It's those darn kids – or more precisely, one darn kid, a genius teenager who poked and poked at Apple's iMessage protocol until he broke through, reverse-engineered it and then sold the idea to Beeper.
Oh, you've heard of Beeper, the company that in the space of two weeks launched a pair of Android messaging apps that somehow give green bubbles access to blue bubble status? That's right, Beeper, Inc., the company that is now trying to keep Beeper Mini afloat while Apple may be quietly undermining it.
I've been following the story, which came amid of flurry of other iMessage versus Android Messaging-related news, for a week or so.
First, Nothing Phone introduced Nothing Chats, which was purported to open messaging chats between Nothing phones and Apple's notoriously impenetrable iMessage, until we learned that there were major security issues with the Sunbird app on which Nothing Chat was based.
Next, Apple made the surprise announcement that it would support RCS messaging on iPhones next year. This would finally open the rich messaging pathway between Android and iOS, except that this support will live alongside iMessage and not inside it.
Beeper Mini, though, is something different. It's not a phone-brand-locked app, and it's not designed to work outside of iMessage.
According to a report on CBS News, Beeper was hammering away at iMessage for years before a high-school student, James Gill, worked it out on his own for a project he originally called 'Pypush'.
Gill detailed his work on a dev blog back in August. It's fairly dense, though it appears that Gill figured out a way to make Apple's servers accept, encrypt, and deliver Android messages (and media) by fooling it into thinking it was seeing iMessage content. Gill points out how iMessage uses a 'binary blob' to verify that non-Apple devices are not using iMessage.
The wisdom of youth
The teen figured out how to sidestep the issue of "validation data" by creating custom code that could "emulate an obfuscated binary." I know it's complex, but it's also fairly clear what Gill did. Once he fooled the system into thinking the message was from an iPhone and not an Android device, iMessage's servers put the end-to-end encryption wrapper on it, and, well, Bob's your uncle.
I wonder if it's, as I perceive it at least, fooling Apple's iMessage handling system that prompted this Apple statement to CBS News' tech reporter Jo Ling Kent on the matter:
"These techniques posed significant risks to user security and privacy... we took steps to protect our users by blocking techniques that exploit fake credentials in order to gain access to iMessage."
From what I can see, Apple is working in real time to reverse engineer Gill's reverse engineering while, obviously, not impacting the wider world of iMessage messaging. It's likely that before long Beeper Mini won't work with iMessage at all, and Gill's rather remarkable work will be undone.
Senator @amyklobuchar + @SenMikeLee + @RepJerryNadler @RepKenBuck sent this to DOJ regarding ongoing fight betwn Beeper Mini vs Apple “to investigate whether this potentially anticompetitive conduct by Apple violated antitrust laws.” I’ll have the full story on @CBSMornings tmrw pic.twitter.com/pj6ef432TKDecember 18, 2023
This brings us to the other wrinkle in this story. U.S. lawmakers taking Apple to task yet again for what it perceives as anti-competitive practices. US Senators shared a letter with CBS' Kent outlining their concerns.
On one level, I fail to see how protecting a messaging system and the security of its users is somehow harming Android competitors. On the other hand, that argument neglects the bizarre psychographic factor of green versus blue bubbles. In the US at least, having a green bubble (standard SMS text) can feel a lot like being left out.
Some people think the green bubbles aren't cool. It's silly, I know, but then there's the very real value of everyone being on iMessage's blue bubble: all participants get end-to-end encryption, send receipts, post-send editing, high-resolution images, and videos. Cross-platform messaging does not. This is why people like Gill and companies like Beeper have gone to such great lengths to break Apple's stranglehold on its iMessage platform.
In reality, the lawmaker's call for investigation will result in little more than hearings – if that. Beeper Mini will eventually fail and we will forget about the app, Gill, and the lawmakers' consternation.
But should we?
Mr. Cook, tear down this wall
If Apple learns anything from this, it's not that it needs to make its message handling even more technically complex. It's like Apple's building ever more fortified walls to keep green bubble people out when instead, it could be building monitored gates to let some people in.
What I mean is that it's time for Apple to finally build iMessage for Android. Sure, we'll soon have cross-platform RCS support, but that will still create a green bubble ghetto on the iPhone. If Apple built an iMessage app for Android phones, we'd finally have one cross-platform app for all the blue bubbles.
It's time for Apple to give up this small competitive advantage and focus on winning based on design, cameras, battery life, and usability. It won't win the platform wars because of iMessage, but it could win a few hearts and minds if it brings iMessage to its biggest rival.
Or it could wait for another teenager to break its code.
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A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.
Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.