The United States’ Most Prestigious Business Publication Addresses ‘Green Bubbles’

Tim Higgins, Wall Street Journal:

That pressure to be a part of the blue text group is the product of decisions by Apple executives starting years ago that have, with little fanfare, built iMessage into one of the world’s most widely used social networks and helped to cement the iPhone’s dominance among young smartphone users in the U.S.


Apple and other tech giants have long worked hard to get traction with young users, hoping to build brand habits that will extend into adulthood as they battle each other for control of everything from videogames to extended reality glasses to the metaverse. Globally, Alphabet Inc.’s Android operating system is the dominant player among smartphone users, with a loyal following of people who are vocal about their support. Among U.S. consumers, 40% use iPhones, but among those aged 18 to 24, more than 70% are iPhone users, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners’s most recent survey of consumers.

Is it 2019 again? That was the last time we had a spate of stories examining the plight of Android users texting friends with iPhones. There was the Fast Company exposé of teenagers’ “distaste” for green bubbles, that thorough investigation by the New York Post into the problem — featuring interviews with exactly one iPhone user who refused to date Android users, and one Android user who felt slighted — and there was Samsung’s ridiculous comeback attempt.

Pause for outrage.

In 2015, Paul Ford wrote a much better version of this argument — in no small part because Ford is an excellent writer:

This spontaneous anti-green-bubble brigade is an interesting example of how sometimes very subtle product decisions in technology influence the way culture works. Apple uses a soothing, on-brand blue for messages in its own texting platform, and a green akin to that of the Android robot logo for people texting from outside its ecosystem (as people have pointed out on Twitter, iPhone texts were default green in days before iMessage — but it was shaded and more pleasant to the eye; somewhere along the line things got flat and mean).

As Ford documents, there have been times when Apple took advantage of this cultural phenomenon. But there are plenty of caveats, one of which Higgins describes in this Journal article:

Apple is not the first tech company to come up with a must-have chat tool among young people, and such services sometimes struggle to stay relevant. BlackBerry and America Online were among the popular online communication forums of past decades that eventually lost ground to newer entrants.

Is something different about today’s messaging services that would make them stickier than their ’90s and ’00s predecessors? AOL is a less fitting comparison; BlackBerry Messenger is the most accurate predecessor to iMessage: for a long time, a BlackBerry device was required to use BBM, and you currently need an Apple device to use iMessage.

Messaging services come and go. Overall, I find it hard to see any specific correlation between device user base and messenger choice. Sure, iOS devices and iMessage are popular in the United States, but it is not the case that both are similarly popular around the world. In Japan, for instance, iOS devices have a higher market share than they do in the U.S., but the dominant messaging service is LINE, the “do-everything platform”. In most other countries, WhatsApp is the messaging app everyone uses regardless of smartphone operating system. In Indonesia, BBM was wildly popular until it was shuttered globally in 2019, even though sales of BlackBerry devices dried up long before. It also depends on which part of a country’s population you are measuring: in Canada, where iOS’ market share is neck-and-neck with Android’s, WhatsApp is not very popular except with new Canadians, 84% of whom use it daily.

I have written before about how iMessage is a platform differentiator for Apple, but I do not think it is as bulletproof as either its biggest fans or extreme antitrust detractors believe. More to the point, I do not know anybody who uses just one messaging service.

Articles like these read mostly as an avenue to show that some young people are sometimes shallow, as most of us probably were at that age. I remember when zipper binders were the trendy item among my peers, or when the popular kids wore Abercrombie and Fitch. If a person refuses to go on a date with someone solely because of the phone they use, that seems more like a red flag that should be avoided.

These sorts of trend pieces seem to mix up cause and effect. I would not read too much into it. Most iPhone users will probably pick another iPhone as their next phone, just as most Android users will probably pick another Android phone. If having a sorted-out messaging platform was such a compelling selling point, you would expect Android users to be leaving the platform in droves. As it turns out, it is probably a small piece of a much larger reason why most people stick with the same platform when they buy a new phone.