Why does Apple keep iMessage locked to a single platform in a cross-platform messaging world?

Ritchie Ritchie Rene Ritchie has been covering Apple and the personal technology industry for almost a decade. Editorial director for Mobile Nations, analyst for iMore, video and podcast host, you can follow him on Snapchat, Instagram, or Twitter @reneritchie.

I wrote the editorial below almost two and a half years ago, shortly after Facebook bought WhatsApp for close to 20 billion dollars and BlackBerry Messenger finally went cross-platform when there was almost no one left to care. Juxtaposed against the value of the one and the tragedy of the other, many questioned Apple's decision to keep iMessage proprietary. Now, again.

Rumors of iMessage for Android showing up at WWDC 2016 — which did not pan out — got the smoke going, and just yesterday, John Gruber added the fuel to the fire with this comment on Daring Fireball:

I've heard from little birdies that mockups of iMessage for Android have circulated within the company, with varying UI styles ranging from looking like the iOS Messages app to pure Material Design.1 iMessage for Android may never see the light of day, but the existence of detailed mockups strongly suggests that there's no "of course not" to it.

Apple explores, mocks up, and even prototypes anything and everything any of us could think of, as long as it makes enough sense. You don't get to a "thousand nos for every yes" without trying a thousand and one ideas.

If Apple hadn't explored the idea of iMessage for Android, there'd be cause to worry. I'd be startled if no one in Eddy Cue's org had ever spit-balled Maps for Android and iTunes for Android. Anything that's an internet service is ripe for just that kind of thinking, even if Apple's current position in the market makes all of them a no-go. (And for different reasons — Music on Android makes sense where Maps does not.)

The trick is to have these ideas at least partially on the drawing board so that if and when things change, and you need to move, you can move as quickly as possible.

For every iTunes for Windows, Safari for Windows, and iPad mini that was opposed, even temporarily derailed, but ultimately shipped, there are countless more still sitting on the shelves, real or virtual.

Original editorial from February 02, 2014, below.

iMessage is Apple's text and media messaging service, bundled into the Messages app on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac. And that's where the platform support ends. There's no iMessage for Android or for Windows, and unlike Apple's Mail, Contacts, Calendar, and iWork, there's not even an iMessage for iCloud. Yet Facebook bought WhatsApp — which started as a cross-platform BlackBerry Messenger clone — for billions of dollars, and BlackBerry, which kept BBM proprietary until it was far too late, is now worth next to nothing. So, why is iMessage still Apple-only?

If your friends, colleagues, and family all use Apple devices, a few glitches aside, iMessage is close to perfect. If your friends, colleagues, and family aren't all in the Apple ecosystem then iMessage falls back on SMS/MMS. Not everyone wants to use — or pay for — carrier text and multimedia messaging service, however, so that's where cross-platform IM like WhatsApp in much of the western world and WeChat and Line in Asia come in.

If Apple released iMessage for Android — and perhaps others platforms, including the web — then iPhone and iPad owners could both stay in Messages.app, and stay connected to their cross-platform contacts. Apple could also potentially gain a messaging user base as big as anyone else. At a time when messaging itself is becoming a platform, and Apple is turning iMessage into a platform, keeping it proprietary is a triple-edge sword.

BlackBerry's missed BBM boat

BlackBerry was once in a similar situation. Evolving from the pager, they grew to support email first, then BBM. By 2006 they were an incredibly popular handset manufacturer with an incredibly popular messaging service attached to their platform. And those two things, their handset popularity and their messaging popularity, were inextricably linked. Anyone who wanted a high power job, and anyone who wanted to be with someone who had a high power job, needed to be on BBM.

By 2010, however BlackBerry's handsets had fallen behind iPhone and Android. There was talk of BlackBerry taking BBM cross-platform but nothing ever came of it. They were seemingly afraid that if they let their messaging system go, their customers would go with it. It wasn't apparent to them at all that their messaging business could surpass their handset business.

That BlackBerry as a company could be valued at around $5 billion and WhatsApp, a cross-platform clone of BBM, would one day go for $16 billion. So BlackBerry waited. They waited until many of their customers had moved on and only then did they take BBM cross-platform. And instead of a position of strength and dominance, they find themselves fighting to survive.

But Apple now isn't BlackBerry then.

Products vs. businesses

Apple doesn't mistake their products for their business. Instead of protecting the iPod and the Mac, Apple pushed ahead with iPhone and iPad. Now, as digital music sales have tanked and PC sales have slowed, Apple is more successful than ever. That's because Apple's business was never iPods and Macs, it was personal computing devices. They try very, very hard to obsolete themselves before someone else can obsolete them.

Facebook has proven themselves to be similar. Facebook's business isn't Facebook. It's attention. Facebook is just a product. Rather than obsoleting themselves the way Apple does, however, they buy companies that appear to be on a path towards obsoleting them. Hence Instagram and now WhatsApp. Facebook doesn't care about people using Instagram or WhatsApp instead of Facebook any more than Apple cares about someone using an iPhone or iPad instead of an iPod or Mac. They just care that they're using Facebook products.

BlackBerry, on the other hand, thought handsets were their business — and they were wrong. Handsets were just their product. Attention was their business as well. Namely the attention their phenomenal communication experience gave them. Security, physical keyboards, blinking notification lights, and the handsets themselves only contributed to the delivery of those communications to get and keep that attention, be it pages and email in the early days or BBM after it was developed.

Apple isn't in the attention business. Apple is not the compelling scene through the window. Apple is the window. Apple doesn't much care what scene you're looking at through the window, as long as it's Apple's window you're looking through. And that's a very different dynamic.

Secrets to success

To stay successful, BlackBerry had to make sure they kept their customer attention. Facebook likewise. Apple does not. To stay successful Apple has to make sure the devices through which people give their attention have Apple logos on them, regardless of where that attention is going.

Part of doing that is ensuring that iPhones and iPads provide a base-level of functionality right out of the box. The other part is making sure the iPhone and iPad remain the absolute best gateway to the internet and to apps beyond what they come with in the box.

iMessage is there to make sure anyone with an iPhone or iPad can easily keep in contact with the people they care about. Phenomenal HTML5 support and killer Cocoa frameworks are there to make sure any developer can easily and delightfully launch any other messaging app imaginable on the App Store. Which is exactly what they've done.

So where's iMessage for Android?

Apple has traditionally been a far better hardware and software company than they've been a services company. Not only wouldn't cross-platform iMessage play to their strengths, it would further burden their resources.

As much as you or I or many other people might like iMessage to go cross-platform, to be able to use Messages.app to chat with our Android and Windows and other friends, colleagues, and family, to use it on any device or on the web, Apple doesn't need it to.

Because iMessage's only major reason for being is to increase the overall value of Apple's actual business: personal computing devices, and because every other service has gone cross-platform for iPhone and iPad, often first and best, it's not only not a current problem for Apple, it's an ongoing element of their success.

If and when iMessage as a platform becomes more valuable than iOS as a platform, Apple will need to think very hard about pulling the Android switch. Then, if they wait too long... well, see BlackBerry.