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.
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.
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.