Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Google's #GetTheMessage campaign about iMessenger compatibility with Android Messenger raises important issue for society, gets Qualcomm's support, but has shortcomings

Google has just ratcheted up its campaign to pressure Apple to support the RCS messaging standard in order to massively improve interoperability between Apple's iMessenger and Google's Android Messenger app. I already commented on the topic in January.

The new #GetTheMessage effort says "[i]t's time for Apple to fix texting." Well, it would also be time for Google to fix a number of things--some of which it has in common with Apple. "Goopple" is the mobile ecosystem duopoly, if not a cartelopoly. Apple is more radical and outspoken about its walled-garden approach, while Google isn't truly open in all respects: sometimes it's fauxpen.

One high-profile supporter whose #GetTheMessage tweet I noticed is Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon:

This is just the latest in a series of public statements by Qualcomm executives disagreeing with Apple, which is for now--and possibly for several more years to come if they don't get their own baseband chipset act together--a large Qualcomm customer. Apple and Qualcomm are particularly at loggerheads over standard-essential patent (SEP) royalties. SEP license fees should not be an issue for Apple in the #GetTheMessage context, however: Google proposes using the RCS standard, which is apparently too old to be covered by valid patents.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball, who agrees with Apple most but not 100% of the time, notes that what Google is proposing isn't just the open standard, but also end-to-end encryption, which Google added on top of it. This is an interesting observation, but in the greater scheme of things it's of--at best--tertiary relevance. Google is still right in principle that it's important for society to ensure seamless messaging across major mobile platforms. And I can't believe it's a coincidence that Apple uses an inferior contrast (white on light green vs. white on medium blue) for messages that are not sent by and delivered via iMessage. That is one issue, and there are more important ones.

Should Apple just consider RCS suboptimal (and there may be valid reasons for that), it would obviously be free to propose that Apple and Google form a working group, possibly invite other industry players, and develop a superior alternative. But it's easy to see that RCS would be (a) better than the status quo, which forces low-income family to buy iPhones--instead of cheaper and functionally also very good--Android devices for their kids due to classism, and (b) more than good enough for the start.

It's a U.S.-specific issue because of Apple's market share. The problem may, however, be solved in other jurisdictions (particularly the EU with its Digital Markets Act) before anything happens in the States.

In some communication between the two parts of the Goopple duopoly, someone even suggested that Apple and Google should operate as if they were one company. In some respects they come close to that, but not in all. It's not like Apple's heavy-handedness is great for Google; it's just that Google is trying to mitigate the damage, such as by paying Apple something like $15 billion a year to be the default search engine on iOS. I consider it a positive by-product of Google's #GetTheMessage campaign that their disagreement over messenger interoperability may also lead to greater divergence on app store governance and related topics. That's not because I mean to promote conflict, but because nobody can seriously want an Apple-Google cartel. In these special circumstances, division is a good thing (up to a certain point, and not at the expense of interoperability).

The first question is whether this is going to make a difference. John Gruber says Google is beating the RCS dead horse. Granted, Google's campaign appears desperate. In the end it's about selling Android phones in the U.S. market. Google knows that Android as an operating system, and Android-based devices (such as foldables), often introduce innovative features a while before Apple does, yet Apple keeps growing its U.S. market share. That is a legitimate concern. It indicates a market failure that should be remedied.

But will Apple care about whether the #GetTheMessage hash tag is trending somewhere? The problem is that it will be hard for Google to draw attention to the issue after this news cycle is over. The only thing that would help here is regulatory scrutiny and/or private antitrust litigation (which might have to raise an essential facility question, which would not only be hard to prevail on as the concept hasn't been recognized by the Supreme Court but would also be against Google's own interests in other tech law contexts). While not likely to happen, that course of action would generate news at various procedural junctures and culminate in a trial where the plaintiffs' (whoever they might be) lawyers could grill Apple executives and confront them with issues such as classism.

Apple is already facing a publicity campaign by Meta (Facebook) in the U.S. over app tracking:

It's interesting to see the #1 search engine company and the #1 social network company spending money on such campaigns that deal with some of Apple's practices. But so far there hasn't been enough pressure to force Apple to open up.

Will Apple's shareholders care? It's hard to imagine that the board of directors would order the company's executives to do something about messenger interoperability. If Google's campaign makes an impact, it may, however, make it easier for Tim Cook to get his board to support a decision in favor of enhanced interoperability--but there's no reason to assume right now that he even wants to propose such a move.

One thing that Apple may have to consider with a view to the long haul is that it's becoming more and more controversial--not yet to the extent that it influences purchasing decisions, but at some point that may happen. In a recent post on app store class actions in various jurisdictions I mentioned that it would be like a modern-day pillory for Apple if they had to pay out money to iPhone users as a result of a court of law finding that they illegally overcharged their customers. The combination of losing one or more consumer class action lawsuits, Google's #GetTheMessage campaign, and further (ideally even more aggressive) resistance by Meta and others to Apple's ATT program (see this recent post on macroeconomic effects)--and maybe if Epic Games ultimately turned things around and won its case--could materially affect Apple's reputation even in the eyes of end users.

So, while I'm not fully convinced, I support #GetTheMessage because it's a good thing in principle. Please do so as well.