Apple’s iMessage dodges tough new EU regulations – and Google isn’t happy

Apple won't be forced to open up iMessage to rival messaging services, after the European Commission decided that the app – alongside Microsoft's Bing and Edge –won't be subject to tough new EU regulations. And Google isn't particularly happy about the decision.

Bloomberg (via BGR) reported that the inbound Digital Markets Act (DMA), which comes into play in March 2024, will not affect Apple’s messaging platform, nor Microsoft’s Bing search engine or Edge browser, as none of the services hold enough share in their respective markets.

In short, after a probe which went on for five months, the European Commission has concluded that these digital properties simply aren’t a dominant enough presence to require regulation, and therefore they’re flying under the radar of the DMA.

Unsurprisingly, Apple and Microsoft welcomed the announcement from the European Commission. Ducking the regulation obviously means avoiding headaches around compliance with the DMA, and these apps can carry on as they were with no interference.

iMessage updates in iOS 17.2

(Image credit: Apple)

But Google, which has been calling on the EU to make Apple's iMessage play fair with Android phones, is less happy with the decision. A Google spokesperson told us that “excluding these popular services from DMA rules means consumers and businesses won’t be offered the breadth of choice that already exists on other, more open platforms”.

Apple has previously said that it will support RCS messages from Android phones in 2024, a compromise that seems to have worked in its favor with this European Commission decision. But Google and others clearly wanted EU regulations to go further.

The Coalition for Open Digital Ecosystems (CODE), a group that Google helped to set up with Meta, Qualcomm and several other tech giants, also stated that “today’s surprising decision undermines the objectives of the DMA, as well as its potential to improve choice and contestability for all Europeans.”

Analysis: A good decision for consumers?

imessage editing patent

(Image credit: Apple Inc)

So, is this a good thing, a bad thing? Perhaps the best place to start is asking: what’s the aim of the DMA itself?

The Digital Markets Act is all about ensuring that digital markets are “fair and open” to all-comers. To do this, it intends to regulate so-called “gatekeepers” or large online platforms, providing stipulations to adhere to, and various dos and don’ts for them. 

A key part of this is ensuring interoperability with the gatekeeper’s own service, free access to data pertaining to the service, and a whole gamut of regulation, frankly – including preventing companies from prohibiting uninstallation of an app.

After this ruling, none of this will apply to iMessage, Edge or Bing. This isn’t really a great surprise in the case of iMessage, to be fair, because while it’s big in the US, most folks use WhatsApp in Europe, and iMessage isn’t actually all that popular (relatively speaking). 

Therefore, iMessage isn't regarded as a gatekeeper, and thus not subject to the regulations. The same is true of Bing and Edge, which are still leagues behind Google and Chrome for market share. Incidentally, if you were wondering, WhatsApp will be regulated under the DMA.

Woman using iMessage on iPhone

(Image credit: Shutterstock / DenPhotos)

If you think Apple is getting a free pass with the DMA, though, think again. As you may have seen recently, the company is being forced to make some major changes to its mobile operating system. 

iOS 17.4 will show you more prominent options for choosing your default browser and will let you download from alternative app stores (not just Apple’s own ecosystem), for starters – which is all huge, of course.

Similarly, Microsoft has been forced to make changes with Windows 11 for the European market, like the ability to uninstall Edge if you want to be rid of the browser, or to be able to unhook Bing from the operating system’s search bar (and more besides).

So, while these individual apps – iMessage, Bing, and Edge – won’t fall under the regulating hammer of the DMA, Apple and Microsoft’s widely-used operating systems most certainly do.

There’s another specter on the horizon for iMessage, though, and that’s the possibility that this kind of regulation may be passed in the US, where Apple’s messaging app does have a big presence.

Furthermore, there’s already mounting pressure from rival browser makers who aren’t happy about the way Apple has dealt with the DMA here, allowing for the aforementioned greater choice and freedom in iOS, but only in Europe – which means that those browser developers must juggle two different versions of their clients for Apple’s mobiles, not just one.

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Apple kneecaps the latest Android iMessage app, but Beeper vows to stumble on

It's been quite the week for Beeper Mini, the new Android app that promises to bring full iMessage functionality to Android. Having launched a few days ago, with the hope of FaceTime calls in the future, it's now been blocked by Apple – though the Beeper Mini team is promising to restore functionality.

