For years, the idea of Apple’s iMessage messaging service coming to Android has felt like an impossible dream.
Tech writers—myself included—have made all kinds of arguments for why Apple’s chat app shouldn’t be exclusive to iOS and Mac. We’ve made the business case, the marketing case, the moral case, and even the emotional case. So far, it’s all been in vain. For Apple, iMessage has been too strategically important for keeping people locked into the company’s ecosystem. Apple executives have even acknowledged this in their own internal communications.
And yet, the case for iMessage on Android is stronger now than it’s ever been. Bringing the chat service to other platforms would both cement Apple’s position as a privacy leader and relieve some antitrust pressure on the company. And at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote this week, Apple—intentionally or not—quietly laid out a blueprint for how it could happen.
Available everywhere, better with Apple
What got me thinking about iMessage again was Apple’s announcement of FaceTime for the web. When it launches later this year, the FaceTime web app will allow iOS and Mac users to chat via FaceTime with Windows and Android users for the first time.
The web version will have lots of caveats, though. As CNBC reports, Windows and Android users won’t be able to initiate FaceTime calls. Instead, they’ll have to join a web link generated by an Apple device user. They also won’t be able to use SharePlay, a forthcoming iOS 15 feature for bringing content from other apps into the video chat. It’s likely that other iOS 15-specific features, such as Voice Isolation for reducing background noise and Spatial Audio for placing speakers in a 3D space, won’t be available through the web app either.
The implicit message is while Android and Windows users won’t be left out of FaceTime calls, you’ll still need an Apple device for the best possible experience. It’s easy to imagine iMessage following a similar playbook.
Apple could, for instance, launch a bare-bones version of iMessage for Android with features like 25-person group texts, full-quality images, reactions, and end-to-end encryption. That way, iPhone users wouldn’t suffer a degraded experience while texting with Android users.
But for the full experience, you’d still need an iPhone. In iOS 15, for instance, Apple will automatically indicate when you’re texting someone who’s enabled the new Focus mode that silences their notifications. Another feature called Shared with You will pull content from iMessage conversations into Apple’s other apps. (The best example: TV shows you share via iMessage can show up in a row inside Apple’s TV app.)
Those features rely on iOS to function; a version of iMessage for Android would have to exclude them. The result would be a passable experience for Android users, but a better one for iPhone owners.
Times have changed
Why would Apple go through all this trouble when the benefits the company gets from iMessage exclusivity are so obvious?
One reason might be to ward off government scrutiny. In April, Epic Games disclosed Apple’s internal discussions of iMessage from 2013 as part of an antitrust lawsuit against the company. In those discussions, Apple executives Craig Federighi and Phil Schiller argued against bringing iMessage to Android because it would remove an obstacle to people using the platform instead of iOS. Epic argued that those kinds of barriers effectively keep people from switching platforms, even when they really want an Android phone on which to play Fortnite.
Regardless of whether Apple wins that case, it may still have to reckon with Congress over its role in distributing software. A version of iMessage for Android might show that users are less locked into iOS—and, by extension, the App Store—than they used to be. (See also: Apple’s recent launch of an iCloud to Google Photos export tool.)
As my colleague Michael Grothaus argued a couple of years ago, an Android version could also represent a new revenue opportunity for Apple. The company could charge a subscription fee for access, or it could further entice people to join its ecosystem by bundling iMessage with other services such as Apple Music, which is available on Android already. And by building new iMessage features like Shared with You that depend on iOS, Apple may convince some Android users that they should just get an iPhone after all.
Besides, Apple has come up with other ways of differentiating its platforms. It offers more privacy protections than Android by making apps get opt-in permission to track you—though Google is in the process of playing catch-up—and every year it layers on new benefits of using multiple Apple products in tandem. (The most impressive example from WWDC: Universal Control, which lets you use a single pointing device and keyboard across multiple iPads and Macs at the same time.)
iMessage may have been a useful form of lock-in a decade ago, when iOS and Android were playing leapfrog over basic features such as multitasking and notification support, but times have changed. Most people are sticking with one smartphone platform anyway, and Apple’s growth strategy now revolves around selling new products and services to customers it already has.
As Apple keeps building out those benefits, it won’t have to rely on iMessage as a brute-force means of maintaining an edge on Android. Instead, the company may realize that it can bring iMessage to Android in a way that makes everyone reasonably happy.
Either way, though, my money’s on the company keeping the green Android bubbles in place.