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iMessages on Android: Present victory, future challenges

THE WASHINGTON POST – There is a messaging mess in America right now.

We collectively sent more than 2 trillion SMS (or text) and MMS (or media) messages last year, according to CTIA, a trade organisation that represents the US wireless industry. Texting clearly isn’t going anywhere. And yet, the experience of texting between iPhones and Android devices can feel downright ancient.

That’s going to change in time, but for now, it’s no wonder that some people have been cheering on recent efforts to make Apple’s popular iMessage service available to Android users, too. But after a week that included a long-awaited app launch, a tough response from Apple and a fight to rebuild, the push to bring iMessage to Android feels just as fraught as ever.

Here’s what happened.


The story so far

DIY iMessage-on-Android workarounds are nothing new, but the movement got a boost last month – UK phone maker Nothing and a start-up called Sunbird released an app that let owners of a niche Android phone easily send and receive iMessages.

The party didn’t last long, though: After launching a beta version of the Nothing Chats app in late November, the app was withdrawn from the Google Play Store because of concerns over how the service handled user data.

Fast-forward to last Tuesday, when a company called Beeper launched its own app – Beeper Mini – to bring iMessage to Android. The twist? Anyone with an Android phone could use it. All you had to do was download it from the Google Play Store, something Beeper says happened more than 100,000 times.

It was by many accounts a more elegant, more responsible way to send iMessages from an Android device. You didn’t even need to fork over your Apple ID – iMessages sent from Beeper Mini originated from your phone number, so recipients would see them in the same text threads as your older conversations.

Then, just a few days later, Apple shut it down. A statement released Saturday gets into why:

“At Apple, we build our products and services with industry-leading privacy and security technologies designed to give users control of their data and keep personal information safe.

“We took steps to protect our users by blocking techniques that exploit fake credentials to gain access to iMessage.

“These techniques posed significant risks to user security and privacy, including the potential for metadata exposure and enabling unwanted messages, spam, and phishing attacks. We will continue to make updates in the future to protect our users.”

(It probably didn’t help that Beeper wanted people to pay for its iMessage workaround – the plan was to charge users USD1.99/month after a free, seven-day trial.)

Notably, the end of Apple’s statement seems to suggest that workarounds like this just aren’t going to fly. Beeper, unsurprisingly, thinks this says more about Apple’s stance on competition than the state of our digital security.

“Make no mistake, the changes Apple made on Friday were designed to protect the lock-in effect of iMessage,” Beeper co-founders Eric Migicovsky and Brad Murray wrote Monday.

Their argument: Apple customers are actually less secure now, because the standard text messages shared between iPhones and Android aren’t encrypted the way iMessages sent from Beeper are.

That Apple moved to cut off Beeper Mini isn’t really a surprise, but it comes amid a time of heightened scrutiny around one of its most important services.

The European Commission continues to wonder whether iMessage is a prominent enough service to require regulation under the EU’s Digital Markets Act, which was designed in part to break down some of the walls between big platforms.

And if Apple had hoped to fly under the radar with regulators, the plan didn’t work. On Sunday, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) said on X, formerly Twitter, that “chatting between different platforms should be easy and secure.”

“Green bubble texts are less secure,” she wrote. “So why would Apple block a new app allowing Android users to chat with iPhone users on iMessage? Big Tech executives are protecting profits by squashing competitors.”

A day later, Sen Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) also weighed in on X, saying that Apple is blocking an app “that increases choice and convenience.”

“We must pass my bipartisan legislation to stop this anticompetitive abuse,” she added.


Where do we go from here?

On Monday, this story took a surprising turn. After a bit of bedlam, Beeper Mini was fixed.

As of this writing, the service remains more-or-less functional. If you’re curious, you can install it right now, sign in with your Apple ID and start sending iMessages from an Android device. (For now, while the service’s future is up in the air, the Beeper team has suspended that subscription fee.)

There are, however, some lingering caveats to keep in mind. The app doesn’t pull in text messages you receive normally, so it’s basically only for communicating with your iPhone pals. And iMessages are now sent from the email address tied to your Apple ID rather than your phone number. Some people aren’t a fan of this, but overall, the system works.

The bigger question: How long will Beeper, or any other company trying to bust through the walls around iMessage, keep at this cat-and-mouse game?

For its part, Beeper’s co-founders said they would be open to proving the service’s security by sharing all of its code with an independent auditor – one chosen by them, and Apple. (Apple didn’t respond when asked whether it was open to this plan.) But some industry observers don’t feel very optimistic about their chances.

“I think Beeper is probably going to struggle to survive,” said Anshel Sag, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, who wonders whether the company can continue to “successfully evade Apple.”

Okay, what about a more systemic approach? There’s been a lot of speculation about the EU stepping in, but some are sceptical that using regulation to force iMessage open is the right (or likely) move.

“Platform lock-in is really fixed by better service elsewhere [in my opinion], not necessarily regulators forcing a platform to open up,” said Carolina Milanesi, president and principal analyst at Creative Strategies.

“Of course, regulators could certainly force companies to open up their platforms, assuming they can come up with a legislative rationale for doing so,” said Avi Greengart, president of the research firm Techsponential. “But unless the legislation allows the platform owners a fair amount of control, they would be introducing privacy and security problems.”

With lawmakers still contemplating, and Apple patching up blind spots, it seems like the walls around iMessage aren’t going anywhere just yet. Our advice? If you’ve used and enjoyed any of these iMessage tools on your Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel – or if you’re just keen to try them out – cherish them while they last.