Beeper Mini does something that hasn't been done before: it actually reverse engineers Apple's iMessage protocols to properly interface with the chat service. In other words, it makes your Android phone look like an iPhone to iMessage.

Although Beeper Mini promises end-to-end encryption support, it still poses “significant risks to user security and privacy” according to Apple, which is why Apple has now blocked Beeper Mini access. At the time of writing, those blocks are still in place.

“We will keep it working,” Beeper co-founder Eric Migicovsky posted, after Apple took action. You can still use the cloud Beeper service to access iMessage from non-Apple devices – but, like Sunbird and Nothing Chats – this uses a less secure method, deploying Mac computers as intermediaries to fool the iMessage service.

The green bubbles are staying

iMessage interface on iPhone

(Image credit: Future / Apple)

In the US, where iPhones dominate, much is made of Android users showing up as green bubbles in conversations, without support for advanced iMessage features like reactions and message editing. In other countries, many users have switched to alternative apps such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, which work the same on any smartphone.

While Apple has now said it will support RCS in 2024 – that's the upgraded version of SMS, with extras like read receipts and high-resolution image support – Android users will still show up as green bubbles. These colors seem to be hugely important to some people, even though Android users are getting closer to feature parity under the hood.

The problem for anyone trying to recreate iMessage on Android is that Apple doesn't allow any third-party access to the service. Unless Apple actually decides to release iMessage for Android, anything else is going to be a workaround – and no matter how clever that workaround is (Beeper Mini is the cleverest yet), Apple can theoretically shut it out.

From Apple's perspective, it wants to keep iMessage secure and private for its users, but we also know it wants to keep people locked into using iPhones. Despite pressure from Google and the EU, green bubbles are staying around for the foreseeable future.

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Beeper Mini gives Android users a way to talk to iMessage on iOS right now

In November, Apple announced it will finally support the RCS messaging standard allowing Android devices and iPhones to communicate on a potentially more level playing field. The update won’t arrive until early 2024, but luckily there is a third-party solution that you can download today called Beeper Mini.

The app gives Android users the ability to send end-to-end encrypted texts to an iPhone using Apple’s very own iMessage protocol. This means both parties will see all messages in blue bubbles instead of forcing Android hardware to green bubbles. You don’t need an Apple ID to use the service. Even if you had one, the developer Beeper says it doesn't have access to your Apple account. Users will, however, need to give Beeper Mini permission to access their phone’s SMS and Call Logs to verify the number as well as sync to pre-existing conversations to convert them into proper iMessage chats.

Beeper Mini on Android

(Image credit: Beeper Mini)

Looking at the official Google Play Store listing, you’ll find Beeper Mini has a multitude of iMessage features. You'll be able to send full-sized photographs and videos to others as well as react to their content with an emoji. The app also allows you to join previously inaccessible iPhone-only group chats. Plus, the software offers a way to sync iMessages across other “Android or iOS devices, including” iPads.

Other notable features include typing status, read receipts, unsending, and more. Beeper Mini is available for download now. You will need to pay $ 1.99 to use the service although the developer is offering a seven-day free trial to start.

How it works

You may be wondering how is this even possible. It’s complicated to say the least.

The way it works, according to an official blog post, is that an SMS text is sent from an Android number to Apple’s “Gateway service.” The gateway then responds with its own message and sends the initial text to Apple servers registering it as an iPhone. This process was made possible by security researcher and reported high school student JJTech who reportedly managed to “reverse engineer” iMessage’s protocol. Beeper took JJTech’s work (presumably with their permission) and then implemented it in their app.

The developer also created the Beeper Push Notification service, or BPNs for short, to maintain a constant connection to Apple servers and to tell you of any new texts.

That’s the gist of how it works. If you want more details, we highly recommend reading Beeper’s post along with JJTech’s iMessage breakdown to get the full picture. 

Analysis: Potential trouble

Now you may be wondering, is Apple okay with this? It's tough to say. Things are a little weird right now.

Eric Migicovsky, CEO of Beeper, told TechCrunch a provision in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act states that “reverse engineering for the purposes of interoperability is protected”, implying that the law protects them from litigation. 

This hasn’t stopped Apple from suing other companies using their services. However, now we have the Digital Markets Act which forces tech corporations to support interoperability for their messaging platforms. What’s more, the US DOJ (Department of Justice) has been going after titans in the industry over alleged antitrust violations. Right now, it’s going after Google.

