The iMessage Halo Effect

Pazu catches Sheeta as she floats down from the sky in the 1986 movie Castle in the Sky, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The recent Beeper controversy briefly brought the “blue bubbles vs. green bubbles” topic back into the mainstream. Here’s a brief review for those of you who are (blessedly) unaware of this issue. Messages sent using the iMessage service appear in blue text bubbles within the Messages app. Messages sent using something other than the iMessage service (e.g., SMS, or (soon) RCS) appear in green text bubbles.

The iMessage service and the Messages app are only available on Apple devices. This is usually presented as a competitive advantage for the iPhone. If you want to use the iMessage service, the only (legitimate) way to do so is to buy an Apple device. If Apple were to make iMessage available on non-Apple platforms, that would remove one reason to buy an iPhone—or so the argument goes.

I think this popular conception of the issue is slightly wrong—or right for a different reason, at least. The iMessage service is not so good that it makes the iPhone more attractive to customers. It’s the iPhone that makes iMessage attractive. The iPhone gives iMessage its cachet, not the other way around.

This truth is plainly evident at the core of the “blue bubbles vs. green bubbles” debate. One of the biggest reasons green bubbles are looked down upon is that they indicate that the recipient doesn’t have an iPhone. iPhones are expensive, fancy, and desirable. Blue bubbles put the sender into the “in” crowd of iPhone owners.

The iMessage service itself, when considered in isolation, has considerably less draw. Here’s an assessment from 2013 from within Apple, as revealed during the recent Epic trial by internal emails discussing the idea of making iMessage work on non-Apple devices.

Eddy Cue: We have the best messaging app and we should make it the industry standard. […]

Craig Federighi: Do you have any thoughts on how we would make switching to iMessage (from WhatsApp) compelling to masses of Android users who don’t have a bunch of iOS friends? iMessage is a nice app/service, but to get users to switch social networks we’d need more than a marginally better app.

While I appreciate Eddy’s enthusiasm, I think Craig is closer to the mark: if iMessage is better than its competitors at all—and this is highly debatable—it is only marginally so.

Those Apple emails were written more than a decade ago. In the years since, iMessage has improved, but so has the competition. Today, it still feels like the iPhone is carrying iMessage. Anecdotally, both my teenage children have iPhones, but their group chats with their friends take place in WhatsApp.

Apple has almost certainly missed the most advantageous window of time to make iMessage “the industry standard” messaging service. But as the old saying goes, the best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago, and the second-best time is now. Apple has little to lose by expanding iMessage to other platforms, and there still may be something to be gained (even if it’s just making mixed Android/iPhone conversations in Messages a bit more smooth).