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Is there anything Apple can do to make iMessage more popular outside the U.S.?

Messaging options on iPhone 12 Pro Max
Messaging options on iPhone 12 Pro Max (Image credit: Bryan M. Wolfe / iMore)

Apple's iMessage is one of the most popular instant communication tools on the planet. And yet, outside the United States, it's not nearly as popular as some might imagine. There are inter-locking reasons for this, and none of these are likely to be addressed by Apple anytime soon. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though.

What is iMessage?

First introduced in 2011, iMessage is a free messaging service available exclusively on the best iPhone via iOS and macOS, iPadOS, and watchOS. Through iMessage, Apple users can send texts, images, videos, and even documents through with end-to-end encryption. All they need is an Apple device and internet connection. iMessage is part of Apple's Messages app, which also supports SMS. While SMS comes from service providers such as Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, Apple users can text other cell phone users — including those with non-Apple devices, right in the Messages app.

iMessages on iPhone

iMessages on iPhone (Image credit: iMore)

This combination, with iMessage availability on most Apple devices and SMS support, sounds like more than enough to give iMessage popularity everywhere. It does in the U.S., where most Americans have unlimited SMS through their provider.

Elsewhere, however, texting tends to be expensive. Because of this, many have turned to other instant messaging solutions such as WhatsApp, which offers free texting and calling. Conversely, because most Americans have access to SMS, they are less likely to use those same popular services abroad because there's no economic reason to do so.

iMessage for Android? How about a web version?

Apple could increase iMessage popularity abroad immediately by offering an Android, Microsoft, or web-based version. For many years, people have taken to the internet to discuss the former, including iMore, which discussed the possibility of iMessage for Android in 2019.

I don't recall anyone at Apple ever discussing in public the possibility of bringing an official version of iMessage to non-Apple platforms. This doesn't mean one doesn't exist — at least inside the company. And yet, I would be shocked if Apple released one onto the world.

The underlying reason for this isn't hard to figure out.

Historically, Apple likes to control everything on both the hardware and software side of the products it offers. By branching out iMessage to other platforms, it loses that rigid control.

Good control?

Calling Apple a control freak might sound negative, and in some cases, it is. Yet, when it comes to iMessage, it seems justified. By limiting iMessage to Apple hardware and software, the company can maintain a messaging system with end-to-end encryption. Further, Apple says it has no way to decrypt users' messages, which adds another layer of privacy. As another perk that leads to convenience, iMessage and SMS messages are backed up on iCloud and synced across all Apple devices.

So why does it seem Apple couldn't care less about attracting non-Apple device users for iMessage? That same control and convenience are what keeps current iMessage customers from making a switch. As WhatsApp head Will Cathcart noted earlier this month, Apple has a strategic interest in users not using alternative instant messaging services — it doesn't want to give people a reason to use Android phones.

This reason doesn't sound correct. As a long-time Apple user, I naturally use iMessage across my devices. And yet, I also use Facebook Messenger and, yes, WhatsApp. With both, it's sometimes simply a matter of using what the person on the side prefers. Is this less convenient for me? Perhaps, but it's just another app sitting on my device, so it's no big deal.

Cathcart is correct when he says Apple doesn't want to give people a reason to use Android phones. And yet, Apple has a lot more than iMessages in its arsenal to keep customers happy. In other words, people don't select Apple devices for iMessage, but rather select iMessage because they have and love their Apple devices.

iMessage popularity: The bottom line

While smartphone growth overall has slowed in recent years, there's no way anyone is ditching their devices in the foreseeable future. For Apple, this means its No. 1 product, the iPhone, remains alive and well as it nears the 15-year mark in 2022. As long as people have iPhones, iPads, and Macs, iMessage isn't going anywhere. And that's probably the only thing Apple really cares about.

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Bryan M Wolfe
Staff Writer

Bryan M. Wolfe has written about technology for over a decade on various websites, including TechRadar, AppAdvice, and many more. Before this, he worked in the technology field across different industries, including healthcare and education. He’s currently iMore’s lead on all things Mac and macOS, although he also loves covering iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Bryan enjoys watching his favorite sports teams, traveling, and driving around his teenage daughter to her latest stage show, audition, or school event in his spare time. He also keeps busy walking his black and white cocker spaniel, Izzy, and trying new coffees and liquid grapes.

  • The issue, and appeal, is that iMessage is locked to the Apple eco-system. I am also grateful for the ability to easily spot spam/fraud messages because of their ‘green tint.’ I am disappointed by WhatsApps’s poor design, awkward features and poor integration. FB messenger is tied to the Hall Monitor product called FaceBook, other platforms, like WeChat, are just BAD design and have horrible usability. iMessage memoji could use some help, sending FaceTime messages could be improved, but overall the platform is polished compared to it’s rivals.
  • lol it can be spam/fraud coming from a blue bubble too.
  • Make iPhones more popular outside the US maybe? I'm an old fart, so I don't really get it. I use messaging to message. SMS does that fine as far as I'm concerned. I have an iPhone so iMessage works fine. I am marginally aware that there are different colors for SMS and iMessage, but I don't obsess over it. I'm not adverse to an occasional smiley face or stinking poop emoji, but they aren't essential to my sending or receiving information.
    P.S. Why is the icon for iMessage green?
  • I think if they make it more social it could help boost it
    Almost an iMessage type Snapchat or social network in general, but need iMessage to be in it.
    That makes it seem almost like an “exclusive” social network but I think it would get more people to get an Apple device to be on it
  • I don't think Apple really cares about boosting the popularity of iMessage. It's one of the biggest lock-in factors to iOS so I can't see it ever expanding outside of the apple ecosystem. The only way I think it could grow would be to open it up, but I don't think Apple has much to benefit from that. Especially in their biggest markets where there is a stigma from iPhone users who communicate with those that don't have iPhones. If they open that up in the United States, I think that only helps Android adoption in their biggest markets, ie the US, Western Europe and Australia.
  • I'm american but currently live in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I've made friends who own iPhones down here and, despite me explaining how iMessage works, they continue preferring WhatsApp. The main reason for that is that most people in latinmaerica own Android devices (in groups of friends, the Android users are always majority), so iMessage becomes irrelevant . On top of that, many others believe iMessage is just SMS. Visited Uruguay and Brazil and same logic applies. WhatsApp is way too normalized.
  • In the markets that are dominated by Android, which is most markets, I don't think it would make a difference at all if iMessage opened up to Android. In the US though it would be a big deal.
  • They should, but they won't. For example RCS support. They could easily add that to iMessage but instead, they continue to rely on SMS fallback for those not on iPhone.