For years, Ben Black's phone bothered his family. It was the only Android device in a family messaging group with eight iPhones. Thanks to it, the videos and photos would arrive in low resolution and there would be green text bubbles between blue bubbles.
But a new app called Beeper Mini gave you the chance to change that.
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 had a blue bubble and members could use perks like emojis and animations.
Since its launch on December 5, Beeper Mini has quickly become a headache and potential antitrust problem for Apple. It has blown a hole in Apple's messaging system, while critics say it has shown how Apple intimidates potential competitors.
Apple was surprised when Beeper Mini gave Android devices access to its modern iPhone-only service. Less than a week after Beeper Mini launched, Apple blocked the app by changing 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 alternative ways to operate and Apple finding new ways to block the app in response.
The duel has raised questions in Washington about whether Apple has used its market dominance over iMessage to block competition and force consumers to spend more on iPhones than on lower-priced alternatives.
The Department of Justice has taken an interest 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 investigation into Apple's anticompetitive behavior.
The Federal Trade Commission said in a blog post on Thursday that would examine “dominant” players who “use privacy and security as justification for not allowing interoperability” between services. The publication did not name any companies.
The battle also caught the attention of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. The committee's leaders — Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Mike Lee, R-Utah — wrote a letter to the Justice Department expressing concern that Apple was killing off competition.
Apple declined to comment on the letter.
The questions coming from Washington get to the heart of today's smartphone competition. Rival smartphone makers credit iMessage with helping Apple expand its smartphone market share in the United States to more than 50 percent of smartphones sold, up from 41 percent in 2018. according to counterpoint researcha technology company.
Messaging has been a key part of Apple's strategy to sell more iPhones. For years, it has made exchanges between iPhones and Android devices as basic as texting between decades-old flip phones. Text messages between iPhone users appear in blue and can be tapped for approval, but text messages with Android users appear in green and have no simple advantages.
Android companies have tried to fight back. An Android smartphone manufacturer, Nothing, has collaborated with an application called Sunbird to offer iMessage. Google, which created the Android operating system, has pressured Apple to adopt a technology called rich communication services, which would allow high-resolution videos and images to be sent between competing smartphones.
But their efforts have not made much of a dent. Last month, Apple said it would adopt the technology next year. The move means Android users will enjoy benefits like sharing higher resolution videos, but will be stuck with green bubbles for text messages, which have been stigmatized and associated with less wealth.
“Everyone is watching to see what kind of response Apple is going to have to the Beeper Mini,” said Cory Doctorow, special adviser to the digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, who has written a report. interoperability book through different technologies. “We can't say how concerned they are internally, but their response could have a big impact on how messaging works.”
Protecting iMessage is an Apple strategy that has been going on for a decade. In 2013, Craig Federighi, Apple's chief software officer, objected to iMessage working on competing devices because it would “remove a hurdle for iPhone families to give their kids Android phones,” according to published emails during the company court fight with Epic Gamesthe creator of Fortnite.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has resisted calls to change that position. He he told an iPhone owner at a conference last year that the solution to green texting was to buy iPhones for friends and family.
Beeper brought a different approach to messaging. Migicovsky created the company in 2020 to create a single messaging app that could send text messages across multiple services, including WhatsApp and Signal.
Migicovsky managed to integrate most messaging services except iMessage. Unlike its peers, Apple did not offer a web app, 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 from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, found a workaround. James Gill, a 16-year-old computer enthusiast, made it his personal goal to discover 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 transport messages between devices.
“It wasn't a great idea,” said Gill, a junior at Saucon Valley High School. “I was poking around at it for a long time.”
In June, Gill posted his findings on GitHub, a software platform where programmers share code. When Migicovsky saw the post, he thought he could help Beeper solve his iMessage problem. He offered Mr. Gill a job earning $100 an hour, a significant increase from the $11 an hour the high school student earned as a cashier at McDonald's.
The work has been more complicated than Migicovsky or Gill expected. Since launching Beeper Mini this month, Apple has changed iMessage about three times, Migicovsky said.
Every change from Apple required an adjustment on Beeper's part. Their latest solution is to send registration information to Beeper Mini users through their Mac personal computers.
“To block it completely, they will have to find a way to demand a serial number from the iPhone,” Gill said. “Beeper will still find a workaround.”
An Apple spokeswoman said it would continue to update iMessage because it could not verify that Beeper kept its messages encrypted. “These techniques posed significant risks to user security and privacy, including the potential for metadata exposure and enabling unwanted messages, spam, and phishing attacks,” she 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's software code on 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 had some legitimate security concerns and warned that a prolonged fight between the two companies could introduce vulnerabilities that criminals could exploit.
“A world where Apple works with third-party customers in a compatible way is a good thing,” Green said. “A world where Beeper and Apple try to fight each other in a tit-for-tat arms race is bad.”
In an attempt to end the standoff, Migicovsky said, he emailed Cook, but the Apple boss did not respond.
“This was not our intention,” Migicovsky said. “We're trying to make it work, within our control, for the good of the chat world.”
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