Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Apple Keeps iMessage Exclusive to Its Products Because It Is an Effective Differentiator

In a court filing from Epic in support of its lawsuit against Apple, many Apple executives are on the record in emails stating the obvious: iMessage is not offered on non-Apple platforms because it is a compelling exclusive feature. For some reason, this is being seen as a shocking admission.

Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo:

In one quote dating back to 2013, Eddy Cue — who is now Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services — said that Apple “could have made a version [of iMessage] on Android that worked with iOS,” providing the possibility that “users of both platforms would have been able to exchange messages with one another seamlessly.”

Sadly, it seems multiple Apple execs were concerned that doing so would make it too easy for iPhone owners to leave the Apple ecosystem, with Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, having said, “iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones” — a sentiment Epic’s brief says was also shared by Phil Schiller, who back then was in charge of overseeing Apple’s App Store.

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Unfortunately, while these testimonies seem to be pretty damning for Apple, it’s unclear if these revelations will force Apple to reconsider porting iMessage over to Android in the future. But at least now we know for sure why it never happened before.

It is worth pointing out that the “lock-in” described by Apple executives is not a literal lock preventing users from switching to another platform, nor is iMessage mandatory. You can stick to SMS on an iPhone if you want, and you can disconnect from iMessage if you do not want to use it.1

So how is this “damning”, exactly? Plenty of companies offer exclusive features that make it emotionally difficult to choose a different platform, while also having disadvantages. Google can show off the wide selection of phones that run Android, but Apple has made a choice to keep iOS to its own hardware, so it cannot make the same sales pitch. Conversely, Google cannot market the chaos of messaging apps on Android as an advantage, but Apple can show that iMessage is simple, works spectacularly, and requires no configuration.

This isn’t even new information. After WWDC 2016, Walt Mossberg asked Apple about the same topic:

When I asked a senior Apple executive why iMessage wasn’t being expanded to other platforms, he gave two answers. First, he said, Apple considers its own user base of one billion active devices big enough to provide a large enough data set for any possible AI learning the company is working on. And second, having a superior messaging platform that only worked on Apple devices would help sales of those devices — the company’s classic (and successful) rationale for years.

Is iMessage a compelling reason to buy more stuff from Apple? Sure — depending on where you live and how attached you are to other devices. But I fail to see the evil in a differentiating service or feature.


  1. I know there have been problems with Apple’s disconnecting tool. I do not think it is a case of Apple making things deliberately difficult. It is incompetence, if anything, which is not nefarious but also not an excuse. This service should be entirely reliable. ↩︎