Since Apple introduced its own text-messaging system, iMessage, in 2011, it’s had a dirty little secret: Users who ditch iPhones for Google’s Android smartphones may lose messages people send to them.
It’s hard to assess the extent of the problem, because it involves messages that don’t find their way to their destination. By definition, it’s difficult to count what’s missing. But anyone who has switched, or had a friend or contact switch, from Apple to Android has probably experienced this problem.
It’s frustrating, to say the least—for Apple, too. While the company’s engineers have reportedly tried numerous times to fix the issue, different bugs keep derailing a fix.
Apple suggests users disassociate their phone number from their Apple ID—the login system used for Apple’s iTunes and App Store—and turn off iMessage on all their devices if they’re switching to Android. Even this doesn’t always work.
As an iPhone owner, I use iMessage to chat more than any other messaging application because it’s so convenient—but it only works for iOS users. The people I chat with the most are other iPhone users, and I can see their messages on both my MacBook and iPhone, depending on which device I’m using. But when one of those people switched to Android, we didn’t talk for a few days. It wasn’t because of a feud: She just stopped getting my texts.
Why Are The Messages Stuck?
Unlike traditional SMS text messages, Apple routes iMessages through its own secure servers, bypassing carriers like AT&T or T-Mobile. Each message is encrypted—scrambled with a digital code so it can’t easily be snooped on in transmission.
Most of the time, iMessages whiz from sender to receiver. The problem happens when they get stuck. According to this Apple security document, iMessages are queued for delivery to offline devices and are stored for up to seven days on Apple’s servers. If an Android user doesn’t disconnect her number from her Apple ID, the messages linger in the cloud, with nowhere to go—because Apple’s servers are looking for an iPhone, iPad, or Mac to deliver it to. The only reason why Android devices can’t receive iMessages is they don’t have software that lets them.
Is iMessage For Android The Answer?
Apple isn’t in the habit of building software for operating systems outside its own, but occasionally—as with iTunes for Windows and Safari for Windows—it’s willing to share. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs compared iTunes for Windows to “giving a glass of ice water to someone in Hell.”
With iMessage for Android, Apple could solve the problem of iMessages ending up in limbo, and add millions of potential customers—all while keeping users tethered to its cloud services, like iTunes. While Apple would prefer otherwise, it’s not uncommon for people to mix and match—using an iPad tablet and an Android smartphone, for example. It makes sense for Apple to give defectors an opportunity to stay loosely attached to the Apple system, rather than lose them all together.
Android has its own analogue of iMessage: Google Hangouts, a chat system that’s tied to the Google+ social network. As iMessage does on iPhones and iPads, Hangouts comes preinstalled on Android devices, and keeps users in the Google ecosystem. (Android phones also have a basic text-message app that doesn’t require a Google login.)
Google’s app is a bit younger than iMessage—the Hangouts messaging app, which unified Google Talk, Google+ Messenger, and Hangouts video chat, launched last May. And it’s still competing with other apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, which work across Android and iOS.
iMessage, like most other chat apps, sends messages over Wi-Fi or data connections, so it doesn’t count as a text message on your phone bill. At Apple’s shareholder meeting earlier this year, CEO Tim Cook said Apple sends billions of iMessages per day, though he didn’t get more specific in his numbers.
iMessage on Android would not only be convenient for cross-platform chatting, but it would also provide more security to your private communications. Apple’s iMessage system is reportedly difficult, if not impossible, for federal authorities to crack. (Popular apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat can’t claim that.) Even Apple itself has said it’s not able to read the content of iMessages, thanks to its encryption scheme.
It might be a bit of a technical undertaking. It will also be a political one, given Google and Apple’s salty relationship. But if Apple can build iMessage for desktop Macs, which are very different in their hardware architecture from iPhones and iPads, it seems like it should be technically possible to port it to Android.
Apple has promised to fix the iMessage bug, though it hasn’t given any details as to when, exactly, that fix might come. Considering this has been a problem since the launch of iMessage in 2011, the resolution might not come for a while. In the meantime, Apple is facing a lawsuit launched by a disgruntled user whose important messages have disappeared into the cloud.
iMessage for Android will likely not come soon, if ever, but it could help solve a problem that’s plagued it for years. And as messaging apps continue skyrocketing in popularity around the world, adding on more to the mix—while keeping millions tied to the Apple ecosystem—might not be such a bad idea.
Lead image modified from the original by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr