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Apple's latest headache: An app that lost its control over messaging

Apple's latest headache: An app that lost its control over messaging

For years, Ben Black's phone calls haunted his family. It was the only Android device in a family messaging group of eight iPhones. Because of that, videos and photos will come in lower resolution and have green bubbles of text between blue bubbles.

But a new app called Beeper Mini gives them 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 exchanged by the family had a blue bubble and members were able to use features like emojis and animations.

Since it was introduced on December 5, the Beeper Mini has quickly become a headache and potential antitrust problem for Apple. This has left holes in Apple's messaging system, while critics say it has demonstrated how Apple intimidates potential competitors.

Apple was surprised when the Beeper Mini gave Android devices access to its modern, iPhone-only service. Less than a week after Beeper Mini's launch, Apple changed its iMessage system to block the app. It said the app posed a security and privacy risk.

Apple's response set off a game of whack-a-mole, in which the Beeper Mini found alternative ways to operate and Apple found 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 stifle 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, co-founder of Beeper, the app's parent company, declined to comment on the meeting, but the department is in the midst of a four-year-old investigation into Apple's anti-competitive behavior.

The Federal Trade Commission said a blog post Said on Thursday it would investigate “major” players that “use privacy and security as a justification to deny interoperability” between services. The name of any company was not mentioned in the post.

The fight also attracted 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 is shutting out the competition.

Apple declined to comment on the letter.

The questions coming from Washington are at the heart of today's smartphone contest. Rival smartphone makers credit Apple with helping it increase 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 ResearchA technology firm.

Messaging has been a key part of Apple's strategy to sell more iPhones. For years, this has made exchanges between iPhones and Android devices as basic as texts between flip phones decades ago. Messages between iPhone users appear in blue and can be tapped to give a thumbs up, but messages between Android users appear in green and have no ordinary features.

Android companies have tried to fight back. Nothing, an Android smartphone maker, has collaborated with an app called Sunbird To offer iMessage. Google, which created the Android operating system, has put pressure on Apple to adopt A technology called Rich Communication Services, which will make it possible to send high-resolution video and images between competing smartphones.

But his efforts had no significant effect. Last month, Apple said it would adopt this technology in the coming year. The move means Android users will enjoy benefits like high-resolution video sharing, but will be stuck in the green bubble for text messages, which have become stigmatized and associated with less wealth.

“Everyone is watching to see what kind of response Apple gets to the Beeper Mini,” said Cory Doctorow, special counsel at the electronic frontier foundation, a digital rights advocacy group. book about interoperability In various technologies. “We can't tell how concerned they are internally, but their reaction can have a big impact on how messaging works.”

Securing iMessage is a decade-old strategy of Apple's. In 2013, Apple software chief Craig Federighi opposed making iMessage work on competitors' devices because it would “remove a barrier for iPhone families to give their kids an Android phone,” according to him. Emails issued During the company's court battle with Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has resisted calls to change that position. He Told an iPhone owner at a conference last year The solution to green text messages was to buy iPhones for friends and family members.

The beeper brought a different approach to messaging. Mr Migicovsky created the company in 2020 to create 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 competitors, Apple did not offer any web apps, making it difficult to connect to its service. The only way Beeper integrated iMessage was to route messages to a Mac computer and then to the iPhone. This process delayed messages and made them less secure.

As Beeper struggled with iMessage, a teen 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 works. They used software to decrypt their iMessages and determined that Apple used its push notification system — the same one that delivers news alerts — to send the messages between devices.

“It was not a genius insight,” said Mr. McGill, a junior at Saucon Valley High School. “I've been just looking at this 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 might help Beeper solve his iMessage problem. He offered Mr. McGill a job earning $100 an hour, a huge increase from the $11 an hour a high school student was earning as a cashier at McDonald's.

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

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

“To stop this completely, they need to find a way to require the iPhone serial number,” Mr. McGill said. “The beeper will still come up with a solution.”

An Apple spokesperson said it would continue to update iMessage because it could not verify that Beeper kept its messages encrypted. “These technologies pose significant risks to user security and privacy, including metadata exposure and the potential to enable unwanted messages, spam, and phishing attacks,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Migicovsky disagrees. Instead of allowing Android customers to send encrypted messages to iPhone customers, Apple is trying to force them to exchange unencrypted text messages, he said. 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 has some legitimate security concerns and warned that an extended battle between the two companies could potentially create vulnerabilities that criminals could exploit.

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

In an effort to end the impasse, Mr. Migichowski said, he emailed Mr. Cook, but the Apple chief did not respond.

“This was not our intention,” Mr. Migicovsky said. “For the good of the chat world, we're trying to keep this under control.”

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