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Beeper vs. iMessage is a fight about how tech works — and who’s really in charge

Beeper vs. iMessage is a fight about how tech works — and who’s really in charge

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Beeper believes the world should be different, better, more open. Apple thinks Beeper is a security risk. It’s all true, and it makes my head spin.

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A black-and-white graphic showing the Apple logo
Illustration by Nick Barclay / The Verge

Sometimes there’s the world you wish existed, and there’s the world as it is.

Over the last week, Apple and the messaging app Beeper have been locked in a battle for users’ souls and security. The bones of the story are this: Beeper released a new app, Beeper Mini, that cleverly made use of Apple’s iMessage protocols to allow you to send blue-bubble, encrypted messages from an Android phone. Apple swiftly shut it down. Beeper spent a few days getting a somewhat less impressive version of Beeper Mini running again. It probably won’t last.

What’s odd about this story is that you have two sides completely at odds, both saying entirely correct things. Beeper CEO Eric Migicovsky has been telling anyone who will listen that SMS is insecure, that Apple is doing its users a disservice by requiring them to use such old and crummy tech to communicate with the vast majority of the world’s smartphone users, and that Beeper’s solution is both a better user experience and a better privacy solution. It’s all true: if you start from the premise that anything is better than SMS, which is a pretty reasonable premise for a lot of reasons, the Beeper way is a good one.

But here’s another way to look at it, which I suspect is the way Apple sees the situation: Who the hell is Beeper? This tiny company has effectively hacked a closed protocol, and now millions of iPhone users are potentially having their messages handled by a company they’ve never heard of. What’s worse, since they’re sending blue-bubble messages, those users will assume they’re sending encrypted messages through a trusted source — Apple — and they’ll never know about this intermediary that promises it’s trustworthy, but who really knows? Apple is well within its rights to run iMessage however it sees fit, and to kick out any provider or person it wants.

A fully interoperable, cross-platform messaging system would be a good thing for the world. I don’t think that’s particularly controversial. The whole blue- and green-bubble situation in the US is ridiculous, creating a class system based on which device you can afford or which OS you prefer. It’s also not great how much of the world is wholly reliant on WhatsApp, a platform that has thus far mostly done right by its users but could change ownership, strategy, or business model at a moment’s notice. If messaging was based on open protocols, and you could talk to your friends across apps, the whole system would be more resilient and functional.

The way we message now is just ridiculous

But even besides all that, the way we message now is just ridiculous. Here’s a list of the platforms I’ve used to send a private message just in the last 24 hours: Apple Messages (with both blue- and green-bubble friends), Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok, Signal, LinkedIn, Google Chat, Discord, Slack, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few. I spend — we all spend — too many brain cycles trying to organize our ecosystem instead of just talking to our friends.

I’ve been a fan of Beeper because Migicovsky and his team flipped that app-centric model on its head. They’ve built a product that puts people first and platforms second. I can flip from a LinkedIn conversation to an Instagram DM to a WhatsApp group, all in Beeper, and it all feels the same. In the long run, I think open protocols like Matrix are an even better idea, because there are still downsides to having your messages hosted and stored on companies’ servers, but Beeper is a clever stopgap that makes messaging easier.

Beeper is also, in many ways, a series of elaborate hacks. For a while, it made its iMessage connection work by storing all your messages on a Mac Mini in a data center. If you use Signal or WhatsApp with Beeper, Beeper is actively decrypting your messages as it delivers them. It’s not malicious; it’s how you get it to work. Beeper’s technology is also getting better quickly, and the company says it’ll soon be able to keep your messages encrypted across platforms. But all of this just requires a lot of faith in a tiny startup’s ability to do the right thing the right way.

An illustration of the Beeper Mini app.
Beeper Mini is a nice app — and a hack.
Image: Beeper

That’s why it makes perfect sense for Apple to try to shut Beeper out. Beeper is a security risk. It is intercepting messages without telling users; it’s changing the user experience for iMessage; it’s claiming to be better than SMS, but there’s almost no way to know with absolute certainty. (This is the part where Migicovsky would tell you that anything is better than SMS, but I’m not sure that’s true.)  

