Nothing’s iMessage hack for Android is great, if you ignore the many red flags - Hindustan Times

Nothing’s iMessage hack for Android is great, if you ignore the many red flags

Nov 15, 2023 10:55 AM IST

There are data security concerns with Sunbird’s iMessage-to-Android bridge service underlier for Nothing Chats

Perhaps not as much in our part of the world, but in regions such as the US, there is a not-so-subtle distinction that separates Apple iPhone users, from the ones who aren’t. Blue chat bubbles, compared with Android’s green ones. It is one of the ways, albeit fallaciously, this generation distinguishes the haves from the have nots. Google keeps trying to cajole Apple into supporting RCS, or rich communication services within iMessage, which would then work well with their own Messages app.

Smartphone maker Nothing’s attempt to widen utility of messaging on Android phones leads us to Nothing Chats. (Nothing)
Smartphone maker Nothing’s attempt to widen utility of messaging on Android phones leads us to Nothing Chats. (Nothing)

Apple hasn’t played ball. Their line of thinking is simple – taking away a unique feature of the iPhone, will weaken its appeal. That may well be true for markets such as US, and perhaps even Europe. Data suggests so. Apple has 55% market share in the US, as of Q2 2023, according to data by Counterpoint research. Android phone makers, led by Samsung, make up the rest. That hasn’t stopped third party apps from trying, and claiming they let users send iMessages from Android phones (and PCs too) seamlessly. Beeper’s app is an example. So is Sunbird’s yet to be launched messaging platform, that asks you to join at waitlist for now.

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Smartphone maker Nothing’s attempt to widen utility of messaging on Android phones leads us to Nothing Chats, which will be made available in the US, Canada, EU and UK from Friday. India figures somewhere on that list, for a later release. Interestingly, Nothing is making this exclusive (at least for now) to its latest smartphone, the Nothing Phone (2). Quite when, if at all, Nothing Phone (1) users get this app too remains anyone’s guess.

“Sorry Tim”, reads the thumbnail for Nothing’s YouTube video featuring co-founder and CEO Carl Pei, introducing Nothing Chats. “At Nothing, we believe in windows, not walls. If messaging services are dividing phone users, then we want to break those barriers down,” they say. Dig deeper beyond this promise of convenience, and you’ll realise foundations aren’t as robust or secure as they may seem at first. Red flags, as they say. Many of them.

Mac Mini ‘farms’ working round the clock

Nothing’s basing the chats app on Sunbird’s app, which we know little about, since its yet to be widely available. While the phone maker’s intentions aren’t being questioned, there is a deal of opacity about the solution they’re planning to use. One that’ll have all your data. What we do know is, it promises to enable SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook’s Messenger and indeed Apple iMessage in one app. There too are promises to add Telegram, Instagram’s direct messages, Discord and Slack, at some point down the line. There is little we know about Sunbird as an app, and its methods, at this time.

Sunbird’s promise to offer this app for free to all users, should sound like good news at first, but that’s before you begin to wonder what the monetisation methodology would be. In comparison, Beeper is also free to begin with, but it is almost a given that you’d need to spend up to $10 per month for the Beeper Plus plan to unlock all functionality. It was in December 2022 when Sunbird first promised the iMessage functionality for Android by ‘Summer 2023’, but that app is yet to be made available to all users.

Here’s something you really must keep in mind before signing up for the Sunbird messaging based Nothing Chats – Sunbird will save your Apple iCloud login credentials, though of course (no surprise here), they claim to do so in a safe, encrypted manner.

Then comes the big question of how ‘iMessages’ that you send from an Android phone, will be delivered to an actual iPhone user. The key word here is – workaround. Or, a server farm of Apple Mac Minis working round the clock, as the waypoint for messages you send. How this works is – you send a message from your Android phone to an iPhone user, visually packaged as an iMessage, complete with the blue tick. Your iCloud credentials are tokenized and then assigned to one of the Mac Mini’s in Sunbird’s farm. Your message is delivered to this Mac Mini, which then sends it forward to the intended recipient’s iPhone. At this point, they do stress upon the fact that messages aren’t stored in this Mac Mini, once they’re delivered.

Quite how comfortable you would be sending your messages via an unknown Mac Mini sitting somewhere in the world on a server farm, is worth a deeper thought.

Also Read: Nothing’s ecosystem play with CMF needs a vision of patience and innovation

Nothing’s FAQs on the crucial question about where your Apple ID will reside as long as you’re using the service, makes for curious reading. It briefly touches on the topic of login details, and then quickly switches focuses to tell you about messages instead. Here’s how it reads – “No, Nothing is powered by Sunbird, and Sunbird’s architecture provides a system to deliver a message from one user to another without ever storing it at any point in its journey. Messages are not stored on Sunbird’s servers and are only live on your device – once a message is delivered, it can only be recovered locally from your personal device.”

Apprehensions aren’t being raised about whether the iMessage service actually delivers messages or not. But there are some questions that should figure as you contemplate signing up for Nothing Chats (or indeed directly using Sunbird’s app).

Can we trust Sunbird with critical login and password details for your iCloud ID, which opens up access to emails, FaceTime, iCloud Drive and a lot more of your digital footprint? Can these credentials be considered safe, since encryption may mean little once an inevitable data breach happens? We also know, tech companies don’t always do what they say they’ll do.

And then there are a couple of questions that Apple must answer. Is what is essentially working around, or hacking the iMessage system, acceptable to their terms of service? Will those found using this solution, face a potential account ban? If Apple says the answers to these questions are ‘No’ and ‘Yes’, they may come down heavily on Nothing Chats, even before it gets started.

It may still be some time before messaging services find a common ground for peace in the space, and we can all live in a world of blue coloured bubbles.

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    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.

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