Google failed to compete with iMessage for years. Now it wants Apple to play nice.
Google took to Twitter this weekend to complain that iMessage is just too darn influential with today’s kids. The company was responding to a Wall Street Journal report detailing the lock-in and social pressure Apple’s walled garden is creating among US teens. iMessage brands texts from iPhone users with a blue background and gives them additional features, while texts from Android phones are shown in green and only have the base SMS feature set. According to the article, „Teens and college students said they dread the ostracism that comes with a green text. The social pressure is palpable, with some reporting being ostracized or singled out after switching away from iPhones.“ Google feels this is a problem.
„iMessage should not benefit from bullying,“ the official Android Twitter account wrote. „Texting should bring us together, and the solution exists. Let’s fix this as one industry.“ Google SVP Hiroshi Lockheimer chimed in, too, saying, „Apple’s iMessage lock-in is a documented strategy. Using peer pressure and bullying as a way to sell products is disingenuous for a company that has humanity and equity as a core part of its marketing. The standards exist today to fix this.“
The „solution“ Google is pushing here is RCS, or Rich Communication Services, a GSMA standard from 2008 that has slowly gained traction as an upgrade to SMS. RCS adds typing indicators, user presence, and better image sharing to carrier messaging. It is a 14-year-old carrier standard, though, so it lacks many of the features you would want from a modern messaging service, like end-to-end encryption and support for non-phone devices. Google tries to band-aid over the aging standard with its „Google Messaging“ client, but the result is a lot of clunky solutions that don’t add up to a good modern messaging service.
Since RCS replaces SMS, Google has been on a campaign to get the industry to make the upgrade. After years of protesting, the US carriers are all onboard, and there is some uptake among the international carriers, too. The biggest holdout is Apple, which only supports SMS through iMessage.
Apple hasn’t ever publicly shot down the idea of adding RCS to iMessage, but thanks to documents revealed in the Epic v. Apple case, we know the company views iMessage lock-in as a valuable weapon. Bringing RCS to iMessage and making communication easier with Android users would only help to weaken Apple’s walled garden, and the company has said it doesn’t want that.
In the US, iPhones are more popular with young adults than ever. As The Wall Street Journal notes, „Among US consumers, 40% use iPhones, but among those aged 18 to 24, more than 70% are iPhone users.“ It credits Apple’s lock-in with apps like iMessage for this success.
Reaping what you sow
Google clearly views iMessage’s popularity as a problem, and the company is hoping this public-shaming campaign will get Apple to change its mind on RCS. But Google giving other companies advice on a messaging strategy is a laughable idea since Google probably has the least credibility of any tech company when it comes to messaging services. If the company really wants to do something about iMessage, it should try competing with it.
As we recently detailed in a 25,000-word article, Google’s messaging history is one of constant product startups and shutdowns. Thanks to a lack of product focus or any kind of top-down mandate from Google’s CEO, no division is really „in charge“ of messaging. As a consequence, the company has released 13 half-hearted messaging products since iMessage launched in 2011. If Google wants to look to someone to blame for iMessage’s dominance, it should start with itself, since it has continually sabotaged and abandoned its own plans to make an iMessage competitor.
Messaging is important, and even if it isn’t directly monetizable, a dominant messaging app has real, tangible benefits for an ecosystem. The rest of the industry understood this years ago. Facebook paid $22 billion to buy WhatsApp in 2014 and took the app from 450 million users to 2 billion users. Along with Facebook Messenger, Facebook has two dominant messaging platforms today, especially internationally. Salesforce paid $27 billion for Slack in 2020, and Tencent’s WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, is pulling in 1.2 billion users and yearly revenues of $5.5 billion. Snapchat is up to a $67 billion market cap, and Telegram is getting $40 billion valuations from investors. Google keeps trying ideas in this market, but it never makes an investment that is anywhere close to the competition.
Google once had a functional competitor to iMessage called Google Hangouts. Circa 2015, Hangouts was a messaging powerhouse; in addition to the native Hangouts messaging, it also supported SMS and Google Voice messages. Hangouts did group video calls five years before Zoom blew up, and it had clients on Android, iOS, the web, Gmail, and every desktop OS via a Chrome extension.
As usual, though, Google lacked any kind of long-term plan or ability to commit to a single messaging strategy, and Hangouts only survived as the „everything“ messenger for a single year. By 2016, Google moved on to the next shiny messaging app and left Hangouts to rot.
Even if Google could magically roll out RCS everywhere, it’s a poor standard to build a messaging platform on because it is dependent on a carrier phone bill. It’s anti-Internet and can’t natively work on webpages, PCs, smartwatches, and tablets, because those things don’t have SIM cards. The carriers designed RCS, so RCS puts your carrier bill at the center of your online identity, even when free identification methods like email exist and work on more devices. Google is just promoting carrier lock-in as a solution to Apple lock-in.
Despite Google’s complaining about iMessage, the company seems to have learned nothing from its years of messaging failure. Today, Google messaging is the worst and most fragmented it has ever been. As of press time, the company runs eight separate messaging platforms, none of which talk to each other: there is Google Messages/RCS, which is being promoted today, but there’s also Google Chat/Hangouts, Google Voice, Google Photos Messages, Google Pay Messages, Google Maps Business Messages, Google Stadia Messages, and Google Assistant Messaging. Those last couple of apps aren’t primarily messaging apps but have all ended up rolling their own siloed messaging platform because no dominant Google system exists for them to plug into.
The situation is an incredible mess, and no single Google product is as good as Hangouts was in 2015. So while Google goes backward, it has resorted to asking other tech companies to please play nice with it while it continues to fumble through an incoherent messaging strategy.