The more cynical take on Apple’s move, which is almost certainly at least somewhat correct in both this situation and with all of Apple’s privacy noise, is that Apple isn’t fighting Beeper for security reasons at all. Apple has spent years advertising itself as a privacy-focused company and uses that to sell more iPhones and maintain its tight-fisted control over the App Store and everything else. iMessage is maybe Apple’s most powerful lock-in mechanism; how many people would buy Android phones tomorrow if they didn’t fear becoming a green bubble? The answer isn’t everybody, but it’s definitely not nobody. If Apple was really only concerned about its users’ best interest and believed its “privacy is a human right” line, it would have made iMessage for Android a long time ago

How many people would buy Android phones tomorrow if they didn’t fear becoming a green bubble?

Truth is, the reason doesn’t matter. Apple is a business and has neither a moral nor a corporate obligation to open up its messaging system or to play nicer with Android users. (Adopting RCS, which improves media sharing and overall security, is probably the best the green bubbles are getting from Apple anytime soon.) Look at this from a large enough perspective and Beeper threatens Apple’s users, its market share, and its overall bottom line. It would frankly be irresponsible of Apple, in that view, to let Beeper continue to pry open iMessage for the benefit of Android users. In the immortal words of Tim Cook, you want the full Apple experience, just “buy your mom an iPhone.”

The battle between these two companies is so riveting to watch because it pits two completely different worldviews against one another. Beeper’s belief is that messaging is for people, not companies, and that nobody should be held hostage by their messaging platform. I agree with this take! Apple, on the other hand, is a very successful company defending the integrity of a very successful and very important product. It has every right to do so!

There are really only two ways this plays out. The first, and probably most likely, is that Apple successfully keeps Beeper out. Beeper might continue to have some kind of iMessage access — it already got Beeper Mini up and running again, albeit in a more convoluted form — but it won’t be the seamless blue-bubble system it was for a few days last week. Apple has a long history of maintaining its closed ecosystem, and it seems unlikely to change now.

The second possible outcome is that Beeper starts a revolution that ultimately becomes too big for Apple to stop. There’s a long history in tech of what’s known as “adversarial interoperability,” in which one developer or company reverse-engineers a product in order to work with or defeat it. Apple itself is probably the best known example: Steve Jobs had the iWork team reverse-engineer Microsoft’s Office suite in order to make those files compatible with iWork, and continually updated to maintain that compatibility even as Microsoft tried to break it. 

There’s a long history in tech of what’s known as “adversarial interoperability”

Eventually, Microsoft gave up fighting and opened up access to Office files in a more formal way. This outcome was probably bad for Microsoft’s monopoly control over Word docs, but it was great for Apple and for people who want more choice in which computer they buy and which apps they use. There are lots of examples like this, and they’re usually good for users.

Maybe Beeper can outlast Apple and can be the driving force for the company to finally open up iMessage properly. With the EU also pushing messaging apps to interoperate, there’s certainly plenty of pressure to do so. There’s a version of the future in which Beeper is the savior of the messaging world, breaking down doors everywhere and setting us and our chats free. Beeper is betting that a combination of regulatory pressure and public outcry will eventually force Apple to either play nice or at least just stop fighting.

I wouldn’t bet on that second future, but I certainly hope for something like it. Messaging should be more open, but it’s too important to only be open via elaborate hacks and bolted-on systems. It’s certainly possible that some good old-fashioned adversarial interoperability could create an industry of better cross-platform messaging tools like Beeper and others, but what we really need is better cross-platform protocols underneath those tools. I want Apple to protect my messages! I just don’t want them stuck on my Apple devices forever.

Beeper is right about the world, but Apple is right about Beeper. Which means the fight for the future of Beeper, iMessage, and all our chats everywhere, is only just getting started.