Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Google's call on Apple to support the RCS messaging standard is consistent with what an EU commissioner already wanted 11 years ago: the EU's unfinished interoperability business

I may not always agree with The Verge on Apple-related issues, but I have no problem acknowledging that they've been right all along to ask Apple when iMessage would finally support the RCS messaging standard in order to achieve interoperability with other messengers. Now that Google's Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer publicly called on Apple to do so, there is at least some hope for change.

While the iMessage lock-in problem and the social pressures it exerts on low-income families has been discussed on the Internet for some time (see this Septemer 2020 thread on Hacker News, which contains pretty good explanations of how it works), it took a recent Wall Street Journal article to draw the attention of influential people to that problem. It also came up during the Epic Games v. Apple trial, with Apple-internal communications revealing a lock-in strategy.

When I ditched my iPhone last summer, I knew (not least thanks to the public debate surrounding Epic v. Apple) that one can switch off iMessage, which I did about a week before making my Google Pixel my primary phone. It was a non-issue since I primarily use WhatsApp and Signal. Then I'm not a teenager in the United States. The problem is real, and I do feel sorry for low-income families impacted by it. However, let's be clear that Apple's "culpability" in this context is merely a refusal to be interoperable. No one can reasonably expect them to provide an iMessage app on Android, but I agree with Google that supporting RCS would be the morally right thing to do.

It's hard to predict whether naming and shaming will change Apple's mind. It would actually be out of character for Apple to bow to that kind of pressure. The sole exception to date is that Facebook succeeded in getting Apple to support a small business initiative. But there was a lot less money at stake for Apple in that context. It was inexpensive to come across as generous. Not so this time around. The U.S. market may be well beyond a tipping point, and Apple--not because of superior quality (I'm even happier with my Pixel--relatively speaking, a bargain--than I ever was with an iPhone) but the most extreme "walled garden" strategy. Apple can continue to gain U.S. market share at Android's expense, and presumably that's a major part of the reason why Mr. Lockheimer speaks out (though I don't mean to doubt that he--like me--believes low-income families should have more affordable choices).

Assuming that Apple remains adamant about its iMessage lock-in strategy (which works only in the U.S., but that's the key market), what's next?

This debate immediately reminded me of a policy-making initiative by an EU commissioner many people in tech industry circles remember all too well: "Steelie Neelie" Kroes, famous for playing hardball with Microsoft while she was competition commissioner. In 2010, when she was put in charge of the EU's Digital Agenda, Mrs. Kroes rightly considered interoperability a top priority. Here's what she told Euractiv in a June 2010 interview:

In response to a question mentioning the iPhone:

"Today we are facing a shift from the PC era to an era where mobile devices with always-on Internet connectivity are becoming widespread. In this new and innovative market, interoperability is especially important."

In response to a question about interoperability being a Digital Agenda priority:

"This is not just about Microsoft or any big company like Apple, IBM or Intel. The main challenge is that consumers need choice when it comes to software or hardware products. Any kind of IT product should be able to communicate with any type of service in the future.

"Interoperability of equipment used, of services provided and of data exchanged promotes an increase in user confidence, value and choice. It also promotes acceptance, success and take-up of new technologies and thus competition among providers. It empowers the user to make the best choice in terms of value for money and suitability without being locked-in to one specific company or brand.

"Open standards are therefore vital to deploy interoperability between data, devices, services and networks. Internet is the best example of the power of interoperability. Its open architecture has given billions of people around the world access to devices and applications which talk to one another."

(emphases added)

Almost 11 years later, Apple's refusal to interoperate shows that it would have been good to mandate interoperability through legislation. There was no legislative initiative at the time, and the iMessage lock-in is a problem only for U.S.--and not for EU--consumers. Lawmakers on all continents would have valid reasons to take action, in a principled fashion as opposed to singling out a particular company. Neelie Kroes identified the problem (lock-in) and the solution (interoperability) more than a decade ago. The iMessage lock-in is just one of many issues in the tech sector that could be fixed that way.

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