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Beeper: The Killer Tech of 2023?
Last November, Apple ended the “RCS on iPhone” debate by agreeing it would enable rich communication services (RCS) on iPhones “sometime next year.” That issue still confuses many iPhone users, so I will clarify it below, but more importantly, Apple’s decision was likely too little too late.
In this post, I want to level-set the RCS issue but also set up my next post about why Microsoft needs to be paying close attention to the current climate about competition, especially in Europe, regarding Teams messaging.
The Apple RCS issue received a lot of attention in 2023 for several reasons. First, universal text messaging on mobile phones appears to be a god given right, and Apple was breaking seamless interoperability between mobile devices. Then, there’s the issue of carrier SMS/MMS messaging versus over-the-top (OTT) messaging. Frequent messengers tend to prefer OTT apps such as iMessage, Messenger, WhatsApp, or others because of the additional features they offer. SMS seems relatively primitive to most OTT apps.
WHY APPLE NEEDED TO SUPPORT RCS
Mobile phones took off with the masses in the 90s, and mobile phone messaging came right behind it. It was adopted much faster in Europe, and it was very primitive. Back then, we were using numeric keypads, so each letter took multiple keystrokes. The length of a message was restricted to 140 characters. Twitter was initially designed for SMS, and that’s why it only supported tweets up to 140 characters.
Like so many other things in tech, mobile text messaging suffered from interoperability issues. SMS was created as an inter-carrier, inter-device standard in the 90s. Text messaging was lucrative, so the carriers were quick to embrace the standard. SMS uses the telephone number for addressing, which solved for unique addressing and authentication. SMS provided us with one of three global, interoperable e-addresses: voice, email, and text.
As cellular services became Internet savvy, internet messaging apps, such as Skype, expanded to cell phones. The popular OTT messaging services today are designed for like-users. That is they are walled gardens that provide services to their members without interoperability.
RCS was originally designed as an SMS replacement. It’s had a decade plus journey of acceptance, in part because it’s so versatile. Carriers can and have implemented RCS in ways that makes the services incompatible. Google saw RCS as a good option and has worked with carriers on a preferred implementation model. Today, the carriers have mostly agreed and are ready to upgrade SMS to RCS. All the device makers have also agreed to support RCS, all but Apple.
Apple’s iMessage app, initially created for its Macintosh customers, is also on iPhones. Apple’s approach with iMessage is unique from other OTT apps in three important ways: First, its services are limited to its hardware customers. Secondly, the iMessage app blurs the boundary with its own messaging service and SMS, and finally, it was locked as the only app its customers could use for SMS.
The blurring of iMessage and SMS confuses and angers many of its users. iMessage has more capabilities than SMS, so problems ensue when SMS users are included in groups. This became known as the green and blue circles dilemma. Although SMS mostly worked, there were interoperability issues.
RCS offers many features found in OTT apps, including higher-quality images, improved interoperability, typing indicators, and richer formatting. However, the carriers could not implement this alone as Apple has over 50% market share of U.S. smartphones. Widespread adoption of RCS needed Apple’s blessing, which Apple had denied (for years). Apple was essentially blocking the industry from being able to upgrade SMS. In an unrelated court case, Apple admitted that iMessage lock-in sells more iPhones.
There are actually two comingled issues here. The need for better interoperability across mobile carriers and devices and Apple’s blocking of RCS as an industry standard. The latter solves the former, but Apple could have solved the first with an iMessage client for Android. The second issue has more to do with anticompetitive behavior.
A reporter asked Tim Cook about RCS as a solution to the blue/green bubble controversy. Cook responded, “I don’t hear our users asking that we put a lot of energy in on that at this point.” The reporter pressed the issue, saying it’s really about interoperability and that the videos he sends his mother don’t work across iOS and Android. Cook said, “Buy your mom an iPhone.”
The mood started to shift against Apple later in the year. Apple should be able to offer a superior app experience, especially as it has to compete with other OTT apps. But Apple, should not be able to prevent new industry standards such as RCS.
THE BEEPER SAGA
Apple’s agreement to support RCS was the right thing to do, and that should have been the final chapter in the “RCS on iOS” story in 2023, but just before Christmas a small company called Beeper added a new chapter. Beeper discovered a way to authenticate Android users on iMessage. Little Beeper solved the technical mystery of Android-iOS interoperability with its Beeper Mini app.
