A new deposition (first spotted by The Verge) in the Epic Games v. Apple case reveals Apple’s inner deliberations over possibly bringing iMessage to Android, including worries from Apple executives that if Google bought WhatsApp, the search giant could win the messaging wars.
Once upon a time, Google was facing a major messaging decision as it was considering buying WhatsApp. The rumors first started in April 2013, when Digital Trends reported that Google was negotiating a $1 billion buyout of the company. WhatsApp officially shot the rumor down just a few days later, but between the start and end of this rumor, Apple’s executives started talking.
Eddy Cue, Apple’s SVP of Internet Software and Services, started making the case that the company should fight Google+WhatsApp with iMessage on Android, writing in an email, “We really need to bring iMessage to Android. I have had a couple of people investigating this but we should go full speed and make this an official project.”
Cue continued with his reasoning, saying, “Do we want to lose one of the most important apps in a mobile environment to Google? They have search, mail, free video, and [are] growing quickly in browsers. We have the best messaging app and we should make it the industry standard. I don’t know what ways we can monetize it but it doesn’t cost us a lot to run.”
Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of Software Engineering, joined in on the email chain:
Do you have any thoughts on how we would make switching to iMessage (from WhatsApp) compelling to masses of Android users who don’t have a bunch of iOS friends? iMessage is a nice app/service, but to get users to switch social networks we’d need more than a marginally better app. (This is why Google is willing to pay $1 billion—for the network, not for the app.)… In the absence of a strategy to become the primary messaging service for [the] bulk of cell phone users, I am concerned iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove an obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones.
The deposition continues investigating Apple’s iMessage-on-Android discussions, but unfortunately, this part of the document has been redacted.
WhatsApp denied the buyout rumors but ended up being bought just a year later. Google’s bid for the company reportedly reached $10 billion, but that wasn’t enough to match Facebook, which bought WhatsApp in February 2014 for what ended up being a $22 billion deal. The Facebook/WhatsApp deal was one of the biggest tech acquisitions ever, and with Facebook behind the wheel, WhatsApp has grown from 450 million users to over 2 billion. Cue was completely right about the trajectory of WhatsApp.
For Google, not buying WhatsApp in 2013 feels like a major turning point. Google would go on to launch seven competing messaging and video apps over the years: Google Hangouts in 2013; Google Spaces, Google Allo, and Google Duo in 2016; and Google Chat and Google Meet in 2017. The company also pushed for RCS over Google Messages in 2019. Cue’s prediction that the company could “lose” to a Google-led WhatsApp now seems like a dream from a bygone era.
Cue also called messaging “one of the most important apps in a mobile environment,” which represents a striking difference from how Google approaches messaging. At Google, messaging is only ever handled by an endless series of underfunded, unstable side projects led by job-hopping project managers. Google releases a new messaging app about every 12-18 months, making it very difficult for any single app to gain traction and reducing consumer confidence in any individual product. The heads of these projects often leave the company shortly after a splashy product launch, and with no top-down direction on what the company should support, the products usually start winding down once the leader bails.
Federighi’s comments echo Apple’s longstanding position that iMessage is a key lock-in component of Apple’s walled garden and that the company shouldn’t make it easy for “iPhone families” to incorporate Android devices. The Epic case earlier revealed a 2016 comment from Apple’s Phil Schiller, saying that “moving iMessage to Android will hurt us more than help us.”