February 26, 2024

Forget iOS 17: Apple’s serious iOS 18 problem is about to get worse

Apple has promised radical changes to iMessage this year. But there is a serious problem: one that could cause these plans to fail. And given the news suddenly confirmed this week, things are about to get a lot worse.

Your opinion about iMessage probably depends on one thing: whether or not you live in the US. That’s the only market where the world’s most popular messenger – WhatsApp – has not yet achieved a dominant position, and where the dominance of iPhone, especially among young people, is boosting iMessage through a self-reinforcing network effect.

But that may all be about to change: Apple has opened itself up to a serious threat from its biggest competitor in its largest market. And that’s a huge problem for the iPhone maker, whose stubborn iMessage lock is under more threat than ever.

The Beeper Mini fiasco has already made US regulators aware of the argument that Apple’s refusal to let iMessage talk to other platforms harms users and is anti-competitive. Meanwhile, Apple’s surprise pivot to RCS – the SMS V2 platform that powers Android’s messaging – will leave the blue bubble/green bubble hierarchy in place and not provide a cross-platform, end-to-end encrypted option for users .

But in most countries outside the US, that doesn’t matter much. Because in most countries outside the US, it’s not an exaggeration to say that iMessage is pretty irrelevant. That’s why Apple claims its messenger is not a major gateway platform under the European DMA, despite installing it on every iPhone. iMessage is synonymous with texting, and people just don’t do that anymore.

But that American stronghold is now under real threat, as Meta is eager to burst those blue bubbles. “WhatsApp is much more private and secure than iMessage,” Mark Zuckerberg has said, “with end-to-end encryption that works on both iPhones and Android, including group chats. With WhatsApp you can also set all new chats to disappear at the touch of a button. And last year we also introduced end-to-end encrypted backups. iMessage still doesn’t have that.”

And here comes the change. In recent days you have probably read that WhatsApp explains how it will open its platform to messages from third parties. That could easily be dismissed as just a response to Europe’s Digital Markets Act – the same regulation that prompted Apple to open the iPhone to third-party app stores in Europe.

But it’s not that simple. Looked at another way, the latest news from WhatsApp is not about Europe, but about the US. And it’s not just a response to regulators; it’s all about iMessage. Meta is targeting iMessage; it is on Zuckerberg’s personal agenda. He now has his opening and history tells us that WhatApp will almost certainly win.

Unlike Apple’s DMA changes, which are limited to Europe, WhatsApp’s changes appear to extend globally. And according to Wired who published WhatsApp’s new plans, which have been worked on for the past two years.

Far from any initial reluctance, WhatsApp’s new proactive stance on open messaging will create a hub and use its scale and network effect to encourage other platforms to adapt to its architecture and security protocol.

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Exactly as WhatsApp almost just said Wired“we believe the best way to deliver this approach is through a solution built on top of WhatsApp’s existing client-server architecture… This essentially means that the approach we are trying to take is for WhatsApp to provide our client server protocol documents and allows third-party customers to connect directly to our infrastructure and exchange messages with WhatsApp customers.”

Ironically, as is often the case with bureaucratically designed technology regulation, unintended consequences occur quite quickly. While the concept of giving smaller players access to the large-scale ecosystems is laudable, in reality it puts those big players in the driver’s seat, given their capacity and technical strengths. How interoperability will likely work in practice is already dictated by WhatsApp.

Two more things to note.

Firstly, the partial adoption of RCS in iMessage later this year. Viewed through an American lens, this limited implementation to improve cross-platform texting between iOS and Android is reasonable. Outside the US, it simply reinforces iMessage’s limited appeal versus WhatsApp, with nearly 3 billion users and 100 billion daily messages worldwide.

Second, while WhatsApp isn’t the most popular messenger in the US, neither is iMessage. It’s Facebook Messenger, Meta’s other large-scale messaging platform.

And the concept of an open messaging hub suddenly features the combination of two messaging giants in a pincer move against iMessage. Facebook Messenger with its American size, and WhatsApp with its accelerating American growth. And the messaging hub concept allows the two platforms to work together without it appearing anti-competitive, as other platforms can do the same. Of course, Apple could request access to WhatsApp’s hub for iMessage. But that won’t happen.

In addition to the US growth strategy and ultimately conquering iMessage, the concept of a WhatsApp-dominated messaging hub also plays into the new focus on business messaging and creating a one-stop shop for marketing assistance and support.

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So why is all this so important? Because in the rest of the world, WhatsApp’s network effect and cross-platform ease of use have effectively marginalized other platforms. The US is the last remaining outlier. And this year will be crucial.

I have said before that 2024 will be the year of revolution and not of evolution in the messaging world. Apple’s challenge is that it doesn’t want to see any change in iMessage. But innovation is coming; regulations may have brought about change, but they don’t determine what happens next. Meta finally has iMessage’s US dominance in its sights, and the real battle is about to begin.

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