Green bubble bullies not stopped by Apple’s iMessage announcement

Apple joins the RCS - but why now?
21 November 2023

Tim “Buy your mom an iPhone” Cook. Image via Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

• Apple is to join the RCS.
• The move will make message comms between Apple and Android phones much smoother.
• Green vs. blue bubble enmity though will remain.

Apple plans to adopt a messaging standard to allow a smoother texting experience between iPhones and Android devices, something that’s long been a point of contention with Google.

For years, Apple actively refused to make its products in any way compatible with devices not designed by itself. The green message bubble is the icon of the battle, to some extent used as an indicator of status (or lack thereof).

Because that’s what status is in 2023. A green bubble or a blue check mark that indicate our “betterness.”

Apple RCS

Once upon a time, there was a lonely little green bubble…

Apple will use rich communication services (RCS) starting next year, which could enable read receipts between the operating systems – iMessage will still be exclusive to “i-” devices.

“Later next year, we will be adding support for RCS Universal Profile, the standard currently published by the GSM Association. We believe RCS Universal Profile will offer a better interoperability experience when compared to SMS or MMS,” Apple said.

Apple has pushed back against opting in to the RCS standard for years, even under pressure from Google and others. Just last year, a reporter whose mother used an Android asked Apple CEO Tim Cook whether the company would improve messaging relations between the two.

“Buy your mom an iPhone,” was his somewhat symptomatic response, adding that he didn’t see Apple users asking for a lot of energy to be put into adopting RCS.

Apple has perpetuated fragmentation in messaging ecosystems, which especially impacts Android users.

RCS is considered an industry standard for messaging. It allows users to send and receive high-quality photos and videos, chat over wifi or cellular data and know when messages were read, among other things.

Currently, exchanging pictures and videos between Androids and iPhones degrades the quality of the media. Messages between iPhones and Androids are also unencrypted, unlike iMessages or WhatsApp messages.

The decision to keep iMessage within Apple’s ecosystem has, by design, deterred many from transitioning to Android phones. This came to light in Apple’s legal battle with Epic Games, which exposed a prolonged internal debate on the iMessage issue.

Android’s campaign against iMessage.

An email sent in 2013 by Craig Federighi, Apple’s chief software executive, reads: “In the absence of a strategy to become the primary messaging service for the bulk of cell phone users, I am concerned the iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove an obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones.”

Google ran an Android ad campaign last year called “Get the message,” urging Apple to adopt RCS and laying the blame for the dysfunction at Apple’s feet. In response to the announcement from Apple, Google said it was “happy to see Apple take its first step today by coming on board to embrace RCS.”

It further pledged to work with Apple to implement the standard. The website for the #GetTheMessage campaign still reads that “Apple refuses to adopt modern texting standards.”

Phone company Nothing also goaded Apple, announcing the day before Apple’s statement that its Android phones would run iMessage via a new feature. Nothing chief executive Carl Pei declared victory by sharing a quote from Steve Jobs on X. What impact the thrill of the smaller company had on Apple is unclear.

Apple joins the RCS. Everyone thrilled except Apple.

Is Pei taking credit where it isn’t due?

It’s more likely that the u-turn was an effort to get ahead of antitrust legislation.

The Digital Markets Act seemed set to force Apple’s hand on its refusal to adopt RSC – one element of the Act was a requirement for messaging interoperability. The law says it should be possible for a user of one messaging app (like iMessage) to be able to communicate with someone using a different messaging app (like WhatsApp).

The intention behind this wasn’t to stymie Apple as such, but to give a fairer shot to messaging service startups: historically, any new service was met with the issue that no one would use even the best messaging app unless their friends and family also did so.

Before the deadline for Apple to dispute iMessage being covered by the new law, which was November 16, the company had already argued it shouldn’t be subject to the rules because it doesn’t have enough users in Europe.

Apple. Doesn’t have enough users.

The EU agreed to not include iMessage in the law until the number of users in Europe had been established – an investigation unlikely to go in Apple’s favor, despite buying the company time.

Commentators say the RCS announcement was initially just insurance, but that Apple has decided to go ahead with it anyway. In the event that iMessage is found to be big enough to be covered by the messaging interoperability requirement, Apple can point to the RCS announcement as evidence of its compliance.

When the news was first announced, many were excited by the idea that so-called green bubble stigma would end. Particularly among younger generations in the US, the exclusivity of iMessage leads to ‘bullying’ for messages that show up as a green bubble.

Because RCS meessages will be green, arguably very little material change to the smartphone experience will happen. That means that anyone buying an iPhone to be part of the “blue bubble club,” (an idea we can’t help but scoff at) will have to go through with the purchase, despite the news.

Will the Apple decision to join the RCS put an end to bubble-bullying.

Will the Apple decision to join the RCS put an end to bubble-bullying. No, really, it’s a thing. No, really, we don’t understand it either.