Article: On the Beeper Mini Saga

by on January 8, 2024

If you haven’t been following the news cycle in the Apple tech world, one of the big stories has been involving an app called Beeper Mini. The app was created to bring iMessage capabilities to Android, giving them blue bubbles to their iPhone-using friends, as well as adding a layer of security. Beeper Mini was set to be a subscription service, but shortly after its release, Apple made changes to iMessage, breaking it. Beeper made changes and the service required a jailbroken older iPhone. It’s attempting to fix a problem that’s broken, but I’d argue from the wrong angle.

In a recent interview with Lauren Goode for Wired, Beeper co-founder and CEO Eric Migicovsky (who previously worked on Pebble) offered some background on their motivations:

Well, the case we were trying to make with Beeper Mini is that it made the experience better for both iPhone customers and Android users. The previous experience was that you, on an iPhone, would have texted me, on an Android, over an unencrypted, low-quality SMS protocol. There are not too many other ways to slice it. It’s kind of crazy that we’re now in 2024 and there still isn’t an easy, encrypted, high-quality way for something as simple as a text between an iPhone and an Android. What we built is a way to do that.

I think Apple reacted in a really awkward, weird way—arguing that Beeper Mini threatened the security and privacy of iMessage users, when in reality, the truth is the exact opposite. That’s a long answer to your question, but no, I did not expect them to say that Beeper harmed security.

The intent feels great, but digging deeper, Beeper Mini was a paid product that is piggybacking on iMessage. There’s a cost to running iMessage and Apple doesn’t subsidize it with advertising or demanding attention like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or even Google’s own messaging services over the years. It’s treated as a value-add for Apple customers and buying Apple devices gives Apple reason to operate it. Android users on iMessage are effectively freeloading on Apple’s infrastructure that isn’t free to operate.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t any sort of put-down towards Android users—I’m simply saying that someone who has an Android phone and is using iMessage is costing Apple money. Yes, Apple is a big company and the cost may be a rounding error, but doing something like this still must jibe with the demands of stakeholders and shareholders. Adding unofficial third-party on-ramps to iMessage does add security and support concerns—Apple’s reaction makes sense, as Beeper basically decided to let themselves into a closed network and dictate things their way.

As someone using iMessage, I know that anyone I’m messaging has a device (or CRM) that is vetted for iMessage and there’s some consistency for features and capabilities. Does Beeper Mini make it appear that someone using Android can accept Apple Cash? Is the encryption as good if someone is using Beeper Mini or is it some hacked-together thing to fool Apple? The fact that the recent attempts have gone to jailbreaking a real iPhone or signing into a Mac that is not yours makes me worry that Beeper is playing fast and loose with security.

Another analogy is that Beeper Mini is a lot of like the third-party Twitter clients. We spent money on things like Tweetbot and Twitteriffic and for much of Twitter’s life, they were allowed to exist, accessing a network they didn’t own. While many of their users were more active, generating content for Twitter, these clients didn’t show advertisements, presumably freeloading off of Twitter. When Elon Musk took over Twitter and killed third-party clients, it sucked, but was within his rights as the one running that platform. There aren’t any real third-party clients for Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok, and no one is calling for those to be opened up? (Although someone really ought to make Instagram for iPad.)

Back to the interview with Goode, Migicovsky continues that this is an out-of-touch Silicon Valley issue:

…I had the pleasure of spending time with my family in Indiana over the holidays, and things there are a little bit divorced from the tech scene here in San Francisco, where we get wrapped up in the details. In reality, people are just like, “Why can’t I send this video to my friend on an Android? Is it Android’s fault or iPhone’s fault?” The blue bubble versus green bubble is kind of a proxy explanation for these baseline experiences people have.

Hi, I’m also named Eric and live in Indiana and find the whole “middle America is different than Silicon Valley” argument tired. While there is an issue with rich multimedia messaging between iPhones and Android devices, it’s the same everywhere, but anyone who doesn’t think you should just have wholesale access to a private network is obviously just not getting it. To Migicovsky’s credit, I wholeheartedly agree that the current state of things sucks, especially when images are low-resolution, videos fail to send, and it feels broken—even then, does it really make sense to start telling your Android-using friends to go grab Beeper Mini and adapt to you?

Migicovsky references an article from John Gruber, likening iMessage to American Express’s Centurion Lounges (which, I, a non-Silicon Valley “other” have visited and think the analogy is apt). Gruber explains:

iMessage is like a Centurion Lounge. It’s a free premium messaging service, exclusively for the use of people who own iPhones, iPads, and Macs. SMS, in this analogy, is like waiting for your plane out in the public airport terminal: not as nice, the Wi-Fi is worse, there’s no free food or drinks, but it’s available to everyone.

iMessage users in a group chat who are annoyed by Android-owning group members relegating the conversation to SMS are like a group of friends travelling together — some of whom have Amex Platinum Cards, some of whom don’t — who need to wait in the public terminal if the group wants to wait for their flight together.

