Apple’s Newest Headache: An App That Upended Its Control Over Messaging

For years, Ben Black’s phone annoyed his family. It was the only Android device in a family message group with eight iPhones. Because of him, videos and photos would arrive in low resolution and there would be green bubbles of text amid bubbles of blue.

But a new app called Beeper Mini gave him the ability to change that.

Mr. Black, 25, used the app to create an account for Apple’s messaging service, iMessage, with his Google Pixel phone number. For the first time, every message the family exchanged had a blue bubble and members were able to use perks like emojis and animations.

Since it was introduced on Dec. 5, Beeper Mini has quickly become a headache and potential antitrust problem for Apple. It has poked a hole in Apple’s messaging system, while critics say it has demonstrated how Apple bullies potential competitors.

Apple was caught by surprise when Beeper Mini gave Android devices access to its modern, iPhone-only service. Less than a week after Beeper Mini’s launch, Apple blocked the app by changing its iMessage system. It said the app created a security and privacy risk.

Apple’s reaction set off a game of Whac-a-Mole, with Beeper Mini finding alternative ways to operate and Apple finding new ways to block the app in response.

The duel has raised questions in Washington about whether Apple has used its market dominance over iMessage to block competition and force consumers to spend more on iPhones than lower-priced alternatives.

The Justice Department has taken interest in the case. Beeper Mini met with the department’s antitrust lawyers on Dec. 12, two people familiar with the meeting said. Eric Migicovsky, a co-founder of the app’s parent company, Beeper, declined to comment on the meeting, but the department is in the middle of a four-year-old investigation into Apple’s anticompetitive behavior.

The Federal Trade Commission said in a blog post on Thursday that it would scrutinize “dominant” players that “use privacy and security as a justification to disallow interoperability” between services. The post did not name any companies.

The battle also caught the attention of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust. The committee’s leadership — Senators Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah — wrote a letter to the Justice Department expressing concern that Apple was snuffing out competition.

Apple declined to comment on the letter.

The questions coming from Washington cut to the heart of today’s smartphone competition. Rival smartphone makers credit iMessage with helping Apple expand its smartphone market share in the United States to more than 50 percent of smartphones sold, up from 41 percent in 2018, according to Counterpoint Research, a technology firm.

Messaging has been a key part of Apple’s strategy to sell more iPhones. For years, it has made exchanges between iPhones and Android devices as basic as the texts between decades-old flip phones. Texts between iPhone users appear in blue and can be tapped to give a thumbs up, but texts from Android users appear in green and have no simple perks.

Android companies have tried to fight back. An Android smartphone maker, Nothing, has collaborated with an app called Sunbird to offer iMessage. Google, which created the Android operating system, has pressured Apple to adopt a technology called rich communication services, which would make it possible to send high-resolution video and images between competing smartphones.

But their efforts have not made much of a dent. Last month, Apple said it would adopt the technology in the coming year. The move means Android users will enjoy benefits like sharing higher-resolution videos but be stuck with the green bubbles for text messages, which have become stigmatized and associated with less wealth.

“Everyone is watching to see what kind of response Apple is going to have to Beeper Mini,” said Cory Doctorow, a special adviser to the digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation who has written a book about interoperability across different technologies. “We can’t tell how worried they are internally, but their response could have a huge impact on how messaging works.”

Protecting iMessage is a decade-old strategy at Apple. In 2013, Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software, opposed making iMessage workable on competitors’ devices because it would “remove an obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones,” according to emails released during the company’s courtroom fight with Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite.

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has resisted calls to change that position. He told an iPhone owner at a conference last year that the solution to green text messages was to buy iPhones for friends and family members.

Beeper brought a different approach to messaging. Mr. Migicovsky created the company in 2020 to build a single messaging app that could send texts across multiple services, including WhatsApp and Signal.

Mr. Migicovsky managed to integrate most messaging services, except iMessage. Unlike its peers, Apple did not offer a web app, making it difficult to connect with its service. The only way Beeper could integrate iMessage was to route messages through Mac computers and then to an iPhone. The process delayed messages and made them less secure.

As Beeper struggled with iMessage, a teenager in Bethlehem, Pa., found an alternative solution. James McGill, a 16-year-old computer hobbyist, made it his personal goal to figure out how iMessage worked. He used software to decrypt his iMessages and determined that Apple used its push notification system — the same one that delivers news alerts — to ferry messages between devices.

“It wasn’t genius insight,” said Mr. McGill, a junior at Saucon Valley High School. “I was just poking at it for a long time.”

In June, Mr. McGill published his findings on GitHub, a software platform where programmers share code. When Mr. Migicovsky saw the post, he thought it could help Beeper solve its iMessage problem. He offered Mr. McGill a job making $100 an hour, a major increase from the $11 an hour the high schooler was making as a cashier at McDonald’s.

The job has been more involved than Mr. Migicovsky or Mr. McGill expected. Since Beeper Mini’s release this month, Apple has changed iMessage about three times, Mr. Migicovsky said.

Each change by Apple required an adjustment by Beeper. Its latest solution involves routing registration information to Beeper Mini users through their personal Mac computers.

“To block it entirely, they’ll have to come up with a way to require an iPhone serial number,” Mr. McGill said. “Beeper will still come up with a workaround.”

An Apple spokeswoman said it would continue to update iMessage because it could not verify that Beeper kept its messages encrypted. “These techniques posed significant risks to user security and privacy, including the potential for metadata exposure and enabling unwanted messages, spam, and phishing attacks,” she said in a statement.

Mr. Migicovsky disagrees. Instead of allowing Android customers to send encrypted messages to iPhone customers, he said, Apple is trying to force them to exchange unencrypted text messages. He has posted Beeper’s software code on the web and encouraged Apple and cybersecurity experts to review it.

Matthew Green, an associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, said Apple had some legitimate security concerns and warned that an extended fight between the two companies could potentially introduce vulnerabilities that criminals could exploit.

“A world where Apple works with third-party clients in a supported way is a good one,” Mr. Green said. “A world where Beeper and Apple try to fight each other in a tit-for-tat arms race is a bad one.”

In an attempt to end the standoff, Mr. Migicovsky said, he emailed Mr. Cook, but Apple’s chief has not responded.

“This wasn’t our intention,” Mr. Migicovsky said. “We’re trying to make it work, within our control, for the good of the chat world.”