Android Intelligence Analysis

The cold, bitter truth about the Android-iOS messaging mess

Google's getting all worked over the way Apple handles messages from Android users, but the reality of the situation isn't quite as black and white as it seems.

Android iOS Messaging
Google/Apple/JR Raphael

My goodness, my fellow Google-observers: We've got quite the bit of virtual geek theater playing out in front of our googly eyes right now.

Have you caught wind of this whole debacle yet? Following a report in The Wall Street Journal that cited the "dreaded green text bubble" as the core reason for The Youths™ supposedly veering toward iPhones over Android devices these days, Google's chief Android exec fired off a feisty series of tweets attacking Apple over its refusal to support contemporary cross-platform messaging standards.

Whew! That's an awful lot of mush-mouthed gobbledegook to decipher, I realize. Let me break it down into super-simple terms (and if you're already up to speed on all this stuff, feel free to skip over this bulleted list and hop down beneath it like the happy little bunny you are):

  • Apple's iPhones come with an app called iMessage, which is roughly comparable to the old (and hilariously named) BBM messaging service from BlackBerry back in the day.
  • Just like BBM, iMessage is completely proprietary. In this case, that means you can use it on an iPhone or a Mac — and that's it.
  • iMessage has its own closed-off network that allows you to chat with other iPhone owners in a modern messaging environment, similar to what you'd get in Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, Google Chat, or any other such service. The main differences are just that (a) it comes preloaded on iPhones by default, so most iPhone users in the U.S. tend to use it automatically, and (b) unlike virtually every other modern messaging service, it's deliberately locked down to the Apple universe and unavailable to anyone on any other type of device.
  • When you message with any non-Apple users from within iMessage — as in, us lowly Android-preferring land organisms — Apple's software falls back to SMS, a text-centric messaging standard that dates back to the mid-80s and was absolutely not designed with modern messaging uses in mind.
  • SMS doesn't offer table-stakes contemporary messaging features like built-in encryption, active typing indicators, or the ability to send high-quality images and videos in a message. It was designed in the 80s, for cryin' out loud. Our current-day technology didn't exist back then, and no one was using messaging at the level we use it now (Neanderthals!).
  • Not exactly optimal, right? And Apple adds insult to injury by tacking a prominent green background onto the message of anyone who's using an Android phone — that "dreaded green text bubble" we were talking about a minute ago — thus emphasizing the difference, creating a fascinating sort of manufactured stigma, and maintaining the perception among iFolk that their messaging experience is subpar with said humans because and only because such lowlife dare to use a non-Apple-blessed Android device (gasp — THE AUDACITY!).

Got all that? Good. Now, here's the reality of this mess — from two very different and somewhat at-odds perspectives.

Part 1: Yes, it's Apple's fault

No way around it: Apple absolutely could and should do better with this. For all of the company's pretentious blathering about how it cares so deeply about its users' privacy, how it works so hard to provide a polished and often even magical experience, and — of course — how all of its stuff "just works," locking down its modern messaging platform to its own ecosystem is a 100% self-serving move that flies directly in the face of everything it preaches.

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More than anything, iPhone owners are the ones who suffer from this silly stubbornness. I mean, think about it:

  • It's the iPhone owners who end up having a broken, inconsistent-feeling messaging experience as a result of Apple's self-serving stance.
  • It's the iPhone owners who end up having unencrypted, not optimally private and secure messages with all of the Android-owning Homo sapiens they encounter in their work and personal lives — again, because of Apple's completely self-serving decisions.
  • It's the iPhone users who have to worry about their group chats being "ruined" by someone who's messaging from any non-Apple-made type of product.
  • And it's the iPhone owners who end up dealing with all of the silly "green bubble" frustration. We over here on the Android side of things are none the wiser.

Most vexing of all here is the fact that, as Google's Android head honcho noted in his kindness-cloaked Twitter tirade, the solution is simple. Apple doesn't have to open up its closed messaging garden and make iMessage available to the masses. That wouldn't even be a good answer, really, as it'd improve things only if everyone opted to use that single limited service (and dare I say, lots of us over on the Android side of this fence would politely decline such an offer, anyway).

The real answer is in the form of something called RCS, or Rich Communication Services. That's a next-gen universal messaging standard that's essentially a modern-day replacement for the almost laughably antiquated SMS. It does all the same stuff SMS does, but it has a contemporary foundation that allows for more advanced messaging features amidst that — end-to-end encryption, for instance, along with active-typing and read-message indicators, better group chats, and support for high-quality images and videos.

It isn't a closed messaging network, nor is it a Google-specific effort. It's a standard created by a group of industry partners, and just like the SMS standard it's designed to replace, it can be implemented anywhere.

