Apple’s walled garden is wilting


Welcome to our weekly Apple Breakfast column, which includes all the Apple news you missed last week in a handy bite-sized roundup. We call it Apple Breakfast because we think it goes great with a Monday morning cup of coffee or tea, but it’s cool if you want to give it a read during lunch or dinner hours too.

Breaking out of the walled garden

Last week’s Apple Breakfast discussed Apple’s quiet admission that it’s going to have to make changes to the App Store in response to EU legislation. Following years of grandstanding on the evils of sideloading and the benevolence of its stewardship, Apple appears to have finally recognized that it may need to relax its iron grip on iOS app distribution.

This week? We’re going to crank things up a notch, as Apple prepares to give way to an even more crucial element of its so-called “walled garden.”

Cupertino is good at lots of things, but the company’s superpower is locking in users. This is down to the walled garden, that sticky ecosystem of Apple products that in various ways encourages you to buy other Apple products and discourages you from buying anything from rival companies. If you buy an iPhone, you’re more likely to buy a set of AirPods because they work so well with it, which in turn means that when it comes time to get a new smartphone, you’re less likely to switch to Android. Apple’s products all work better with one another than they do with competing devices… which you’d probably expect, except not to this extent. Nobody else runs a walled garden that traps customers anywhere near as effectively as Apple.

The star of the show in that walled garden-the prize-winning rose, if you will–is iMessage, because its stickiness affects other people in a sort of contagious spread. If your mates have iPhones and spend their time talking over iMessage, you’ll want to be able to join in; an Android user can join a group chat with iPhone users but won’t get the full set of features (videos get compressed, for example, while reactions don’t work properly) and, famously, will appear as an out-group-signaling green rather than a blue bubble. iMessage peer pressure is a large part of the reason why, in the US, an astonishing 87 percent of teenagers own iPhones, way beyond the device’s global market share.

I heard that stat, by the way, in an interesting video last week by Marques Brownlee, who was discussing Nothing’s recent move to bring iMessage to Android. Interesting the idea may be, but there are plenty of caveats. The new Nothing Chats app, essentially a re-skin of the existing Sunbird app, uses a bank of Mac servers as a bridge to allow you to access your Apple ID’s iMessages on an Android handset. But that comes with a bunch of security concerns: your Apple ID could be compromised if someone hacks Sunbird’s servers, and in fact, Nothing has already pulled the app from the Play Store to fix several issue. And once it comes back, there’s every chance that Apple will squash the whole thing.

But then again, maybe Apple won’t bother. Because bigger news emerged later in the week: Apple is going to bring RCS to the iPhone. This is momentous stuff and good news for everyone… except Apple itself.

RCS is a truly interoperable messaging standard, and adding it to the iPhone will make it much easier for owners of the device to message their Android friends; typing indicators, read receipts, uncompressed images… almost everything will work better. The Android users will still show up as green bubbles, but other than that they should fit in seamlessly.

As I say, then, good news for iPhone users and Android users alike. But this will reduce the peer pressure on teenagers to buy the same brand of smartphone as their friends, and therefore the effectiveness of iMessage as a sales tool for Apple devices. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Apple only gave way on this long-requested change after much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

In other words, as with USB-C on the iPhone and alternative payment methods on the App Store, the company only gave in because regulators were about to force its hand. This also means that, as with self-repair, Apple will do its best to implement the changes in as unhelpful a way as possible, and probably as late as it possibly can. Not out of spite, but to keep piling the fertilizer on that precious walled garden.

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And with that, we’re done for this week’s Apple Breakfast. If you’d like to get regular roundups, sign up for our newsletters. You can also follow us on Facebook, Threads, or Twitter for discussion of breaking Apple news stories. See you next Monday, and stay Appley.

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