According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, Apple’s iMessage colour coding locks you in. And furthemore iMessage plays a pivotal role in teens buying and using iPhones with over 70% of US teens using an iPhone. Messages sent to a non-iPhone user display with a green bubble, a clear indicator that the recipient doesn’t have an iPhone. By contrast, messages sent to fellow iPhone users are displayed in blue. But why does this matter? Well according to the report this colour coding creates a sort of ‘social pressure’.

Without even reading the contents of the report, I can say from my personal experience that the colour coding although subtle, does influence how I feel when I’m sending a message. If I see the green bubble, my eyes instantly roll at the ‘inconvenience’. I realise typing that how ridiculous it sounds but my puny human brain has been wired to respond to fitting in. Even though I love spending time alone and often prefer my own company, I can’t fight evolution. Being part of a group and a feeling of belonging has enabled the survival of our species. That Apple’s subtle design choices in a text messaging app can trigger this evolutionary response is pretty remarkable. And a little bit scary.

I’d like to say that this design choice was unintentional. But as revealed in documents during the Epic Games trial, I think this was very much a planned and well-executed choice by Apple.

“In the absence of a strategy to become the primary messaging service for the bulk of cell phone users, I am concerned that iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove an obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones,”

Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of Software

Now in all fairness to Apple, customers aren’t locked into using iMessage. There are plenty of successful third party messaging services on the iPhone that are cross-platform. WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Viber to name but a few. And it isn’t against the law to make design choices such as a particular colour palette. So I don’t buy the spiel that iMessage is anticompetitive. There isn’t anything stopping iPhone users from texting Android users inside of iMessage. Certain features won’t work such as emoji reactions via ‘tap back’ and you won’t be able to get read receipts for messages sent to Android users. But that’s not Apple’s fault. That’s a limitation of SMS. This isn’t to say that Apple isn’t pulling out all the stops to keep you locked into the Apple ecosystem. To be clear they absolutely are. But to say there aren’t viable alternatives is plainly untrue.

There is an emerging alternative to SMS called ‘RCS’ that offers many of the benefits of iMessage such as end to end encryption, read receipts, typing indicators and so forth. Apple, as it stands, hasn’t adopted the standard and according to Google, this is a deliberate choice by Apple. “There are no real technical or product reasons for this issue,”

“The solutions already exist and we encourage Apple to join with the rest of the mobile industry in implementing them. We believe people should have the ability to connect with each other without artificial limits. It simply doesn’t have to be like this.”

Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google senior vice president of platforms and ecosystems.

Google and no doubt others want RCS to replace SMS. There are of course some problems with that. As with an iMessage, an internet connection is required for RCS messaging. In many parts of the world, developed or not, often an internet connection is not available. SMS then has to become the fall back which is what happens when an iPhone user has a signal but a weak data connection. While Google would be the sole beneficiary of Apple implementing RCS on iPhone, Apple would likely continue to display non-iPhone messages in green. And so I don’t think it would supplant iMessage in perhaps the way Google might hope. But it would be a better experience when texting an Android user for iPhone customers. But it’s up to Apple to decide what features it wants to support.

Apple enjoys fierce loyalty, that much we already know. But what this report does highlight is how even after switching, Apple has a hold over its user base. In an interview with a college student, Adele Lowitz told the Wall Street Journal that she felt excluded in a group message after she started using an Android phone for a research program. “In my circle at college, and in high school rolling over into college, most people have iPhones and utilize a lot of those kinds of iPhone-specific features,”.

Lowtiz had to use an Android device as part of a paid research study, but was quick to return to iPhone soon after. “There’s too much within the Apple network for me to switch,” she said. A friend was reportedly relieved that she was “Blue again” in her return.

The Wall Street Journal

The report further outlines that even on the dating scene iMessage plays a role in how people perceive potential matches. Receiving a green message back from a date was enough to elicit a negative reaction.

In my view, I see the argument that iMessage’s design creates ‘in-group/out-group’ dynamics. But Apple is free to make whatever design choices it wants. And claiming that green vs blue is anti-competitive behaviour is a pretty weak argument. Especially given the countless options users have on iPhone to message their Android friends. But what do you think? Let me know in the comments.


Featured Image: Alexander Shatov via Unsplash

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