WSJ: How Apple built a walled garden for American teenagers

From Tim Higgins' "Why Apple’s iMessage Is Winning: Teens Dread the Green Text Bubble" in Saturday's Wall Street Journal:

That pressure to be a part of the blue text group is the product of decisions by Apple executives starting years ago that have, with little fanfare, built iMessage into one of the world’s most widely used social networks and helped to cement the iPhone’s dominance among young smartphone users in the U.S.

How that happened came to light last year during Apple’s courtroom fight against “Fortnite” maker Epic Games Inc., which claimed the tech giant held an improper monopoly over distribution of apps onto the iPhone. As part of the battle, thousands of pages of internal records were made public. Some revealed a long-running debate about whether to offer iMessage on phones that run with Google’s Android operating system. Apple made a critical decision: Keep iMessage for Apple users only...

From the beginning, Apple got creative in its protection of iMessage’s exclusivity. It didn’t ban the exchange of traditional text messages with Android users but instead branded those messages with a different color; when an Android user is part of a group chat, the iPhone users see green bubbles rather than blue. It also withheld certain features. There is no dot-dot-dot icon to demonstrate that a non-iPhone user is typing, for example, and an iMessage heart or thumbs-up annotation has long conveyed to Android users as text instead of images.

The cultivation of iMessage is consistent with Apple’s broader strategy to tie its hardware, software and services together in a self-reinforcing world—dubbed the walled garden—that encourages people to pay the premium for its relatively expensive gadgets and remain loyal to its brand. That strategy has drawn scrutiny from critics and lawmakers as part of a larger examination of how all tech giants operate. Their core question: Do Apple and other tech companies create products that consumers simply find indispensable, or are they building near-monopolies that unfairly stifle competition?

My take: If courts accept the theory that platforms can be viewed as monopolies in and of themselves, practically every design decision Apple makes could be construed as anticompetitive. Green text bubbles included.

24 Comments

  1. Romeo A Esparrago Jr said:
    True blue. Green with envy.

    11
    January 8, 2022
  2. Bart Yee said:
    Companies and designers make decisions ALL THE TIME on how to make their products functional, useful, and hopefully distinctive (even proprietary) to stand out from the rest. IMO a color choice to indicate an iMessage from an SMS text helps to identify the process AND security of the messaging system used and is part of the UX (user interface/experience, nothing else. It’s an indicator and a feature, period. The fact that Apple designers thought about it and came up with a simple distinctive color differentiation speaks to their obsessing about the details. That others eventually construe or assign the colors some type of social meaning is an external byproduct and not under Apple primary design or goal.

    After all, the original iPhones were designed primarily for adult non-business use. At the prices early iPhones cost, no one felt teens could afford them. As smartphones became more ubiquitous and in various price ranges, then wider teen and young adult ownership became possible.

    There’s nothing stopping Google/Android and Android makers from implementing some type of SMS, MMS and RCS system that also differentiates, if desired, which system is being used and users can assess the merits of each. Apple’s iMessage system has many unique features and more added all the time, enhancing the user experience vs what is available otherwise, so iMessage is uniquely Apple designed and implemented. Not Apple’s problem or fault if users and non-users ascribe social meaning to smartphone choices.

    I get that all the time when driving my Porsche, or riding my 50 year old Italvega Italian steel racing bike, some positives and some negatives. To each their own.

    5
    January 8, 2022
    • Mordechai Beizer said:
      If your message is blue then it was end-to-end encrypted. If your message is green then it’s unencrypted because SMS doesn’t support end-to-end encryption. Seems to me there’s a great reason to provide feedback on how your message is being sent.

      9
      January 8, 2022
    • John Butt said:
      SMS messages in some countries have very different prices from data based messages over iMessage. Plus SMS exists alongside MMS whereas text and video work seamlessly over data.
      They need different colours to show performance and price differences else Apple would wear any failings of Android

      0
      January 8, 2022
  3. Jonny T said:
    Upmarket gadgets or expensive gadgets? Plus, I don’t really understand why some iPhone users insist on WhatsApp over Messages.

    5
    January 8, 2022
    • John Butt said:
      I some countries Facebook have subsidised WhatsApp to enable communication when you run out of data. That has made most 3rd world dominant in WhatsApp

      1
      January 8, 2022
  4. Greg Lippert said:
    Annoying to read “that encourages people to pay the premium for its relatively expensive gadgets…”

    There’s an iPhone available in almost any price range. For example, my teenage son has an SE that is a great phone for his needs/age, it cost $400 + AppleCare and carrier is subsidizing 50%. My pre-teen daughter has a great hand me down iPhone that I put a new battery in. Cost $50.

    Does that seem expensive?

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    January 8, 2022
    • Aaron Belich said:
      Also… why would parents choose a device they are unfamiliar with for their children, or otherwise uncomfortable with due to past experiences or knowledge?

      If parents have iPhones, they are going to get their kids iPhones.

      8
      January 8, 2022
    • David Emery said:
      Don’t let the facts get in front of a perfectly good meme, particularly one that reinforces the value of ‘Apple negativity’ for generating click revenue.

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      January 8, 2022
    • Fred Stein said:
      Yes, and used iPhones which are better than cheapest Android clones take the price down below $200. Hand-me-downs are free.

