New EU law could spark gold rush of iMessage alternatives

At this point, accessing iMessage’s features on non-Apple devices is a chore. In fact, accessing the features of any messaging platform outside of the native apps can range from difficult to nearly impossible. In any case, be it Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Signal, the developers of the services want you to stick with their proprietary software to send messages on their platforms.

But new rules announced by the European Union last week could pave the way for the dismantling of the barriers around these walled platforms. The new Digital Markets Act (DMA) includes a clause that says major messaging services can be forced by other companies to offer interoperability with their platforms. It wouldn’t force Apple to make iMessage for Android, but it could allow another company to require Apple to open its messaging service and then produce a third-party Android client relatively easily.

The Digital Markets Act is part of the European Union’s effort to curb Big Tech and introduce competition where it believes it is seriously lacking. And messaging apps like iMessage, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger, which use closed ecosystems to effectively lock in their users and anchor their position, are easy targets. But these interconnectivity proposals have also raised concerns among security experts, who worry that forcing services like WhatsApp to connect to others could compromise the standard end-to-end encryption their users rely on.

As a large, popular messaging service that’s only available on certain hardware, iMessage is a particularly tempting target. According to the proposed language, the DMA would not only allow a third-party developer to create an Android messaging client compatible with iMessage, but also open up the possibility of integrating WhatsApp with Apple’s messaging service.

One person who would be very interested in taking advantage of this legislation if it becomes law is Eric Migicovsky, founder of former smartwatch manufacturer Pebble and co-founder of the unified messaging app Beeper.

Beeper’s pitch is to provide one interface for all chat apps.
Image: Beeper

“I am cautiously optimistic [about the DMA]Migicovsky told me via Zoom, “these things always have curveballs, but hey, the AVG [General Data Protection Regulation] definitely shook things up, and this seems to have some of the teeth… even Lake teeth than the GDPR has.”

Much of Beeper’s pitch offers the kind of interconnectivity the DMA hopes to facilitate. The app, which is offered for a fixed subscription of $10 per month, is designed to provide a single interface for all of your different chat networks. At the time of writing, Beeper’s website lists 15 chat networks it integrates into a single app, including Slack, WhatsApp, and even iMessage.

But in the absence of official support from Apple, offering iMessage interconnectivity requires some creativity from Beeper. It requires its customers to use an Apple product to act as a relay between the app and Apple’s messaging service. At one point, the company offered to send jailbroken iPhones to act as bridgesbut these days Migicovsky tells me it just relies on a Mac app that users can use to act as a bridge.

Beeper’s approach is similar to many other apps developed to provide iMessage support on Android. AirMessage, BlueBubbles, and WeMessage all make the tantalizing promise that they’ll keep your chat bubbles blue even if you’re using an Android device, but they all come with equally complicated setup instructions needed to bypass Apple’s official software with their third-party alternatives.

One of the first of these apps to pop up was WeMessage in 2017, which developer Roman Scott tells me he put together to help Android-using school friends who felt left out of iMessage group chats. Like Beeper, it used always-on Mac software to forward messages to its Android app.

But there are plenty of drawbacks to the approaches used by Bleeper and WeMessage. Setting up the system is not intuitive and it is difficult to constantly use an Apple device as a bridge. It also relies on users who own a Mac (or are willing to set up a macOS virtual machine) to partner with an Android phone.

Despite the hoops users had to jump through, Scott was pleasantly surprised by the popularity of WeMessage. At its peak, it had between 30,000 and 40,000 users and was downloaded about 120,000 times in total. But eventually, Scott tells me, it just became disheartening to work on an app that felt so hacky that even fans of the app told him it was going to be shut down. “Psychologically, it killed a lot of my motivation for the project,” Scott says.

“It’s hard to think of it as legit,” Scott tells me. “I was researching monetization methods, but a lot of people said, ‘If you make money from this, Apple will sue you.’ I don’t know, I didn’t think Apple would sue me, but I was 16 years old. I didn’t have to get hit with a cease and desist.” Ultimately, Scott says he was too busy to maintain WeMessage’s 50,000 lines of codebase, so he made it open source and moved on to other projects.

