Apple’s new headache: an application that has disrupted its control over messaging

For years, Ben Black’s phone bothered his family. It was the only Android device in a family message group that included eight iPhones. Thanks to it, videos and photos would arrive in low resolution and there would be green text bubbles in the middle of the blue bubbles.

But a new app called Beeper Mini has given him the ability to change that.

Mr Black, 25, used the app to create an account for Apple’s messaging service, iMessage, with his Google Pixel phone number. For the first time, every message the family exchanged featured a blue bubble, and members could use perks like emojis and animations.

Since its introduction on December 5, Beeper Mini has quickly become a headache and potential antitrust problem for Apple. It blew a hole in Apple’s messaging system, while critics say it demonstrated how Apple bullies potential competitors.

Apple was surprised when Beeper Mini gave Android devices access to its modern iPhone-only service. Less than a week after the launch of Beeper Mini, Apple blocked the application by modifying its iMessage system. He said the app created a security and privacy risk.

Apple’s reaction sparked a game of Whac-a-Mole, with Beeper Mini finding other ways to work and Apple finding new ways to crash the app in response.

The duel has raised questions in Washington about whether Apple used its market dominance over iMessage to block competition and force consumers to spend more on iPhones than on cheaper alternatives.

The Department of Justice became interested in the case. Beeper Mini met with the department’s antitrust lawyers on Dec. 12, two people familiar with the meeting said. Eric Migicovsky, co-founder of the app’s parent company, Beeper, declined to comment on the meeting, but the department is in the middle of a four-year-old investigation into Apple’s anticompetitive behavior.

The Federal Trade Commission stated in a blog post On Thursday, it would examine “dominant” players who “use privacy and security as justification to prohibit interoperability” between services. The post does not name any companies.

The battle also attracted the attention of the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. The committee’s leaders — Senators Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah — wrote a letter to the Justice Department expressing concern that Apple is stifling competition.

Apple declined to comment on the letter.

The questions coming from Washington go to the heart of today’s smartphone competition. Competing smartphone makers credit iMessage with helping Apple increase its U.S. smartphone market share to more than 50% of smartphones sold, up from 41% in 2018. according to Counterpoint Researcha technology company.

Messaging is a key part of Apple’s strategy to sell more iPhones. For years, it made messaging between iPhones and Android devices as basic as texting between decades-old flip phones. Texts between iPhone users appear blue and can be tapped to give a boost, but texts with Android users appear green and have no simple benefits.

Android companies tried to fight back. An Android smartphone manufacturer, Nothing, you collaborated with an app called Sunbird to offer iMessage. Google, which developed the Android operating system, pressured Apple to adopt a technology called rich communications services, which would allow high-resolution videos and images to be sent between competing smartphones.

But their efforts didn’t really bear fruit. Last month, Apple announced that it would adopt the technology in the coming year. The move means Android users will enjoy benefits like sharing high-resolution videos, but will still be stuck with the green bubbles for text messages, which have become stigmatized and associated with less wealth.

“Everyone is waiting to see what kind of response Apple is going to have about the Beeper Mini,” said Cory Doctorow, special adviser to the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, who wrote to interoperability book through different technologies. “We can’t say how worried they are internally, but their response could have a huge impact on how messaging works.”

Protecting iMessage is a decade-old strategy at Apple. In 2013, Apple software chief Craig Federighi opposed making iMessage usable on competing devices because it would “remove a barrier preventing iPhone families from getting their kids Android phones,” according to published emails during the company’s legal fight with Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite.

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has resisted calls to change that stance. I have told an iPhone owner at a conference last year that the solution to green text messages was to buy iPhones for friends and family members.

Beeper brought a different approach to messaging. Mr Migicovsky started the company in 2020 to create a unique messaging app capable of sending texts across multiple services, including WhatsApp and Signal.

Mr. Migicovsky has successfully integrated most messaging services except iMessage. Unlike its peers, Apple did not offer a web application, making it difficult to connect to its service. The only way Beeper could integrate iMessage was to route messages through Mac computers and then to an iPhone. The process delayed messages and made them less secure.

While Beeper struggled with iMessage, a teenager in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, found an alternative solution. James Gill, a 16-year-old computer enthusiast, made it his personal goal to understand how iMessage worked. He used software to decrypt his iMessages and determined that Apple was using its push notification system – the same one that delivers news alerts – to transmit messages between devices.

“It wasn’t a great insight,” said Mr. Gill, a Saucon Valley High School student. “I just thought about it for a long time.”

In June, Mr. Gill published his findings on GitHub, a software platform where programmers share code. When Mr. Migicovsky saw the message, he thought it might help Beeper solve his iMessage problem. I offered Mr. Gill a job making $100 an hour, a significant increase from the $11 an hour the high school student was making as a cashier at McDonald’s.

The work was more complex than either Mr. Migicovsky or Mr. Gill expected. Since Beeper Mini was released this month, Apple has changed iMessage about three times, Mr. Migicovsky said.

Every change Apple made required an adjustment from Beeper. Its latest solution is to route registration information to Beeper Mini users through their Mac personal computers.

“To block it completely, they will have to find a way to require an iPhone serial number,” Mr. Gill said. “Beeper will always offer a workaround.”

An Apple official said it would continue to update iMessage because it could not verify that Beeper kept its messages encrypted. “These techniques pose significant risks to user security and privacy, including the potential to expose metadata and enable unwanted messages, spam and phishing attacks,” it said in a statement.

Mr. Migicovsky disagrees. Instead of allowing Android customers to send encrypted messages to iPhone customers, he said, Apple is trying to force them to exchange unencrypted text messages. He posted Beeper software code to the web and encouraged Apple and cybersecurity experts to review it.

Matthew Green, an associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, said Apple has legitimate security concerns and warned that a prolonged conflict between the two companies could potentially introduce vulnerabilities that criminals could exploit .

“A world where Apple works with supported third-party clients is a good world,” Green said. “A world in which Beeper and Apple try to compete in a tit-for-tat arms race is a bad world.”

To try to end the standoff, Mr. Migicovsky said, he emailed Mr. Cook, but the Apple chief did not respond.

“That was not our intention,” Mr. Migicovsky said. “We’re trying to make this work, within our control, for the good of the cat world.”