads and Macs too.
Support RCS? Maybe Apple will! But I can see why they probably won’t, and also why they have remained silent on the question of whether they have any interest in supporting it. Why support a less secure, less featureful protocol than iMessage? Why support a new protocol from phone carriers? We don’t use messaging services from our cable and fiber internet providers — why should we use a messaging service tied to our cell phone providers?
Teenagers are not mindless Apple zealots. The popularity of Nintendo’s Switch, Sony’s PlayStation, Microsoft’s Xbox, and especially gaming PCs running Windows is proof otherwise. Higgins has the whole thing backwards. People — including teenagers — don’t buy iPhones because iMessage is cool or good. People use iMessage because iPhones are cool and good.