After years of refusing to turn on iMessage — even when I’m using an iPhone — I have flipped that little toggle button to on, and I don’t know when (or if) I’ll ever be able to turn it off again.
The decision to use iMessage is super minor for the vast majority of people, especially in America where Apple’s messaging service has its strongest base of usage. But for me, it’s extremely consequential and sadly informative about the state of messaging in this country.
My decision to flip on iMessage (and deal with the effects of that action, which I will get to) wasn’t because of blue-bubble social pressure; that somehow turning on iMessage would subtly make it more likely that my own family talks to me more. It wasn’t because iMessage is a better product than other chat apps — although it very much is from a regular user perspective. And it wasn’t that I love Animoji.
It’s simply this: I have come to believe that using a secure chat app is increasingly a moral imperative, and I have failed utterly and completely to convince enough people in my social network to switch to a third party, end-to-end encrypted chat app. Since I can’t get my network to use something else, I owe it to them to use the thing they can’t switch away from.
For the past few years, I’ve left iMessage off to make it easier for me to bounce between iPhones and Android phones. I review phones for a living, and so I need to switch phones a lot and prefer not to carry two of them around. Although Apple has made it slightly easier to turn iMessage off, there are still a ton of hassles involved. For me, it was better to just never use it and therefore never feel locked into Apple’s ecosystem.
When I finally weighed the annoyance of carrying two phones against the worry that my contacts weren’t using a private and secure chat method with me, privacy and security won.
More than anything else, this is my personal indictment against Google for utterly failing to come up with a viable alternative to iMessage for Android users. Yes, there are many successful chat apps used around the world on Android. But, again, in the US the chat app with the strongest network effect is iMessage.
Name a messaging app, and I have used it and tried to get my friends and family to try it. Most will gamely give it a shot, but most people on iPhones don’t want to deal with a folder of chat apps and remembering which contact uses which app. They just want to tap the icon that says “Messages” and send messages.
And I have to admit that iMessage is great. It works seamlessly across multiple Apple devices, including the Apple Watch. It’s fast, reliable, extensible, secure, and simple. It is everything that Google could have had if it hadn’t frittered GChat away into Hangouts and then into I don’t even know what. It’s maddening because as big as the network effect for iMessage in the US may be, it is nothing compared to the potential network effect of Android, which has over 80 percent of the global smartphone market.
But Google isn’t trying to leverage that market power — in fact, it seems like it is afraid to do so. Instead, it has chosen to act as though that power isn’t real, perhaps in order to avoid even more antitrust scrutiny. It’s a reasonable thing to be worried about, but it still sucks. Instead, Google is letting the phone carriers drive, with all-too-predictable consumer-hostile results.
Just over a year ago, Google revealed its plan for messaging to me: it was going all-in on RCS, the next-generation protocol designed to replace SMS. The rollout of RCS has been slow — very few people have actually seen the word “text” turn to “chat” in their messaging app, which is the subtle indication that the conversation is now happening over RCS. It happens not just carrier by carrier, but phone by phone.
What’s worse: RCS is not end-to-end encrypted. It follows the same rules as standard SMS text messages. Providers can keep copies in their servers, fully readable by anybody with access to them, fully available to any government that successfully issues a subpoena.
Google has, in effect, ceded the entire market after years of self-inflicted failures in messaging. This year, at Google I/O, the head of Google’s communications group Hiroshi Lockheimer admitted that he was dissatisfied with the pace of adoption for RCS. He also suggested that it would be possible to layer end-to-end encryption on top of RCS at some point in the future.
Unfortunately for Android users, broader adoption of RCS and the glimmer of hope that it might be secure by default someday are both in the hands of the carriers. Those carriers have other priorities vying for their attention: mergers, 5G, and television services to name but three.
As the cliche goes, I don’t think I have anything to hide from any government (though, as a journalist, I suspect that’s not entirely true). But as the cliched response goes: that’s not the point. Everybody deserves and should expect a basic level of privacy protections, and end-to-end encrypted chat should be the rule, not the exception. Privacy isn’t just for people savvy enough use the right app or flip the right button.
It should be simple. It should be easy. It should be the default. That, if nothing else, is the genius of iMessage. I hate the lock-in. I hate that it co-opts text messaging in such a way that invisibly opts Apple users in without their active choice. I hate that it’s only available on Apple products. But I love that iMessage makes it easy for my friends and family to have a default-secure way to text me. That is why I switched.
My preferred texting app is Signal, but the barrier to get iPhone users in the US to switch is still too high. Which is a remarkable thing to say, because I don’t know how it could get much lower: you install a free app and you plug in your phone number. Done and done.
I don’t think I could argue from a legal perspective that iMessage counts as some kind of monopolistic lock-in, but from an everyday perspective it certainly feels like one. It is the power of the default, and if you wanted to draw parallels to concerns about the default browser on Windows in the ‘90s or on Android phones in the EU today, I wouldn’t strenuously argue against you.
As for me, I have committed to having an iPhone in my pocket for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean I won’t also have an Android phone in another pocket (I usually will). I’m privileged to be able to make that choice, but there are millions of people who — for whatever reason — cannot switch from Android to iPhone. That’s why I have argued that although there isn’t a business case for bringing iMessage to Android, there is a moral one.
Three years ago, my friend Lauren Goode wrote about her inability to switch away from the iPhone, calling iMessage the glue that kept her stuck. For me, the appropriate metaphor isn’t glue but rather gravity: I got pulled back down to it.