Apple has promised radical changes to iMessage this year. But there’s a serious problem—an issue that could bring those plans crashing down. And given the news that has suddenly been confirmed this week, it’s all about to get much worse.
Your views on iMessage likely depend on one thing—whether or not you live in the US. That’s the one market where the world’s most popular messenger—WhatsApp—has yet to build a dominant foothold, and where iPhone’s own dominance, especially among the young, boosts iMessage through a self-reinforcing network effect.
But all that may be about to change—Apple has opened itself up to a serious threat from its biggest competitor in its biggest market. And that’s a huge problem for the iPhone maker, whose stubborn lock on iMessage is under more threat than ever.
The Beeper Mini fiasco has already woken US regulators to the argument that Apple’s refusal to let iMessage talk to other platforms harms users and is anti-competitive. Meanwhile, Apple’s surprise u-turn on RCS—the SMS V2 platform that underpins Android messaging, will leave the blue-bubble/green-bubble hierarchy in place, and will not deliver a cross-platform, end-to-end encrypted option for users.
But in most countries outside the US, that doesn’t really matter. Because in most countries outside the US, it’s no exaggeration to say that iMessage is fairly irrelevant. That’s why Apple argues that its messenger is not a key gateway platform under Europe’s DMA, despite its installation on every iPhone. iMessage is synonymous with SMS texting, and people just don’t do that anymore.
But that US stronghold is now under real threat, with Meta keen to burst those blue bubbles. “WhatsApp is far more private and secure than iMessage,” Mark Zuckerberg has said, “with end-to-end encryption that works across both iPhones and Android, including group chats. With WhatsApp you can also set all new chats to disappear with the tap of a button. And last year we introduced end-to-end encrypted backups too. All of which iMessage still doesn’t have.”
And here comes the change. In recent days, you’ll likely have read about WhatsApp explaining how it will open up its platform to third-party messaging. That can easily be dismissed as just a response to Europe’s Digital Markets Act—the same regulation that’s driving Apple to open the iPhone to third-party app stores in Europe.
But it’s not that simple. Viewed another way, WhatsApp’s latest news is not about Europe—it’s all about the US. And it’s not just a response to regulators—it’s all about iMessage. Meta is gunning for iMessage—it’s on Zuckerberg’s personal agenda. He now has his opening, and history tells us that WhatApp will almost certainly win out.
Unlike Apple’s DMA changes, which are being limited to Europe, WhatsApp’s changes seem to be going worldwide. And, according to Wired which published WhatApp’s new plans, this has been in the works for the last two years.
Far from any initial reluctance, with its new proactive stance on open messaging, WhatsApp will create a hub and can use its scale and network effect to encourage other platforms to align with its architecture and security protocol.
Just as WhatsApp pretty much just told Wired, “we think that the best way to deliver this approach is through a solution that is built on WhatsApp’s existing client-server architecture… This effectively means that the approach that we’re trying to take is for WhatsApp to document our client-server protocol and let third-party clients connect directly to our infrastructure and exchange messages with WhatsApp clients.”
Ironically, as often the case with tech regulation designed by bureaucrats, unintended consequences kick in fairly fast. While the concept of giving smaller players access to the hyperscale ecosystems might be laudable, in reality it puts those big players in the driving seat, given their capacity and engineering strengths. How interoperability will likely work in practice is already being dictated by WhatsApp.
Two other things to note.
First, that part-adoption of RCS into iMessage later this year. Viewed through a US lens, this limited deployment to enhance cross-platform texting between iOS and Android is passable. Outside the US, it simply cements iMessage’s limited appeal vs WhatsApp—with nearly 3 billion users and 100 billion daily messages worldwide.
Second, while the most popular messenger in the US isn’t WhatsApp, neither is it iMessage. It is Facebook Messenger, Meta’s other hyperscale messaging platform.
And the concept of an open messaging hub suddenly offers up the combination of two messaging giants in a pincer movement against iMessage. Facebook Messenger with its US scale, and WhatsApp with its accelerating US growth. And the messaging hub concept enables the two platforms to work together without it seeming anti-competitive, as other platforms will be able to do the same. Apple could request access to WhatsApp’s hub for iMessage, of course. But it won’t.
Beyond its US growth strategy and finally overcoming iMessage, the concept of a WhatsApp-dominated messaging hub also plays to its new focus on business messaging and creating a one-stop shop for marketing outreach and support.
So, why is all this so important. Because, in the rest of the world, WhatsApp’s network effect and cross-platform ease of use has essentially marginalized other platforms. The US is the last remaining standout. And this year will be pivotal.
I have said before that 2024 will be the year of revolution rather than evolution in the messaging world. Apple’s challenge is that it doesn’t want to see change where iMessage is concerned. But innovation is on the way—regulation may have triggered change, but it’s not driving what happens next. Meta finally has iMessage’s US dominance in its sights, and the real battle is about to commence.