Analyst Ben Bajarin recently talked to a teenage boy at his daughters’ school who had defected from an Android phone to iPhone because of “iMessage lock-in.” The boy said he was tired of being shut out of iMessage group chats because messages from his Android phone were showing up as green bubbles and his iPhone-using pals, whose messages appear in blue bubbles, didn’t like it.
Bajarin has teenage daughters, and he’s involved in their school, so he’s positioned to know. “Kids will have a group chat just for that class with their friends to talk about homework, projects, etc.,” he tweeted. “Specifically, he was being left out of group chats because he was on Android and turned the thread green.”
When I asked him why he made the jump, he sounded a bit remorse. It all came down to being left out of group chats. His quote verbatim, "we would start a new group chat, and the group would realize I was the reason it was green, and they would start another group chat without me
— Ben Bajarin (@BenBajarin) August 15, 2019
The notion that iPhone lovers turn up their nose when they see green bubbles has been around for a long time: Here, for instance, is Techdirt’s Mike Masnick talking about it way back in 2015. But the ongoing power of iMessage as a way for Apple to lock users into its platform remains remarkable. (Bajarin’s tweet on the subject drew crowds of commenters and more than 2.3 million impressions.) Android users may feel shunned from conversations. And group chatters with iPhones may feel wed to their Apple devices, fearing they too might be looked down upon if they became an Android green bubble.
But it’s more than that. As one thread commenter explained, a green-bubble participant in a chat otherwise made up of iPhone users dumbs down the experience for everyone else:
The thing is, green chats are super fricken annoying since you can’t remove people, you can’t leave the chat, and a bunch of things don’t work the same or as well (images, videos, liking messages etc.)
— Ezekiel (@superezfe) August 16, 2019
There’s a technical explanation for this. Android’s messaging app uses plain old SMS (Short Message Service), the venerable standard for text messages that get transmitted over a phone’s cellular connection. Apple’s Messages app is compatible with SMS (and identifies SMS messages with the dreaded green bubble), but it’s really built around Apple’s proprietary iMessage protocol, which runs over an internet connection. That allows for a lot more functionality.
In theory, iPhone users might be irritated by iMessage’s proprietary nature. But iMessage lock-in is a Google problem, not an Apple one, and has been for a long time.
Bajarin says there’s “a huge lingering question as to why Google has not cracked messaging with a service that is as good as iMessage or WhatsApp . . . I’d love to see Google get more aggressive here, since messaging is a critical part of the smartphone experience.”
Last year, The Verge’s Dieter Bohn reported that Google has been working with cellular providers to usher in Rich Communication Service (RCS), an SMS replacement with all the bells and whistles of modern internet-based messaging apps. Something, in other words, a lot more like iMessage.
If a future version of Apple’s Messages app supports RCS, it could eliminate the messaging class system. In the meantime, Apple surely wouldn’t mind if more people like Ben’s Android-enthusiast teenage friend switched over to iPhones because of iMessage. Bajarin:
While I have zero evidence of this, I’d wager a strong bet the group at Apple who designed this did extensive research on the most off-putting color of green in existence and chose that for the green bubble color. There is some psychology at play here for sure, and that was brilliant by Apple’s iMessage team.
But, as Fast Company’s Michael Grothaus points out, that bad experience might cause some chat groups to move to other platforms entirely, like Facebook’s WhatsApp or Messenger, to accommodate the Android user in the group. That would take those people out of the Apple ecosystem, Grothaus says. Better, he argues, for Apple to offer its iMessage as an app for Android, and charge $4.99 annually for it.
The iMessage lock-in phenomenon is mainly a U.S. and U.K. thing. Outside those markets, iPhones aren’t as ubiquitous. In the rest of the world, people use a wider diversity of messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, that are fully cross-platform.
Even though iMessage lock-in isn’t really Apple’s fault from a technical standpoint, the fact that kids are being shut out of conversations with peers because of a technology disconnect is troubling. Teenagers have have enough trouble fitting in and getting along. Maybe there are some things the smart people developing iMessage could do to make the experience of Android users a little easier. Even if it only involves changing those bubbles to a less distasteful shade of green.