All Apple has to do is bring RCS into iMessage and use it as the fallback for any conversations that aren't taking place between two iPhone owners. All the iPhone-specific stuff could stay exactly as it is now. The only difference would be that when an iPhone user texts with someone on Android, instead of dumbing things down to the godawful 80s-era-technology level, the service would switch them over to RCS — which would provide a much better messaging experience for everyone, including the folks on the Apple side of the equation.

It's just like how iMessage relies on SMS for that same manner of communication now, only it'd be relying on the current, updated universal standard that's superior to SMS in every possible way.

And don't let yourself be fooled: The only reason Apple doesn't do that is because it'd harm its most powerful advantage in keeping people locked into the iOS ecosystem and making it difficult for them to switch away. Apple itself has effectively said as much, albeit in conversations that weren't intended for public consumption.

So, yes: This current mess is undeniably Apple's fault. Apple is prioritizing its own business interests at the direct expense of its users' experience. That's incredibly lame, and it absolutely sucks.

But it's also only half the story.

Part 2: Yes, it's Google's fault

While the current clunky incompatibility of messaging between Android and iOS devices is most certainly due to Apple's self-serving stubbornness, the reason we're in this mess to begin with is the fault of one company and one company only.

Can you guess who it is?

Yep: It's Google.

Allow me to remind you: Google once had a universal, cross-platform messaging service that was widely adopted and available everywhere. It combined modern messaging features with the best-available (at that time) SMS standard as a fallback.

It was like iMessage, in other words — except unlike Apple's offering, it wasn't locked-down and restricted only for use on Google's own platforms or devices. It was available anywhere. It was even built into Gmail. Practically everyone seemed to be on it. Google had the advantage.

The service I'm talking about, of course, is none other than Hangouts — Google's once-prominent messaging platform and the evolution of its original ubiquitous Google Talk service. Hangouts, just like iMessage for the iPhone, came preinstalled on all Android devices and acted as the default and de facto messaging app standard across all of the ecosystem. But you could also access it on iOS, on the web, and from more or less anywhere else imaginable.

Hangouts was explicitly designed to become "the single communication app" for "users to rely on," as an executive famously put it in 2013. And it did an admirable job of accomplishing that goal. It became a single service that did it all — with encryption, even, all the way back in 2013! — and it was already available almost everywhere.

And then — well, you know, right? Google Googled. The company eventually saw something shiny, got distracted, and darted off in a different direction, just like the easily distractible squirrel that it is. It abandoned its efforts on Hangouts, launched about a zillion other confusingly overlapping messaging services, abandoned roughly half of 'em almost immediately thereafter, and left everyone in a perpetually perplexed state about what the hell was going on and what app or service they were supposed to be using at any given moment.

And, who woulda thunk, having no consistent and clear strategy for a messaging standard on Android led to a lack of any obvious messaging standard on Android.

As my favorite writer of all time put it back in 2016:

Instead of creating a single fantastic app that serves as a standard on its platforms — and then evolving and improving that app over time — Google just keeps tossing out new apps and platforms time and time again. ...

Google almost certainly has a strategy for its chaotic and disjointed approach to messaging, but any such plan appears to favor broad corporate objectives at the expense of optimal user experience. And that's the real problem: Google's messaging strategy no longer aligns with what's best for its users, especially those on its own mobile platform.

Sound familiar? It should.

And there you have it: Apple may be to blame for refusing to support the current cross-platform messaging standard and gleefully locking users into its own self-serving metaphorical chicken coop, but Google is 100% to blame for allowing things to have reached this point in the first place — and for making its recent commitment to RCS, admirable and well-founded as it may be, feel like an instance of too little, too late.

Plain and simple, it's a mess. And while it's tempting to point the finger solely at Apple for being a pain-in-the-arse holdout on a more connected, compatible future — and to rightfully note that Apple is putting its own bottom line ahead of its users' best interests — the truth is that Google shoulders just as much of the blame for failing to stick with a single sensible messaging strategy over all these years and thus allowing things to devolve into this current muddled mess.

'Twas a time when Google was seen as the universal messaging leader and when Apple was afraid of Google's dominance in the realm of mobile messaging. Google flubbed that up — badly — and proceeded to flail around so much that (a) the goal of giving Android a true de facto messaging standard grew more and more difficult with every passing about-face that got announced and (b) it became virtually impossible to take anything the company said about a "vision" for the future of messaging seriously, because history strongly suggested that each new vision would be abandoned and forgotten within a matter of months.

Google got us here, and Apple's now basking in its advantage and doing everything it can to keep us here. It's everyone's mess. And the trickiest part of all is that at this point, it's tough to see any obvious way out.

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