iMessage could have come to Android years ago but Apple killed it — here's why

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iMessage on Android? It sounds far-fetched, but it turns out that it could have happened. But Apple killed the idea in order to keep what has become one of its most successful services restricted to Apple-made devices.

It’s a revelation that comes from the ongoing legal dispute with Epic Games. The Fortnite creators filed a brief showing Apple’s executive team made the active decision to keep iMessage off Android. Epic argues that this demonstrates Apple’s willingness to use a “platform lock-in” to keep its users reliant on Apple and its own App Store system.

According to the brief, the decision to keep iMessage on Apple devices dates as far back as 2013. That’s according to a deposition from Eddy Cue, SVP of Internet Software and Services at Apple. Apparently the company could have developed an Android-friendly version of iMessage that would “have been cross-compatibility with the iOS platform so that users of both platforms would have been able to exchange messages with one another seamlessly.”

But it turns out that idea was nixed by Craig Federighi, SVP of Software and Engineering who is in charge of iOS, who argued that allowing a cross-platform version of iMessage would “simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones.”

In other words, keeping iMessage as an Apple exclusive encourages people to keep buying iPhones. Phil Schiller, the executive in charge of the app store, agreed with this argument, according to testimony.

As anyone who has left iOS for Android can attest, simply switching to Google’s OS isn’t as easy as popping a SIM card into your new phone. Google recommends switching off iMessage before you make the switch to Android, and Apple’s own support pages note that not doing this may stop you from getting SMS and MMS messages on non-Apple phones.

Jumping to Android also means you lose access to all your conversation histories, group chats, and everything else iMessage can offer.

iMessage on Android would benefit everyone (except Apple)

It’s obvious why Apple wants to keep iMessage close to its chest. The company makes its money based on people buying its devices, and those devices are useless if they don’t have a great range of features and services. 

iMessage is arguably the most widespread service in Apple’s portfolio, given the popularity of communicating by text message. Not only is it available on iPhone, iPad, and Mac, it offers far more than ordinary SMS has to offer. That includes the ability to send files and photos, end-to-end encryption, integration with Apple’s FaceTime video calling and more.

Plus, Apple’s commitment to privacy puts it ahead of other popular services like WhatsApp, which is still plagued by the shadow of parent company Facebook. The recent backlash and controversy over WhatsApp allegedly sharing user data with Facebook is one great example of that.

Every Android user knows at least one person who has an iPhone. I’m the only Android user in my family, for a variety of reasons, and our communication at the moment tends to happen via WhatsApp or SMS. 

So if I could jump into the iMessage ecosystem without actually buying an iPhone I probably would. At the very least it would let me, and no doubt countless others, sever the final tie I have with Facebook.

Obviously, Apple’s concerns are completely warranted. If iMessage is available on Android, then it may encourage user not to buy iPhones. Whether people actually buy iPhones for iMessage or not is debatable, but it does mean there’s one less thing that makes the iPhone appealing. Plus, at the very least, it would be one less obstacle that would otherwise prevent people from switching to a competitor's phone.

Of course this hasn't stopped work being done to create a modernized text messaging system that can work cross-platform, should Apple ever decide to include it on the iPhone. 

RCS messaging on iPhone could be the answer

SMS text messaging has been around since the early '90s, so it's pretty poor and outdated in comparison to modern services. It's slow, unencrypted, and has infamously bad security that exposes it to abuse and attacks.

But it's universal. No matter whether your phone runs iOS, Android, KaiOS, or some other operating system, SMS is there, letting you contact anyone else with a cell phone number. Fortunately, it's not like tech companies have been sitting around letting SMS go stale, and have actively been working on an upgraded version — so to speak.

Rich communication services, or RCS, has been in the works since 2007. Recently it's also had a lot of support from Google, who rolled out the protocol to all Android phones as part of the Android Messages app at the end of 2019.

RCS is, essentially, SMS 2.0: a text messaging service that offers features that you would normally have to go to a more advanced messaging service for. Group chats, read receipts, stronger media sharing capabilities, and so on. 

It's a lot like iMessage, really, which may explain why Apple has never bothered to implement RCS on iPhones. It was built as a cross-platform system, and would allow people to have a more modernized text messaging system regardless of what kind of phone they have. And without resorting to a private, third-party service to do it.

Obviously, it would not be iMessage, and all the obstacles users would have to face when leaving the Apple ecosystem would still be there. All your group chats and conversations wouldn't be able to follow you to Android, and presumably non-Apple users would still be marked by the infamous green chat bubble.

iMessage on Android is never going to happen, that's very clear. But RCS could be a perfectly suitable alternative for people who need to communicate across platforms. 

Because no matter how popular iPhones are, there are always going to be Android users. Since those two groups of people can't just ignore each other, the least Apple could do is help to streamline the process.

Even if that means adding bonus features to iMessage to stop a potential user exodus.

Tom Pritchard
UK Phones Editor

Tom is the Tom's Guide's UK Phones Editor, tackling the latest smartphone news and vocally expressing his opinions about upcoming features or changes. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining about how terrible his Smart TV is.