Apple might let Beeper Mini slide on by to stay in the good graces of the DOJ. But it’s hard to say for sure. We’re in uncharted territory here. Apple could, at any time, strike down the app with the force of a thousand suns. It’ll be interesting to see how this situation plays out.

Be sure to check out TechRadar's list of the best Android phones for 2023.

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The first iOS 16.6 beta has made iMessage even more secure

Apple has only just dropped iOS 16.5, but already there’s a public beta for iOS 16.6, the finished version of which will probably land in the next month or so, based on past form. This doesn’t look to be one of the biggest iOS updates ever, but there’s one potentially very useful new feature.

That feature is iMessage Contact Key Verification, which Apple actually announced last year, but is only now activating. If you and the person or people you’re messaging both enable this feature, then you’ll be alerted if Apple detects a potential intrusion – for example, if the cloud servers your messages are carried on appear to have been breached.

Contact Verification Codes can also be compared and verified in person or over a FaceTime call. So, all this is essentially a way of verifying that you’re talking to the person you believe you’re talking to, and that no one is eavesdropping on the conversation.

An image showing the iMessage Contact Key Verification feature

(Image credit: Apple)

This is probably a level of security beyond what most people really need, especially as iMessage is already end-to-end encrypted. Indeed, when Apple announced the feature, it positioned this as something aimed at people facing “extraordinary digital threats,” such as journalists and government officials.

It’s a feature that’s designed to stop “an exceptionally advanced adversary, such as a state-sponsored attacker,” so this isn’t something you should – in theory – need to avoid garden-variety hackers. That said, it’s something anyone can enable, so if you want that extra peace of mind, the option is now there.

Or it will be, anyway – while the feature is now visible, it doesn’t appear to be functional yet, according to BGR.

Few features to find

Presumably, then, Apple is still getting it set up, but with it visible in this iOS 16.6 beta, it seems very likely that the iMessage Contact Key Verification feature will fully launch in the finished version of iOS 16.6.

This seems to be the only feature that has been found in this iOS 16.6 beta, and handily Apple hasn’t provided any release notes for the beta. So, there may be more features lurking in there, and there may be additional features added in subsequent betas or the finished iOS 16.6 release.

But as we’re not aware of any functional changes in this current build, there’s probably no need to download it. And while it will definitely be worth grabbing the finished version, we might not see many new features until iOS 17.

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A note-taking app that works like iMessage shouldn’t work, but it does

Every week I’m sent apps that are meant to help or solve a situation for users that haven’t been done before. But I was sent a particular app this week that made me rethink how a note-taking app should work.

Created by Rihab Mehboob, Note Yourself was released this week (January 20) for iOS and macOS devices that use the Apple Silicon chips, where you can note down your thoughts and your plans, but in a chat interface.

You may think, as I did at the start, that this sounds like a combination that simply can’t work. It sounds like having sugar on your Weetabix, or playing Banjo Kazooie on an iPad. But the more I’ve used Note Yourself, the more I’ve been impressed.

You’re brought to a layout that looks as though you’re going to start a conversation with yourself, and you can jot down something that you can set to remind you after a certain amount of time. You can also pin some of these entries to easily go back to, all in a very simple but elegant layout.

I’ve been using the app already for a shopping list at the weekend, and, unashamedly, the daily tasks I need to complete for Fortnite. It wasn’t long before I promoted the icon to my main home screen on my iPhone, and after speaking to some of the TechRadar team alongside some family, I was surprised to find that some do indeed jot down notes by sending messages to themselves over WhatsApp, WeChat, and iMessage. Is this the app they, and so many others, have been waiting for?

And when you consider a messaging layout with notes, could the same logic be applied to a music app? Or a storefront? It’s apps like Note Yourself that feel fresh, 14 years since the App Store first appeared, and it makes me wonder what other apps could be coming in 2022. I reached out to Mehboob to ask what made him design Note Yourself in the first place.

A chat with Note Yourself’s developer

I spoke with Mehboob after last night’s launch to ask why he thought this layout would work better for a notes app. “To keep track of various tasks, I used to message myself through iMessage, and after realizing I could make a dedicated app, with many features, I began making this app,” Mehboob explains. “I personally really like the idea of themed apps, where an app takes the style of another genre – and I think this was a great demonstration of that.”