Like any analogy, it’s not perfect. Centurion Lounges allow cardholders to pay $50 to bring guests. iMessage has no “guest access” — you either have an Apple device, and with it, access to iMessage, or you don’t get to use iMessage. But I think the analogy basically works. Centurion Lounges are a perk for Amex Platinum Card holders; iMessage is a perk for Apple device owners…

While an airport lounge isn’t the most relatable analogy, it does demonstrate something that is exclusive for members that have either paid or are continuing revenue streams. A more “middle America” example might be extra benefits beyond simply purchasing bulk items with a Costco membership. But Migicovsky argues:

That’s the kind of out-of-touch Silicon Valley thinking I’m talking about here. Getting champagne at a bar in an airport. This is about people’s everyday lives: How you chat with your friends, your family, your colleagues, is the core experience of your phone. And for most people, if they want to contact their friends or family, they don’t think about all the different apps or the multitude of ways they can contact someone. They send a text.

The argument that Gruber was trying to put together is that this is some sort of luxury experience that only some people should have. It’s out of touch, and in fact it’s pretty insulting.

Yeah, wouldn’t it be tight if everyone could just chill together? While the geek in me can appreciate the end result that Migicovsky wants, it’s really hard to read these comments when Beeper wants it to be a paid service on top of something that isn’t theirs and then getting mad when Apple isn’t thrilled that they let themselves in. His arguments also seem to come back to that there aren’t cross-platform messaging services, nor are there universal (but less capable) fallbacks in MMS and SMS. His more apt analogy?

How about the telephone? Imagine if you couldn’t phone certain people. Would we allow that? Back in the 1990s, before interoperability, you couldn’t send a text message to someone on a different mobile carrier. If you had an AT&T phone number, you could only text people on AT&T. It’s kind of the stakes we’re at right now.

Ah yes, texting across carriers, it’s almost like it doesn’t matter what devices people are using because they use general protocols owned by multiple standards bodies and stakeholders. If anything, this is more of an argument in favor of Apple adopting RCS, as it doesn’t matter what device is talking to which as long as they agree on a standard protocol. iPhone-to-iPhone? iMessage. iPhone-to-Android? RCS. Android-to-Android? RCS. iPhone-to-RAZR V3? SMS. I’d argue that as long as high-resolution images and videos and group chats work, that’s enough of a “fix” to keep most people happy. We already have a system that has buy-in from everyone but Apple. They just need to get with the current times.

Furthermore, using the telephone as an analogy gets muddy in a few different ways. First, while almost all phones now use SIM cards (either physical or eSIM), carriers can and do restrict what devices you can use on their networks or even the devices allowed on certain plans. Go ahead and pop an AT&T SIM in some random phone you bought from Asia or Europe—it won’t work because they maintain an approved list of devices. Throw a SIM with a phone plan in a hotspot? Straight to jail! In the 2000s and 2010s, Sprint and Verizon were really strict, allowing only devices with their branding to work on their networks. While some of it was artificially-restricted (i.e. a phone has all the technical capabilities to work), it’s within their rights to restrict their networks how they see fit.

Additionally, if one wants to compare Apple to the oppressive monopoly that AT&T was in its heyday, that doesn’t bode well for Beeper either. There was a case regarding the Carterphone, a third-party device made to work on the public telephone network. Prior to that, any device on the Bell System was owned and leased to customers by AT&T—nobody owned their phones. While this decision opened up the option for customers to buy phones and connect them without restrictions, they ultimately still had to pay the monthly phone bill for the service. While iMessage may be “free,” there’s probably a cost for the server space and bandwidth on Apple’s end.

Like I said, I can appreciate the intent of Beeper Mini, but in my checking around with Android-using friends, the anecdata isn’t exactly in Beeper Mini’s favor either. Most Android users either hate anything that Apple stands for or seem disinterested in downloading and paying for something to have better messaging with their iPhone-using buddies. I can agree with that—it’s clearly a problem Apple has let simmer and the burden of fixing should be on Apple, not Android users. That’s where something like Beeper Mini is not going to be the fix, but rather embracing RCS, effectively bringing iPhones up to par with Android devices makes the most sense. On the other hand, Apple should probably act sooner than later, especially with many in the government on a “Big Tech is bad” trip, yet not understanding the technology involved.

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