Last night, Tim Cook shot the opportunity to solve the green bubble problem — and he revealed the real reason Apple won’t do it: It doesn’t sell iPhones.
At Vox Media’s Code conference, a participant told Cook that it was difficult for him to send videos to his mother because Apple devices don’t support RCS, the SMS protocol championed by Google and supported by major phone companies. In response, Cook suggested that the contestant buy an iPhone for his mother. “I don’t hear our users asking that we put a lot of effort into that right now,” Cook said.
This appears to be the first time Cook has publicly focused on RCS, the Rich Communications Services protocol. RCS is a big improvement over SMS and MMS, allowing you to do things like send higher quality photos and videos, and it would solve many of the problems encountered when texting between Apple and Android devices. But Apple has so far refrained from providing support, and the distinction between iMessage’s blue bubbles and the green ones of regular text messages has remained a thorn in Google’s side.
Apple made a conscious decision to make a superior texting experience via iMessage just for Apple — and Wednesday’s Cook comments speak to that choice. For years, it has been an important part of Apple’s strategy to bind users to its platforms. Emails revealed as part of Epic games against Apple showed top executives like Craig Federighi (in 2013) and Phil Schiller (in 2016) claiming that it would not benefit Apple to bring iMessage to Android. Eddy Cue testified in a deposition that Apple could have made an Android version of iMessage compatible with iOS, but that has clearly not been released publicly.
By making iMessage an Apple-only product — and by continuing to improve it with features like the ability to edit and delete messages — Apple is demonstrating that the best way to message your friends is on an Apple device with Apple’s messaging app. While in theory the company could adopt RCS and keep iMessage on Apple devices, it benefits by creating as much separation as possible between text messages on Apple and Android. That means more people will buy more iPhones.
Google has campaigned hard for Apple to adopt RCS in recent months. Google has implemented it in Android, of course, and it’s now also supported by AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon (after a very slow rollout). And since all three of them have committed to making Google’s Android messaging app the default SMS for Android phones they sell, it’s much more likely that people will just text through RCS without thinking about it.
Hiroshi Lockheimer, senior vice president of Google, has taken the lead, joking that there is a “really clear fix” to messaging problems and saying that Apple is “stopping” customers from texting. The company also recently launched a website, “Get the message,” to try to shame Apple into using RCS.
Lockheimer understands Apple’s resistance to RCS, “but people should be able to send high-quality videos and photos to their mother without having to buy her a new phone,” he said. Cook doesn’t seem to agree.