If the DMA succeeds in its current form, these types of third-party customers could have a chance to ditch their hacky solutions and gain a good sense of legitimacy. “It would be so much better,” says Beeper’s Migicovsky. It would allow Beeper to move beyond the Mac app it needs for iMessage interoperability and avoid using background web apps to integrate with other services.

The EU has announced that it plans to use several factors to determine whether a tech giant is large enough to be categorized as a “gatekeeper”, including more than 45 million monthly end users and a market capitalization of more than €75 billion or a annual turnover of more than €7.5 billion. Migicovsky says Beeper plans to request interoperability with all possible services when the time comes.

But Scott is less sure when I ask him if the new laws might tempt him to return to his work on WeMessage, citing how easy it would be for other developers to build the exact same app. “There would be so many people who would replicate it in five seconds. I don’t think it’s worth coming back to do it,” Scott says. “Either you have to be the first, or you have to be the best, and I don’t know if I would have enough time to invest in WeMessage to make the best of it again.”

Critics were quick to point out the issues with requiring platforms to provide this kind of interoperability, such as the impact it could have on personal messaging security. iMessage, along with other services like WhatsApp, offers end-to-end encryption for its messages by default, and cryptographers are concerned that it will be very difficult to maintain this security if messages are sent between different apps.

“We remain concerned that some provisions of the DMA will create unnecessary privacy and security concerns for our users,” Apple spokesman Fred Sainz said in a statement last week. Meanwhile, WhatsApp chief Will Cathcart also expressed concerns about the legislation in an interview with Platformer’s Casey Newton.

“I am very concerned about whether this will invade or seriously undermine privacy, whether it will break much of the security work we’ve done that we are particularly proud of, and whether it will actually lead to greater innovation and competitiveness Cathcart said, adding that interoperability could hurt WhatsApp’s efforts to fight spam, misinformation and hate speech on its platform.

When I asked Migicovsky how interoperability could harm security, he told me he saw no technical reason why they couldn’t be overcome. “All we ask is to be able to work together,” he says, using WhatsApp as an example. “Right now, WhatsApp is both the network and the app. All we ask is that our app can talk about the protocol WhatsApp uses. The WhatsApp app can do it — why can’t we?” The implication here is that WhatsApp’s objections may have less to do with technical limitations and more to do with protecting its business.

Questions have also been raised about what such a law could mean for platforms’ ability to develop and innovate their services over time. If you’re not just building an app for your users, but also a platform for other companies to connect their services to, the argument is that you can’t change and customize your service over time, otherwise you’ll break the apps from everyone else.

Fully open standards, or federated messaging protocols, arguably present a worst-case scenario here and can be “stuck in time” compared to how centralized services can innovate very quickly. “It’s what Slack did to IRC, what Facebook did to email, and what WhatsApp did to XMPP,” Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike argued in a 2016 blog post. “In any case, the federated service is stuck in time, while the centralized service can iterate in the modern world and beyond.” It’s worth noting that Signal, with its approximately 40 million users, is probably too small to be designated a gatekeeper and is therefore required by EU law to provide interconnectivity with other platforms.

Even a modern protocol like RCS struggles to catch on, despite being championed by Google, not least because Apple doesn’t seem interested in building compatibility into iOS.

But Migicovsky argues that today’s established messaging platforms have such a huge advantage over newcomers that there’s little to no incentive for them to innovate in the first place. “Has WhatsApp changed in the past six years?” asks Migicovsky, pointing to the introduction of video calling in 2016 as the latest major new addition Meta’s messaging platform has made to its service. Since then, he says, the additions have been minor and haven’t changed the core functionality of WhatsApp.

Any potential costs of this interoperability, Migicovsky argues, would be mitigated by the benefits of openness and innovation. Look at e-mail, he says, where Google was able to infiltrate in 2004 and completely disrupt Microsoft’s dominant Hotmail.

“Think about how much better Gmail was than Hotmail,” he says, adding that features like large file storage and the responsive interface felt like a breath of fresh air at the time. “Someone is going to make the Gmail of iMessage clients. Who would say no to that?”

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