This week, after Apple made a pitch for itself as a services company, the reaction was quite unlike the aftermath of most Apple events. The News+ service seemed economical but unspectacular; the credit card was a bit odd; and both Apple's gaming and TV plans were curiously light on specifics. All in all, it just seemed ... meh — which is historically the most un-Apple reaction of all.
But the muted response to the company's new pivot to services also prompted the return of one argument that pops up regularly: If Apple wants to really make a splash, it should extend iMessage to Android.
This is an argument that has been made by prominent tech site The Verge and will also be the subject of a forthcoming column by The New York Times' Farhad Manjoo. It's exactly the kind of provocative, counter-intuitive claim that gets people clicking. After all, Apple's entire business model is about coaxing people into its mostly closed ecosystem, and the exclusivity of iMessage — that iPhone users are shown in blue and Android users in green — is a key part of Apple's brand.
But for all the controversy, the iMessage expansion idea also glosses over a much simpler, more direct solution to the messiness of messaging. What we really need for something as universal and fundamental as sending a text message is an industry-wide standard. That proposal may not be as buzzy, but it's a better, fairer, and smarter solution.
Think about messaging right now. Most people have friends using a mix of iOS and Android. While it's not especially onerous for individual chats — just use WhatsApp for one friend and iOS for another — that diversity means the increasingly popular group chat is complicated. You either have to coax friends into signing up for some new app, or simply give up on chatting together. In the quest to consolidate an entire friend group onto a single app, having too many messaging options — iMessage, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, WeChat, and so on forever — is more burden than boon.
So perhaps iMessage for Android is the way to go. Texting a mixed group of iPhone and Android users is difficult and often clunky. What's more, normal texts on Android aren't encrypted in the way iMessage is. Dieter Bohn at The Verge argues it makes sense to simply smooth out this problem by having Apple extend those benefits to everyone, iOS and Android users alike. Even if it's not the smartest business move for Apple, argues Bohn, it's the moral thing to do — a kind of gesture of good will that will help everyone, including Apple's own customer base.
But this approach is wrong for a number of reasons. First, it's entirely backwards to want a company with 15 percent market share to set a universal standard. That the idea exists at all reflects the bias of the American tech press, who generally tend to center Apple in their coverage despite the global reality of Android's market domination.
More to the point, if the issue is "we need a better, less confusing, and more secure way for everyone to message from any device," the answer is most definitely not a proprietary app from a single company. Instead, messaging should be far more like email: It doesn't matter what app you use because anyone, anywhere can send an email to anyone else (and any number of anyone elses).
Would it not be vastly better if messaging had a similar standard? The ideal scenario would be one in which the tech industry would agree on a set of principles — encryption, universal access, particular features regarding emojis, images, and so on — and then any app could simply plug into that standard. It wouldn't matter which app you chose.
There's also the additional and significant benefit that a messaging standard would be device-agnostic, in addition to working on any operating system. It's not just about smartphones. One should also be able to easily send messages from a PC, a laptop, or a tablet rather than running into the absurd barriers we have today, like how WhatsApp isn't available for tablets, or that it's impossible for iPhone owners to text from a PC.
It's true there is a forthcoming replacement for texts called RCS, a move being pushed by mobile carriers. But this format is not encrypted, which makes it a non-starter as a universal approach, particularly as secure messaging becomes ever more important.
But the development of RCS highlights why an industry-wide standard, one negotiated by both tech companies and mobile carriers, would be superior. There is something deeply counterintuitive about proprietary means of communication. While email and the telephone before it are standardized, digital messaging remains strangely cordoned-off. In a sense, Bohn's argument of a moral case for universalizing messaging is correct. He's asking the right question but pitching the wrong answer.
Tech criticism is often constrained by its reliance on market solutions to all problems — that what will make things better is some new innovation by an exceptional company. This is a narrow view, one that refuses to acknowledge that sometimes cooperation yields more democratic, fairer results than competition.
That notion of fairness is at the heart of the case for standardized messaging. It sets a baseline to make digital conversation easier and more accessible. Instead of bothering with absurd divisions like color coding messages by device, a standard would facilitate connection and unity. And isn't that just the way communication should work?