Why iMessage Will Never Come to Android

TL/DR — Apple’s success is predicated on platform while Google’s is predicated on services. Where Apple builds services for its platform, Google builds platforms for its services. Any Apple service that provides stickiness to iOS, like iMessage, will never be available cross platform because it would represent a trade of valuable iOS platform users for less valuable service users. Despite the changing focuses of both Apple and Google over the next decade, these underlying platform/service truths will hold constant.

After a decade of development, Android and iOS are now functionally identical as operating systems, but Google and Apple couldn’t be more divergent as companies. Apple is a tech company making money on hardware (~80% of revenue) whereas Google is a tech company making money on advertising (~90% of revenue). Apple’s profit is therefore predicated on its ability to maintain unit margins while Google’s profit is predicated on its ability to achieve scale by leveraging pre-built systems and mass amounts of data — it’s hardware vs. software.

In mobile, this makes Apple reliant on iOS in a way Google is not with Android. Because Google is a data company, it is almost agnostic as to which platform its services are accessed from. Google wants scale and his happy for you to use its services from a desktop, Android, or an Apple device, so long as you are using its services. Google prefers its customers use Android or Chrome only so much as those systems help Google upsell additional services and prevent attrition by providing a more integrated experience. Of course, Apple also cares that you use its services, but only so much as those services keep you buying Apple hardware. To distill these strategic differences into a single sentence, Apple builds services to pull users to its platforms while Google builds platforms to pull users to its services.

So, what does this have to do with iMessage and why our Android friends aren’t allowed to have it?

Based on the logic presented above, one may simply argue that iMessage is a service made to serve the iOS platform and therefore should never be ported. However, this black and white argument falls down when you consider something like Apple Music — a service — which Apple opened to Android in 2016. Recent trends towards streaming services like Netflix and Spotify have undermined Apple’s historical ability to leverage its existing ecosystem of content to engender platform stickiness. Because Apple Music as a service provides almost no stickiness to iOS as a platform, Apple can offer it to Android users in an attempt to acquire new platform users without meaningfully risking any of its existing iOS user base. This thinking is consistent with Apple’s hardware first strategy. When Apple decides to make an iOS service cross-platform, like Apple Music, it is making the determination that the move will lead to a net increase in platform users and therefore an increase in high margin hardware sales.

Opening iMessage to Android would undoubtedly have a meaningful and negative effect on Apple’s ability to sell high margin hardware. iMessage is aclear source of stickiness for existing Apple customers in a way Apple Music obviously wasn’t. In addition to stickiness from functionality, iMessage reinforces Apple’s ability to sell hardware at a premium with blue bubbles. No, that is not a joke. In iMessage, messages from non-Apple devices are shown in a different color, which clearly marks the sender as someone who uses, almost by definition, a less expensive Android device.

Demarcating non-iOS users with bright green bubbles wouldn’t be the first time Apple used exclusivity and status symbols to sell hardware. iMessage’s blue bubbles are a digital manifestation of the original EarBuds, whose iconic white color were the basis of the iPod’s 5+ year silhouette ad campaign. If you are still questioning the effect blue bubbles have in pop culture, consider that Craig Federighi, an Apple engineering executive joked, “We love iMessage, but we have these green bubble friends, and, you know they have inferior devices, and they insist on sending us messages, and we don’t want to hold it against them” live on stage at WWDC14. iMessage is a service created by Apple to sell high margin hardware, and it’s damn good at doing so. Opening iMessage to Android would weaken Apple’s ability to sell hardware by simultaneously shrinking its platform user base and diminishing its premium branding.

Despite the speculation and opinion articles about iMessage coming to Android, we all already know it’s not. These questions aren’t so much about iMessage as they are about Apple’s strategy in the coming decade as it transitions away from its reliance on hardware sales — which brings this post full circle. As mentioned at the beginning, Apple and Google’s mobile strategies align with their broader plans for the internet. Google will continue to be services oriented as it collects data to power its integration of AI into everything, and Apple will continue to be platform driven as it transitions from selling hardware to leveraging its existing OSs to sell walled-in content and services out of reach from Google’s ad networks. The more things change, the more they stay the same.