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Apple Doesn’t Need a Monopoly to Lock You Into Your iPhone

iMessage is still the stickiest part of iOS

Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

AApple is facing a crucial battle over one of its core moneymakers. Thanks to a ruling against the company by the Supreme Court this week, Apple will have to successfully argue that its App Store doesn’t constitute a monopoly. Part of the company’s case — that users are free to buy apps from other platforms — is undercut by another product with an inescapable, blue-bubbled grip on iPhone users: iMessage.

In the recent case of Apple v. Pepper, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that Apple could be sued for allegedly driving up prices of apps and preventing its customers from using third-party app stores. “The plaintiffs allege that, via the App Store, Apple locks iPhone owners ‘into buying apps only from Apple and paying Apple’s 30% fee, even if’ the iPhone owners wish to ‘buy apps elsewhere or pay less,’” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the majority’s decision.

Apple has argued that its closed platform is necessary to protect users from malware. It has also argued that if users don’t like prices on the App Store, they’re welcome to switch to another platform like Android and buy their apps from Google’s Play Store. There’s just one problem with this argument: Apple makes it incredibly hard to switch platforms. And a major part of that lock is its proprietary texting service.

iMessage is the default messaging service on Apple products. If you have an Apple device and send a message to someone else with an Apple device, you get to use iMessage and all its accompanying bells and whistles, like Animoji. You live in the blue bubble. But if you communicate with anyone who’s not on an Apple platform, they get a regular SMS message. They’re a lower-class green bubble.

At first, it might seem like there’s no problem. Apple is simply providing extra features on top of SMS — an outdated texting method to begin with — for its customers, while still making it possible to text the plebs on other platforms. It’s a value-add — until users try to leave for another platform.

Anabel Quan-Haase, professor of information, media studies, and sociology at the University of Western Ontario, found that switching from an iPhone to Android came with a lot of unintended consequences. “I thought it was quite hard, because I have family abroad,” she says. “With the messaging, that was really problematic, because there were a lot of people that I couldn’t message at all.”

If you want to leave iOS, but you relied on iMessage in the past, you first have to “deregister” your phone number from your account. If you still have your old phone, that means digging into your settings and disabling the iMessage toggle. If you don’t have it, you have to head to this online tool, enter your phone number and confirm a code. Neither option is terribly obvious if you don’t know it’s there.

If you skip this process, Apple will continue to assume any messages sent from its Messages app to your phone number should go through iMessage. It will then route them to your other devices, like your Mac laptop or your iPad. Or you might not get them at all if you only had one Apple gadget to begin with. Apple was sued in 2014 over this issue, but the company created its deregistering tool and the case was dismissed.

Even if you do follow the process exactly, some messages can still get lost. Group chats where some users have iPhones and some have switched to Android can sometimes drop messages even after you deregister your phone number. Even switching to a new Apple device can create problems if you don’t check the right settings. Some solutions involve asking your friends to dig through their settings and enabling a “send as SMS” feature, which can be an embarrassment as well as a hassle.

These are problems that cross-platform apps simply don’t have. Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or Viber are available on Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS. If you switch devices, just download the app on your new phone or computer, sign in, and you’re right back where you left off. No deregistering, no settings, no muss, no fuss.

Android’s default texting app uses basic SMS and MMS, but even Google’s (latest) attempt at a better messaging experience, simply called Chat, is aimed at solving the problem at the carrier level. Instead of being a proprietary app, it’s pushing a protocol that other companies like Apple could choose to implement.

Even the design of iMessage and its two-tiered system — blue bubbles for Apple users, green bubbles for everyone else — arguably leads to a social stigma against switching. “There is a social pressure there,” says Quan-Haase. “I think it’s also intertwined with status… being able to demonstrate that you are texting via iMessage is a signal of belonging to the community, but also a community that has a higher status.”

“Courts don’t want to get into the business of deciding what’s a good design decision and what’s not.”

It’s inconvenient, to be sure, but does this sort of quiet lock-in really constitute anticompetitive behavior? Ramsi Woodcock, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, explains that it’s a hard question to answer. “This has been sort of a vexing problem for antitrust for a very long time,” says Woodcock. “The question is whether a company should have a duty to design a product for interoperability, and whether to make markets more robust.”

iMessage isn’t designed to make life easy for people who switch to other platforms, but it makes a few concessions to avoid drawing too much negative attention. You can talk to people with other phones, of course, although Apple hasn’t released a version of iMessage for Android or Windows to let other customers into the blue bubble party.

The company has made it possible to switch without losing your past conversations, but it’s not an easy or intuitive process. You have to already know that you need to deregister your phone number — Apple won’t tell you when you leave — then go through the extra steps just to receive your messages on your new device. As inconvenient as this might be, however, the company might not have any legal responsibility to do more.

Apple could make iMessage an opt-in feature, rather than the default. According to Woodcock, though, if the current method is better for most users, Apple can get away with a little anticompetitive behavior. “[Apple will] say consumers love iMessage functionality, they love being able to get read receipts, they love being able to send longer texts,” explains Woodcock. “And so while this may have anticompetitive effects, it’s a product improvement. And antitrust has a very well-established rule that if you can show that exclusionary conduct is a product improvement or innovative in some sense… the courts won’t condemn it.”

Apple’s perspective, then, is that iMessage represents a justifiable sacrifice. The value that users get from using iMessage instead of basic SMS is worth it, even if it might lead to an inconvenience for those users who switch to another platform. Unless this creates a substantial anticompetitive roadblock, courts might not want to get involved. “Courts don’t want to get into the business of deciding what’s a good design decision and what’s not,” says Woodcock.

Still, while it may not be illegal for Apple to forcefully nudge its users into iMessage, the effect is noticeable. Apple has argued in court that its App Store can’t possibly be a monopoly in part because users are free to switch to another platform and shop there. At the same time, Apple has engineered a service that’s on by default and discourages users from leaving iOS. Apple may not stop you from leaving, but it strongly prefers that you stay.

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.

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