Seventy-two hours after Beeper Mini became available, Apple shut down Beeper’s access to iMessage. Beeper found a workaround that Apple then disabled. “Within the first 48 hours, we went from zero in revenue to $1 million in annualized run rate,” said Beeper CEO Eric Migicovsky to The Information. Beeper Mini shot to the top of the Google Play Store with more than 100,000 downloads. “Our conversion from download to paid trial hovered around 50%. Normally, consumer apps are 5%, 10% at the most.”
Apple’s response was that the Beeper found and exploited a vulnerability in iMessage, and that it had to correct that weakness to protect its users. Apple continued to block Beeper’s workarounds by technical changes or terms of service changes. The final Beeper Mini version required customers seeking interoperability to obtain a jailbroken iPhone and an online Mac or Linux computer. That’s a big change from simply downloading an app. Then, Apple shut down that option too.
Beeper decided it will instead focus on its “long-term goal of building the best chat app on earth.” The company posted, “As much as we want to fight for what we believe is a fantastic product that really should exist, the truth is that we can’t win a cat-and-mouse game with the largest company on earth.”
Beeper Mini showed the world just how easily interoperability could be solved, and more importantly, that Apple’s response can be swift and punishing. The Beeper incident got the attention of regulators. A bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a joint letter to the Department of Justice, asking it to investigate Apple over potential antitrust violations. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, cited Apple’s actions against Beeper an example of “big tech executives … protecting profits by squashing competitors.”
Last month, The New York Times reported that the Justice Department may file a “sweeping antitrust case” against Apple regarding several iPhone practices. Most of the recent controversy has been around the App Store, which is a totally separate issue. The DOJ has also recently filed antitrust cases against Google regarding search and ad tech. Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission has sued Amazon and Meta for stifling competition.
The tide appears to be turning against big tech. Eric Migicovsky of Beeper, Tim Sweeney of Epic Games, CJ Prober of Tile, and Daniel Ek of Spotify are all speaking out against Apple’s anticompetitive practices.
While antitrust concerns are picking up in the U.S., it’s Europe that’s getting results. Europe intends to protect its citizens from big (mostly U.S.) tech. This is not new. Examples include the Right to be Forgotten, GDPR, data sovereignty requirements, and, more recently, the Digital Markets Act (DMA).
As a result, a lot of changes are occurring. RCS support on iPhones is likely among them, and so is Apple’s switch to USB-C for charging. Pressure in Europe has caused Microsoft to unbundle Teams from its Microsoft 365 subscriptions, and Meta is now allowing users to unlink their Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp accounts.
Not all of these changes are global, and many are very controversial. Apple is attempting to respond to several requirements proposed by the DMA, but the changes to meet the proposed regulations breaks many of Apple’s design principles. In my next post, I will share more about the DMA. Like it or not, it’s going to be changing tech in many ways. Although its initial focus is on consumer apps, it will also impact enterprise apps as well.
Dave Michels is a contributing editor and Analyst at TalkingPointz.
Want to know More?
Check out the following links for more context on the various news items referenced above.
- Tim Cook promoting iPhones: This story was reported on in various places: The Verge and NPR are two examples.
- Beeper stops fighting Apple: one source of this quote is from Inc.: Beeper Gives Up Battling Apple over iMessage.)
- The U.S. DoJ and FTC investigating Apple versus Beeper: This has been reported in various places: e.g., 9to5Mac, The Verge, and Bloomberg.)
- Meta has sued the FTC, as reported in various places, one example being AP News and the FTC site, as well. This also provides a summary of the Meta litigation.
- The “tech leader” criticism of Apple was reported at The Verge and TechCrunch.
- The DOJ has also recently filed antitrust cases against Google regarding search and ad tech. Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission has sued Amazon and Meta for stifling competition.
- Links to EU regulations: the Right to be Forgotten, GDPR, data sovereignty requirements, and the Digital Markets Act (DMA).
- Microsoft unbundling Teams in the EU.
- Meta allowing EU users to unlink their Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp accounts.