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The green bubble vs. blue bubble debate isn’t just a tech issue
Dec 11, 2023

The green bubble vs. blue bubble debate isn’t just a tech issue

The imagined superiority of iPhone users over Android fans is a social problem that can even affect children, says New York Times columnist Brian Chen. But Apple plans to start remedying texting disparities between the two.

Audiences of a certain age might remember Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign from 2006.

They featured actor Justin Long as the hip Mac computer personified in conversation with a noticeably less cool John Hodgman playing a PC.

Seventeen years and plenty of tech releases later, it seems the stereotypes in those ads never really went away. Take, for example, a recent TikTok trend in which women respond to the question, “He’s a 10, but he has an Android phone. What’s his new rating?” For some, the answer is 1 or 0.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Brian Chen, the personal tech columnist at The New York Times, about what he calls green bubble shaming, which has pitted iPhone fans against their Android-using friends and family.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Brian Chen: For more than a decade, smartphone users have confronted what’s known as the blue bubble versus green bubble disparity. When iPhone users text other iPhone users, their messages appear as a blue bubble. When iPhone users text Android users, the messages appear green. And from there, everything gets worse. Images and videos look horrible. All sorts of things break. And over the years, this has created tension between iPhone and Android users. It’s led to this deeper divide that’s sociological in many ways. And that’s where we are today.

Lily Jamali: Yeah, well, as you say, this issue has been around for a long time. Why is that?

Chen: So this issue predates the iPhone. So even before the iPhone existed, the wireless carriers all around the world, they agreed to use a text messaging standard called SMS [for short message service]. And then later, in the early 2000s, they adopted MMS, which stands for multimedia messaging services. And that added the ability to send images inside text messages. So the photos, frankly, they always looked bad when you’re texting photos because they were pixelated and compressed on purpose to avoid overloading the cellular networks. So Apple, about a dozen years ago, they introduced iMessage, which enabled iPhone users to send high-resolution photos and videos to each other. And, of course, it didn’t work with Android phones. So when an iPhone user texted an Android user, the bubble turned green and you didn’t get those high-resolution images, you got these crummy-looking images because it reverted to SMS and MMS. Later down the road, Google and others adopted RCS, which stands for rich communication services, a new text messaging standard that made images and videos look good inside texts for everyone who’s not using an iPhone. So all the green bubbles got better-looking images and videos.

Jamali: Among themselves?

Chen: Among themselves, right, but Apple refused to play ball. Apple refused to adopt that standard. The news is that Apple is going to adopt RCS next year and solve some of these problems between green bubbles and blue bubbles.

Jamali: Yeah, tell me more about that plan. What will this look like for people who use the iPhone and who interact with people on Android?

Chen: So it’s all pretty vague for now. Apple just put out this statement that still has a lot of unknowns. But the most important thing is that the photos and videos are going to be high-resolution, just like on iPhones between the blue bubbles. Green bubbles are going to remain when you’re texting an Android user from an iPhone. But, again, those images are going to look better. There’s going to be some other features like read receipts, and the ability to share your location. So you’re going to have those, but you’re not gonna have encryption yet. They say that’s something in the works, so you’re going to be lacking a major security feature. You’re not going to have some of these fun stickers that people use to express themselves inside iMessages; you’re not going to have animations, like the confetti for people’s birthdays, things like that. So there’s still going to be a technological disparity or divide between the two platforms. But the main thing that people really cared about was images and videos, and that’s going to be greatly improved.

Jamali: So if they’re sort of taking this, what one might call a half-measure, what is the backstory? I mean, was this a choice that they made on their own? Or were they under a lot of pressure to make change?

Chen: So Apple was definitely under pressure from the European Commission. They were investigating Apple and others into this practice called gatekeeping, which is when you use your technology to cripple other people’s technology. So the accusation or the allegation was that, in theory, Apple’s iMessage was the gatekeeping platform because the way that they texted other people outside of the Apple universe ruined the texting experience for anybody who didn’t have an iPhone. Apple objected to this idea, of course, but I think to get ahead of the possibility of regulation they said that they were going to play ball.

Jamali: Let’s talk more about the social piece of this. This is something that a lot of us are familiar with, but it also can create stigma for young people. I’m thinking of middle schoolers and high schoolers. How do they experience green bubble shaming?

Chen: Kids in school are harmed the most by this divide, I think, definitely more than adults. They’re getting their first smartphones, and a lot of them are getting iPhones. If you have an Android, you’re basically in the out-group. If you have the iPhone, you’re basically in the in-group. So you have these nice group shots that are a blue bubble. They can be relabeled into something like “study session” or something fun like that. The kids could be discussing homework, they could be making plans to get together, go to the mall, things like that. They don’t want the Androids to ruin their blue bubble. So they leave them out of the conversation. And if kids are trying to study together, and Android users are not part of this conversation to exchange ideas about a project and so on, that’s pretty harmful to their ability to study. But just overall pretty harmful to their well-being, like they could be ashamed over something as silly as a phone. It could even be the only phone that their parents could afford. And that’s because there are so many different manufacturers making Android phones and some of them cost as little as $100. It’s culminated to this point where people are calling it a form of cyberbullying, when you’re shaming kids for the phone that they are using and you’re leaving them out of activities and homework. It’s a form of bullying.

Jamali: And I know this also manifests in the dating world. You’ve been writing about this.

Chen: Right. So the issue with Android phones being cheaper, potentially, is that it did create a perception that anybody who has an Android phone, including adults, must not make very much money. And this is a stereotype that’s tied to some truth. Like I was saying, Android phones can be as cheap as $100. But the best-selling Android phones in America tend to be Samsung phones, the Samsung Galaxy phones, and those cost between $800 to $1,100, which is just about the same as an iPhone. So that is all to say that Android phones have little to do with your budget, your income, that is. But nonetheless, it created this perception among people inside the dating apps that when you’re using a dating app, you’re obviously messaging inside that app for a while. And then when you agree to go on a date, you move outside the app, and then you go into your text messaging service. If that bubble turns green, there’s this meme on social media where they call that a red flag, like, “Oh, this person has a green bubble. What’s his deal? Does he not have his stuff together? Does he not have very much money?” And again, it’s born from a stereotype. But it’s all created, it’s attached to this stigma of the green bubble that is born from this tension that’s been between the iPhone users and the Android users, mostly because it’s been so frustrating to text message each other between the platforms.

Jamali: I am on an iPhone. But I was just thinking about the subconscious piece of this, like do I make judgments subconsciously? And, actually, prepping for this segment got me really thinking about that.

Chen: I mean, I think it definitely is a subconscious thing. And as I talk to people about their experiences, I realized that I’m part of this problem too. And I’m gonna do my part, which is what I’m encouraging everybody to do in this column, is to do your part and setting a good example for the kids. Tell them not to shame other people about the phones that they use. It’s just a piece of technology. And also find workarounds when compatibility is not great between devices. I think we’re all familiar with apps like WhatsApp. The solutions have been in front of us for many, many years. But many of us, we cave to using the defaults because that’s the easiest thing to do. It’s the path of least resistance, but relationships take effort.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer
Rosie Hughes Assistant Producer