There’s a surprising twist to the Apple versus Facebook battle. While Apple’s new privacy innovations may have stripped billions from Facebook’s revenues, the iPhone maker’s mistaken messaging plans are now getting even worse, boosting Facebook, handing the social media giant a critical win in the ongoing battle over your privacy.
Apple is steadfastly refusing to compromise its commercial stance, rejecting cross-platform collaboration with Google to offer iPhone users a choice to Facebook’s messaging platforms. Now, it seems likely Apple will add its contentious photo monitoring to iMessage in its forthcoming iOS 15.2 release. This makes the situation much worse for iMessage users, and gives them a reason to switch to WhatsApp, one of the platforms owned by the very same Facebook that Apple is battling.
Apple has certainly damaged Facebook with App Tracking Transparency and Privacy Labels, but it seems that the iPhone maker sees Google’s Android as a competitive threat, while Facebook is more a nuisance and a foil for its privacy-first marketing.
This dynamic is playing out perfectly in the multi-billion-dollar world of hyper-scale messaging. This week, we saw an acceleration of WhatsApp’s latest feature advance—its multi-device access beta. We have also seen the belated end to multiple security code change warnings in chats with users that have joined the beta, you’ll likely have seen this with some of your contacts in recent weeks.
On the surface, this radical WhatsApp update can be seen as targeting iMessage, with its seamless multi-device access already in place. But realistically, it’s retaining Android users that’s much more critical to WhatsApp. That’s where most of its users can be found, and that’s what has come under threat from Signal and Telegram and now, critically, Google’s own revamped and converged assault on Android messaging.
Yes, Facebook dominates the global messaging market, with WhatsApp and Messenger, it owns the two most popular cross-platform services with 2 billion and 1.3 billion users. But it hasn’t cracked the U.S. at its usual scale, blaming Apple. As Zuckerberg complained earlier this year, “we increasingly see Apple as one of our biggest competitors. iMessage is a key linchpin of their ecosystem—which is why iMessage is the most used messaging service in the U.S.”
Unlike Android, iOS doesn’t offer users the option to replace iMessage with a different default messenger. Instead, it is stitching iMessage more into the fabric of iPhone’s OS. And while this is good for Apple, with iMessage (especially in the U.S.) being a sticky platform users don’t want to quit, it’s not at all good for its billion-plus users.
The real loser from this situation is Google, which has failed to replicate Apple’s iMessage success with its own Messages app for Android users. As with much of the Android world, the stock messenger situation was a fragmented hodgepodge until recently. But Google has grasped the nettle, evolving Messages into a stock offering across different OEMs and networks, standardizing around RCS and even adding a first-pass end-to-end encryption later into the mix.
But while Google Messages has become more an iMessage competitor than ever before, the reality is that the stock Android messenger is still very much WhatsApp. “I use an Android, because if you look at WhatsApp’s user base, we are very Android heavy,” WhatsApp’s boss Will Cathcart said back in March.
While Google has been ramping up its own Messages features, WhatsApp has gone much further, plugging its two biggest feature gaps with encrypted backups and multi-device access. As such, it has cemented its leadership of the secure messaging space given its sheer scale and these new added features. Signal is more secure and has a smoother user experience, but it remains tiny compared to WhatsApp, and the network effect where messengers are concerned kicks in.
Apple can change the messaging landscape, shifting users from WhatsApp to Google Messages by bringing iMessage inside the RCS tent, providing the potential for a cross-platform Android and iOS secure stock messenger for the first time, a genuine SMS v2.
Google has pointed this out, but Apple is staying silent. Doing this would clearly be in the best interests of users, and we’ve seen such collaboration recently, with the COVID proximity technology standardized by Apple and Google working together. That didn’t carry any competitive benefit or risk, this though clearly does.
“I assume it’s in Apple’s interest to have everyone using an iPhone,” Cathcart suggested in March. “And you look at a place like the U.S., most people have an iPhone, and the messaging experience works better on iMessage if everyone else has an iPhone… It’s certainly in [Apple’s] strategic interest that people not use something like WhatsApp because they want people to not use an Android phone.”
If Google is the loser here, then Facebook is the winner. And that’s a surprise, because if Apple was fully committed to its battle with Facebook, it knows that cross-platform RCS, encrypted, a genuine SMS v2, would be the biggest threat to WhatsApp, installed on every Android and iOS device, stitched into both operating systems.
There’s also been a much more serious Apple surprise for Facebook (aka Meta) on the WhatsApp front this week, with the iPhone maker’s latest iOS 15.2 beta introducing the highly controversial photo scanning feature into iMessage. This optional setting lets parents enable Apple’s AI on their children’s phones, warning if explicit photos are sent or received. There’s no parental notifications this time, as had been touted initially, but it still compromises iMessage’s fabled end-to-end encryption.
And so, as things stand, WhatsApp is now the clear winner on the encrypted messaging front. Google Messages has very limited 1:1 encryption, failing to fully secure groups or multi-device access. iMessage is about to introduce AI monitoring. “It’s impossible to build a client-side scanning system that can only be used for sexually explicit images sent or received by children,” EFF has warned. “Even a well-intentioned effort to build such a system will break key promises of the messenger’s encryption itself and open the door to broader abuses.”
My advice to both Google Messages and now iMessage users is to switch to WhatsApp for their everyday secure messenger, and to run Signal in parallel for all your contacts using that brilliant platform. My advice to Android users is to set Signal as your phone’s default messenger, for a compelling iMessage-like experience.
And my advice to Apple is quickly backtrack on plans to add any content monitoring to iMessage and take the commercial leap to bring iMessage inside the RCS tent. It’s clearly in the best interests of your users, and finally kills the everyday risks they’re taking defaulting to SMS v1 with every message sent or received to a non-Apple user.