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'Green bubble shaming' at play in DOJ suit against Apple

The issue of "green bubble shaming" came up in the Justice Department's lawsuit against Apple last week. The tech giant says it plans to address the problem.
NPR
The issue of "green bubble shaming" came up in the Justice Department's lawsuit against Apple last week. The tech giant says it plans to address the problem.

Michael Anderson, a tech consultant in San Francisco, considers himself an unapologetic Android user. It's something that would come up quite a bit in his love life.

When he was single and using dating apps, discussing the color of his messages with potential dates who had iPhones became a familiar and irksome ritual.

"We get off the app and take the big step of getting into the text messages, and the first text I would get, not all the time, but certainly numerous times was, 'Oh, your bubble,'" said 33-year-old Anderson, referring to the green bubble texts that iPhone users see when messaging his Android.

For some singles, Anderson points out, green bubbles are a deal breaker.

"I have heard of friends who actually got ghosted because of that," he said. "And you wouldn't want to go on a date with those type of people anyway, but it's really pervasive."

Anderson is now engaged. His fiancée is, despite it all, an iPhone user.

As anyone who has experienced the blue-green divide knows, the bubble culture wars involve more than just a carping over color differences.

When someone with an Android texts an iMessage user, the quality of photos and videos is shoddy; you can't do live location tracking; you can't react to texts the same way; those suspense-building bouncing ellipses indicating someone is writing do not exist; and the conversation is less secure. To top it off, green bubbles lead to mockery.

Some have dubbed this phenomenon "green bubble shaming."

And while it might seem frivolous, the bubble issue became much more serious last week, when it was cited by the Justice Department as an example of how Apple allegedly abuses its power.

DOJ says green bubbles are tied to anti-competitive behavior

U.S. authorities claim Apple deliberately makes texting on iMessage frustrating for Android users in an effort to nudge people to buy iPhones. Apple denies this claim.

The suit cited internal Apple emails showing that top executives at the company knew that allowing for seamless texting to competing devices might make consumers turn away from iPhones

An unnamed senior vice president of software engineering at Apple wrote in a 2013 email that allowing iMessage features to work for iPhone and non-Apple phones alike "would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones," according to the government's lawsuit.

Another Apple executive, according to the Justice Department, wrote that "moving iMessage to Android will hurt us more than help us."

This led the Justice Department to allege that "Apple affirmatively undermines the quality of rival smartphones," states to the suit, which adds that the popularity of iPhones was fueled not just by the quality of the product "but because it has made communicating with other smartphones worse."

Exacting revenge over green bubble shaming

While some Android users are embarrassed by the green bubbles, others, like Anju Gupta, who works for NASA in Washington, D.C., view them as a badge of honor.

"I've definitely never felt any shame," said Gupta, 37. "If anything, I've been pretty defiantly an Android user."

Gupta has, however, exacted some gentle revenge when people have called her out over the pesky green bubbles.

"In group chats, where people complain and will be like, 'Oh my god we have an Android user,' I'll be super obnoxious and just start liking every single message so that way it blows up everyone's phones," she said.

After long resisting, Apple commits to changes

Apple has long defended the green bubbles by saying the colors show people that Apple's messages are encrypted on iPhones and Android messages are not.

But late last year, Apple made an about-face. It said Android users will soon be able to communicate more fluidly on iMessage, though the green bubbles will remain.

For years, the mobile phone industry has been moving from short message service, also known as SMS, to something called RCS, a new messaging standard that Google and other companies have already adopted.

It allows for group chatting, high-resolution photos and videos and message encryption. But Apple has long dismissed RCS in favor of its own proprietary messaging system, iMessage, arguing that any messaging system outside of the Apple ecosystem could put iPhone users' security and privacy at risk.

Amid pressure from European regulators and the Justice Department, however, Apple in November agreed to support RCS.

"RCS will thankfully bring a number of long-missing features to those green bubble conversations in Messages," wrote the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization. The group notes that exactly how Apple intends to encrypt RCS texting remains unclear.

Apple said RCS will not be replacing iMessage, but rather it will incorporate the messaging system used by Androids so that location-sharing, typing indicators, reads receipts, group chats and high-quality photos and videos can be shared across rival devices.

Apple has not committed to a timeline beyond stating it would start adopting RCS some time in 2024.

Anderson in San Francisco welcomes the changes, but he is annoyed it has taken this long.

"It still feels like we're at the whims of these big corporations who are deciding whether or not I can 'heart' a text from my fiancée," Anderson said. "It's a silly problem that is totally avoidable," he said. "I would be more likely to buy an iPhone if Apple was less hostile."

But, Anderson adds, his Android identity will be hard to dislodge.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.