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      January 8, 2022
  5. Jerry Doyle said:
    Interestingly, I looked up the psychology of the two colors. Blue is the color of trust, serenity, and peace. It suggests loyalty and integrity. Blue’s effect on the brain is calming, reducing tension and fear, slowing the pulse rate and reducing appetite. While inspiring wisdom and higher ideals, blue is sincere, reserved, and quiet. Being cool, it creates a sensation of space. Because blue is the most universally favored color of all, it is the safest to use in business and airline uniforms. It relates to trust, honesty, and dependability, therefore helping to build customer loyalty. Blue also works well for the corporate world and is often used in important meetings. One wears blue when interviewing and meeting business professionals such as accountants, insurance companies, bankers and other financial companies where trust and reliability are important.

    Green is of nature, of balance and growth. It is restful and secure, symbolizing harmony, healing, and stability. Green also represents security and self-reliance. Darker greens relate to money, wealth and prestige, while lighter greens relate to rebirth, growth, and freshness. However, too much green can lead to feelings of envy, greed, jealousy, and selfishness. In business, green is beneficial for anything to do with health and healing and promoting natural, safe, organic, environmentally friendly products. Dark green is a good choice for money and financial websites. If you wear green, then wear it safely and to your advantage at work, in sales presentations, asking for funding or a loan.

    5
    January 8, 2022
  6. George Ewonus said:
    Hi Bart. Cool bike!

    2
    January 8, 2022
  7. David Emery said:
    Some of this strikes me as -technically ignorant-. IMessage has the ability to identify when there’s the start of typing in the message box. It’s not clear to me at all that is part of the SMS standard. Thus Android would have to support a similar feature -in an interoperable way- before Apple could include it in a cross-platform iMessage.

    On the other hand, do you really think Google and Samsung want Apple to produce an iMessage app for Android that locks those messages into the Apple ecosystem and out of Android?

    2
    January 8, 2022
  8. Thomas Nash said:
    Hatchet job click bait WSJ article. Originally the key distinction was that iMessage was over the internet and free of message cost. SMS messages were counted and billed by telcos if over a number contracted. Telcos were price gouging messaging and Apple disrupted this by showing potentially costly messages in green (green for $, get it?). Why did WSJ not mention this history?

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    January 8, 2022
    • Robert Paul Leitao said:
      Thomas: Thank you. Perhaps it wasn’t mentioned because it would have comprised the obvious editorial slant in an article claimed to be news. In my view, this long sentence quite conspicuously revealed the writer’s editorial perspective: “The cultivation of iMessage is consistent with Apple’s broader strategy to tie its hardware, software and services together in a self-reinforcing world—dubbed the walled garden—that encourages people to pay the premium for its relatively expensive gadgets and remain loyal to its brand.”

      2
      January 8, 2022
      • David Emery said:
        Of course, an alternate interpretation would be “Apple continues to innovate, providing functionality (and privacy) in their proprietary products that are not achieved by other products or by standards such as SMS. Their customers are willing to pay for these advantages.”

        2
        January 8, 2022
  9. Robert Paul Leitao said:
    Yet more examples of Apple envy. Messages is an incredibly powerful social media platform. Among the reasons it gets less notice is it’s available for use on Apple devices without charge and advertising is not allowed. Apple has invested heavily in the development of services for its customers. There is no reasoned argument that suggests Messages exclusivity is somehow “unfair” competition. There are iPhones available in most price tiers and non-iPhone owners can communicate via text message with iPhone owners. If consumers want Messages they can acquire an iPhone. The last time I purchased a car one of the considerations was access to Apple Car Play. No one complained access to Apple Car Play was somehow “unfair” competition. We all make choices. Of course, I do highly recommend consumers choose an iPhone.

    5
    January 8, 2022
  10. Michael Goldfeder said:
    My initial thought is that both Vestager and Khan don’t have blue eyes.

    1
    January 8, 2022
    • David Emery said:
      Now I’m hearing The Who “Behind Blue Eyes” in my head! (I’d post a link, but then my comment would be locked up in moderation.)

      0
      January 9, 2022
  11. Aaron Belich said:
    Also, someone, myself included, forgot that WhatsApp—I mean Facebook— I mean Meta owns the global messaging market.

    0
    January 8, 2022
    • Arthur Cheng said:
      That’s not quite true. WeChat is dominant in China and Chinese communities outside of China. They have at least 1 Billion users, non Chinese speakers included. That’s a large market whichever way you want to look at it.
      Chinese iPhone users use WeChat instead of iMessage to communicate with each other.

      1
      January 8, 2022
  12. Alan Birnbaum said:
    Hmmm….

    When I txt my daughter ( iPhone- iPhone ) we both get green bubbles, NOT the blue ones. Why ?

    0
    January 8, 2022
    • Thomas Nash said:
      Someone has iMessage turned off… bet its Dad. Go to Settings/Messages on the iPhone and turn it on.

      5
      January 8, 2022
  13. There’s a clear distinction between being antifragile and anticompetitive. All of Apple’s competitors, no matter the category, can have apps in the walled garden. HBO, HP or Lenovo Apps, Samsung and Microsoft apps, all the way down the list they can set-up shop in various types of iOS apps. Sure prime real estate costs something but you have to ask why is Apple’s App Store prime real estate? It’s true not everything gets on the limited shelf space of Apple’s retail stores. The new Main Streets are e-commerce places and Apple’s is definitely a Miracle Mile open to those who stick to the zoning restrictions. Parents don’t want pawn shops where teens meet and shop. I don’t want my pocket picked or worse when I go exploring new worlds. BTW: NASA app has been thrilling lately. I’ve watched ISS pass directly over my island on clear nights several times. James Webb telescope is an astronomical feat launching & unfolding before us.

    1
    January 8, 2022

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