Note Yourself

(Image credit: Rihab Mehboob)

After trying out many apps in this category over the years, I wanted to know why he thought this stood out, apart from the different layout. “It may not be as serious or feature-filled as some great note-taking apps, but it's a fun attempt at changing things up.” Mehboob continues. “I really like the UI/UX myself, and I love adding interesting features like the new iOS 15 Communication Notifications (to make it seem as if the notes you are receiving are being sent by others) and pinned messages, which to stand out I decided to make it seem as if the note is being sent by you as opposed to being sent to you.”

Note Yourself on iPhone

(Image credit: Rihab Mehboob)

Using the app for reminders – thanks to the message notification feature – I can receive a slight nudge between 1 minute and 24 hours, similar to someone messaging me back. I asked Mehoob what other situations this could be used for.

“In fairness, they could be used in any situation! If you want some motivation, they could be used to act as if others are giving commands or letting you know what tasks are left.”

Already I’m using Message Yourself as an alternative note-taking app for sudden to-do lists, but there’s plenty of opportunity for improvements. I wanted to know what was coming up next for features.

“I’m currently attempting to add Siri Shortcuts, where you could let Siri know of any tasks or notes you might want to jot down but do let me know what you’d like to see.”

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Apple iMessage vs Google RCS is complicated… but what about older phones?

Since iOS 5 back in 2011, Apple introduced a new message standard called iMessage. If you use an iOS or Mac device, you’ll most likely have used the feature through the Messages app.

These show as a blue bubble that allows you to send reactions, emojis, GIFs, and more.

However, a relatively new standard in messaging has started to appear in recent years called RCS (Rich Communication Services), which is trying to replace the SMS standard that iMessage uses.

RCS is designed to bring the same functionality that iMessage, WhatsApp and other messaging apps offer in a form that works across multiple types of device.

Google's Head of Android, Hiroshi Lockheimer, has accused Apple of bullying by forcing users to use iMessage instead of RCS. But Lockheimer, and others, are forgetting those who don’t use smartphones, and that’s a problem.

The pros and cons of RCS

If you use an Android phone through the messages app, and you live in the United States, you will be able to reply with reactions, emojis through an encrypted connection. That's something that SMS doesn’t provide.

Since RCS made its introduction in 2008, the Open Mobile Alliance has been leading the way in trying to replace the SMS standard with this. It makes it easier for users to share content without being charged for it, such as how MMS, or picture messaging still does to this day.

However, the standard is limited. Many carriers in the United States haven’t agreed to implement RCS, leaving it spotty across cellular networks at best. While some other countries, such as the United Kingdom, currently have no carriers supporting RCS.

Combine this with the fact that Universal Profile, which is the latest attempt for carriers to implement the same RCS standard across the phones that each provides, has been delayed. It’s essentially pot luck in whether your phone and carrier will feature RCS.

But there’s yet another handicap to this. Google is decided to activate RCS within its own Messages app, which means that regardless of the carrier you’re on, you’ll be able to use the service. 

This applies to UK users, but others would rather send messages through WhatsApp and other apps.

Google’s Head of Android, Hiroshi Lockheimer tried to rectify his comments over the weekend, alongside linking to a TikTok video of Maxwell Weinbach giving his reasons for why he thought it was bad that Apple hadn’t implemented RCS.

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But while they both provide compelling arguments on one side, there’s another aspect that Google and Weinbach have both left out. This could also be why Apple has yet to implement RCS.

Forgetting the casual user

The majority of us have family members who simply refuse to upgrade to a smartphone. Or at least, refuse to upgrade to a newer smartphone that was released after 2011.

It’s a comfort blanket to some where they’re familiar with the design and the features that the old phone brings. They’re comfortable in using SMS messaging, the camera app and Facebook, and nothing else.

RCS doesn’t factor into this. While Google’s Messages app requires Android 5.0 and above, it’s pot luck whether older phones will support RCS within the app. And that’s if your friend or family member is using Google’s Messages app on their phone.

While the feature is clearly beneficial to those who message frequently, influencers and heads of these departments seem to be missing the bigger picture on who RCS benefits and whether there should be more efforts to make RCS standardized, rather than from one app or waiting for some carriers to come on board.

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