Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority
Blue bubble envy? Getting iMessage on Android has always been a popular talking point among iPhone users looking to switch to Android. But, Nothing brought it to the fore earlier this week when it announced plans to offer a chat app that lets you masquerade as an iPhone user.
This latest advertising stunt from House of Nothing follows news that US teenage interest in Android phones is at an all-time low. A Piper Sandler The report claims that 87% of American teenagers use iPhones – a number that should set off deafening sirens across Mountain View. The report comes at a time when the iPhone already has 58% of the North American smartphone market. In short, Android’s future in America looks bleak.
It’s an absurd way to flex, but you’re not part of the cool kids club if you don’t have a blue bubble in the US.
Social cred is the biggest reason American teenagers will stick with their iPhones when it’s time to switch phones. It may sound absurd to use a messaging app as a way to flex financial status or be part of the cool crowd, especially at a time when many of the best Android phones cost more than an iPhone. However, there’s no denying that green bubbles – a dead giveaway of not being an iPhone user – are looked down upon in North America, and you’re simply a pariah if you don’t have the coveted blue bubble.
C. Scott Brown / Android Authority
Nothing’s solution to keeping teenagers interested in its product is putting a wrapper around a borderline vaporware messaging app called Sunbird. Sunbird claims to have figured out a way to mask messages sent through its app as iMessage, to ensure they appear as blue bubbles on iPhone 15 and older models. Sneaky. The company has been around since December 2022 but has yet to send a beta version, let alone release its app publicly.
Although Sunbird doesn’t publicly state how it achieves this, Nothing’s US PR manager said it sends messages to a Mac Mini sitting in a data center in the US or Europe, which then acts as a relay to relay them via iMessage. Where have I heard that before? Surprise, surprise, that’s exactly how Beeper works.
Nothing’s public admission of using Sunbird has raised many questions about it, about Beeper, and whether Apple could or should ban these services. The reality is that it doesn’t really matter.
How Sunbird and Beeper help you pretend you’re on iMessage
C. Scott Brown / Android Authority
BlueBubbles and Beeper are the two most prominent apps that offer iMessage compatibility with Android, allowing you to host your server yourself. Beeper also offers a cloud-based solution where it takes care of the hassle of configuring the server, but with some caveats. Essentially, Beeper encrypts your messages from the app, decrypts them on its server, and then sends them to a bridge running on Mac hardware in a data center, which relays it over iMessage. This opens up the possibility of your unencrypted data being intercepted at the data center stage. To its credit, Beeper acknowledges that data sent through its app may be less secure. By all accounts, Sunbird uses a very similar approach.
Sunbird uses an army of Mac servers to relay iMessage texts, just like Beepeer.
But here’s the thing: Beeper used to be a paid app, and while it’s available for free for now, there are indications that iMessage support will be locked behind a paywall very soon. Paying to rent out Macs is a critical part of keeping the business sustainable, and it will become even more important in the future.
The future of this type of iMessage integration is in jeopardy
C. Scott Brown / Android Authority
The biggest roadblock for both Beeper and Sunbird is that Apple only allows virtualization on actual Apple hardware. To get around the problem, Beeper is believed to use the Mac Mini Vault as its data center. A cursory glance at the website shows that the vast majority of Macs the company offers are 2014 models, with a small selection of 2018 Intel-based models available for a more powerful price tag. Each of these machines runs multiple instances of macOS through virtualization. These virtual instances are then allocated to individual users for their blue bubble messaging needs.
Apple is phasing out older Macs, while newer Apple Silicon-based Macs only allow two virtual machines to run simultaneously.
This is where it gets problematic. Apple has been phasing out older Macs at an alarming rate. My own 2017 MacBook Pro is no longer eligible for the latest software update, and it’s a matter of two to three years before older Intel-based Macs are no longer supported at all. Now, you might be wondering if these data centers can simply switch over to Apple Silicon-based Macs and call it a day. While that’s correct, Apple only allows two virtual machines to run simultaneously on Apple Silicon-based Macs—even on the ultra-high-end Studio Mac.
Effectively, Sunbird and Beeper can only assign two users at best to a modern Mac.
Now Beeper doesn’t advertise itself as just an iMessage client. The app works with most popular messaging apps and is branded as a catchall messaging app similar to Fing from the late 2000s. Should Beeper need to drop iMessage support in the future or lock it behind an expensive paywall for those who absolutely must have blue bubble texts on Android, it can do just that. In fact, the company already has a monetization plan in the works, and user reports suggest that iMessage support will be locked behind a $5.99 per month paywall — presumably to fund the rental of Apple hardware.
The whole business of forwarding iMessages from/to Android users is unpredictable and soon — expensive.
Sunbird, on the other hand, has built its entire business around the ability to connect Android users with iMessage and has no plans to monetize them. Apple’s impending obsolescence of Intel hardware will definitely make the company reconsider that decision. Which would effectively mean that either Sunbird or Nothing would have to swallow the cost. We all know how that goes. That said, it would explain Nothing’s decision to limit the app to its high-end Nothing Phone 2.
What about running macOS on non-Apple hardware?
Ryan Haines / Android Authority
I know there are workarounds for running macOS on non-Apple hardware. However, these are entirely enthusiast-driven communities and are outside of Apple’s End User License Agreement. While Apple isn’t likely to go after the individual user running a Hackintosh, you can’t run a legitimate business virtualizing macOS on non-Apple hardware.
You can’t run a credible business with hacked hardware, do-it-yourself patches, and lists of license agreements.
Likewise, there are ways to enable additional virtual machines on Apple Silicon hardware. However, this means disabling the computer’s system integrity protections, loading a modified kernel, and saying goodbye to all software updates—again, too big a security loophole to install for a company that handles private messaging.
And if you’re wondering if the company could dynamically spin up virtual machine instances to meet user needs, it won’t work because there’s no way to predict when a user will send or receive a message. Given Sunbird’s claims that a whopping 7% of messages sent via the app are already lost in the ether, it certainly doesn’t seem like a viable cost-cutting measure.
Long story short, running a business that delivers blue bubbles to an Android phone is about to get a lot more expensive.
The iMessage on Android dream is dead, long live RCS
Damien Wilde / Android Authority
The way I see it, Apple doesn’t need to ban Sunbird because the app is likely to be short-lived on the merits of Apple’s future software roadmap. Aside from the fact that no one should share their Apple ID username and password with a third-party service, especially one that operates in a legal gray area, I’m more surprised by Nothing’s decision to publicly announce such an integration. While the company is no stranger to cheeky guerrilla marketing, the potential security risks here are far higher than even the generally daring Carl Pei would accept.
Apple doesn’t need to ban Sunbird because the business itself is unsustainable.
Also, I’m curious to see what reliability the company offers. Matrix bridges can be finicky, and Sunbird’s approach to solving the problem remains unproven beyond a few technical demos. User reports for Beeper, the most popular current solution, indicate that outages are not uncommon. While a niche open source solution like Beeper can use hacked tools like pypush to fake iMessage registrations, you’d expect a certain level of reliability from a traditional smartphone brand. And Sunbird cannot offer that. Such a solution can also be broken with a single software update from Apple.
Add to that Apple’s plans to bring RCS to the iPhone in 2024, and you’re already looking at a solution looking for a problem. When RCS support rolls out on iPhone, all cross-platform chats will have the same benefits and features as iMessage, including read receipts, typing indicators, and high-resolution image sharing. Why bother jumping through loopholes when you can get the same experience with the built-in chat app? However, your bubble may remain green.
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