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Why green text bubble stigma is part of the anti-trust case against Apple

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Blue bubbles versus green bubbles - in the world of texting, it's the difference between iPhone users and people with Androids. It's like a bubble culture war. People have been called out. People have been shamed for texting with green bubbles. Last week, when the Justice Department sued Apple, authorities said the bubble issue is more serious than it may seem. NPR's Bobby Allyn looked into it.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Michael Anderson is a tech consultant in San Francisco and an unapologetic Android user. He's now engaged. But when he was single and using dating apps, the color of his messages to iPhone users came up a lot.

MICHAEL ANDERSON: We get off the app and then, you know, take the big step of getting into the text messages. The first text I would get - you know, not all the time, but certainly numerous times - was, oh, you know, your bubble.

ALLYN: Your bubble, meaning, you're texting me on iMessage and you clearly don't have an iPhone.

ANDERSON: And I have heard of friends who actually did get ghosted because of that. And, I mean, you wouldn't want to go on a date with those type of people anyway, but it's very pervasive. It's really all over the place.

ALLYN: Some call this green-bubble shaming. Young people especially have talked about being made fun of or even finding someone less attractive because of their green bubbles. And it's not just a difference of color. When someone with an Android texts an iMessage user, the quality of the photos and videos is worse. You can't do live location tracking. You can't react to texts the same way. You don't see the little dots indicating the other person is typing. To some Android users, this makes them feel like an outsider. But to others, like Anju Gupta, who works for NASA in Washington, D.C., it's a point of pride.

ANJU GUPTA: I've definitely never felt any shame. If anything, I've been pretty defiantly, like, an Android user.

ALLYN: Gupta has, however, exacted some gentle retaliation when people have called out her green bubbles.

GUPTA: In group chats where people complain and will be, like, oh, my God, we have an Android user, I'll be super-obnoxious. And I'll just start liking every single message so that way it blows up everyone's phones.

ALLYN: To the justice Department, the green-versus-blue bubble rivalry isn't frivolous. Here's Attorney General Merrick Garland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: As any iPhone user who has ever seen a green text message or received a tiny, grainy video can attest, Apple's anticompetitive conduct also includes making it more difficult for iPhone users to message with users of non-Apple products.

ALLYN: What Garland is arguing is that Apple intentionally made texting with Android users a pain as a way of nudging people to buy iPhones. 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 said this might soon change. The company has now agreed to extend encryption in text conversations with Androids, as pressure from the Justice Department and others has mounted. For a long time, though, Apple resisted this change. Here's an audience member asking Apple CEO Tim Cook a question on the topic at a tech conference in 2022.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Not to make it personal, but I can't send my mom's certain videos, or she can't send me certain videos. And so we leave...

TIM COOK: Buy your mom an iPhone.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLYN: So to Anderson in San Francisco, hearing Cook say something like that actually makes him want to stay an Android user.

ANDERSON: No, I don't need to pay that much money for something that's going to be actively hostile towards, you know, 50% of the world that don't use iPhones.

ALLYN: Most of the world uses non-iPhone devices, in fact. For Anderson, the blue-green bubble thing going away would maybe prompt him to reconsider his Android, but he's not so sure. Bobby Allyn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLAH-LAS' "RASPBERRY JAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.