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The Best Way to Get iMessage on Any Device Could Be an Old iPhone

iPhone 4s, seen from the back.

iMessage is the best of messaging apps, it is the worst of messaging apps. It is two-way encrypted and works on cellular or Wi-Fi, but it is only available on Apple devices. It’s convenient to use on any device Steve Jobs created, but a pain to get to from Android, Windows, the web, or anywhere else. Oh, and it’s a nightmare to leave.

Until now, people not using exclusively Apple computers had to either suck it up and reach for their phone to type an iMessage, or commit to leaving a Mac running all the time and run an app demanding invasive total storage access. But a new messaging startup might have found an easier solution: that old iPhone in your junk drawer. Or the millions of older iPhones floating around in the secondary market.

Beeper wants to combine all your messaging—Slack, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, SMS, WhatsApp, and more—into one tidy app. It’s not a new pitch, in itself. What’s somewhat rare is the promise to include iMessage in the mix. What’s unique is that Beeper wants to repurpose old (some might say ancient) iPhones to help do the job. 

A box full of second-hand iPhones, such as the iPhone 4S, tweeted by Beeper co-founder Eric Migicovsky.

I messaged Eric Migicovsky, co-founder of Beeper and the former head of groundbreaking, Kickstarter-record-holding Pebble (you might have heard of them), to get a sense of how Beeper plans to make this upcycling project work.

The first thing to know is that Beeper is very small right now, with just Migicovsky and Tulir Asokan at the helm. The iMessage aspect of the app is still early-stage. Migicovsky is personally onboarding each new user who makes it through the sign-up queue, through Zoom calls. “It’s taking a while to work through the backlog,” Migicovsky writes. “Still a few rough edges but it’s moving fast.”

Right now, Beeper is buying refurbished iPhones from cellphone stores’ trade-in stock, jailbreaking them, loading Beeper’s app onto those units, and sending them to users. The iPhone 4S still has persistent jailbreak methods publicly available, including Phoenix. The Beeper app loaded onto a jailbroken iPhone is open-source, Migicovsky notes, so “users can verify exactly what they are running.”

Device Page

iPhone 4S

Fifth generation of iPhone. Repair of this device is straightforward, and requires screwdrivers, prying tools, and patience. GSM/CDMA / 16, 32, or 64 GB / Black or White.

View Device

The team hasn’t yet figured out pricing or terms for sending jailbroken iPhones to customers of its $10/month service yet. Not every customer will need iMessage support. But Migicovsky stated that customers who already have an iPhone hanging around, or want to buy one, could jailbreak and install the Beeper app themselves. In fact, there’s also work to make the Beeper app work on the no-jailbreak-needed AltStore. If people want to really dig in and control their messaging, they could set up their own hosting on Beeper’s servers—or even host the bridge to Beeper’s servers on their own Raspberry Pi.

Screenshot of messaging app Beeper
via Beeper

I emailed Jay Freeman, a.k.a saurik, creator of the foundational Cydia platform for jailbreak apps, for his take on Beeper and its use of jailbroken iPhones. He noted that at least one app, Remote Messages, provided jailbroken iPhones with remote iMessage access as early as 2012. But physically mailing a jailbroken iPhone, Freeman wrote, is “just ridiculous: the entire concept of it leaves me in stiches.”

Don’t get Freeman/saurik wrong, though. It’s not Beeper, necessarily, that is the root of the joke:

The idea that “send a jailbroken iPhone to everyone who subscribes to our service” isn’t a joke–so many people I know read that and were like “omg that’s hilarious”… “wait I think they are serious?!?”–is a demonstration of how ridiculous the whole situation is with Apple’s ecosystem control.

Freeman’s Cydia recently filed a lawsuit against Apple, alleging it used anti-competitive measures to eliminate Cydia in the run-up to launching its own iPhone App Store.

Not everyone will want to set up a hacked iPhone for iMessage omniscience (and, as noted, Beeper itself works with many message services besides Apple’s). But everyone will benefit from older iPhones finding a new use. Keeping a Mac running all day, every day just to send iMessages from a non-Mac computer or phone seems like overkill. iFixit contributor Whitson Gordon estimated his own computer’s power use at 573 KWh per year, or $160 in his local power costs. But keeping a phone charged for a year uses about 1 kWh, or roughly $10-$12 of power (in 2013, but the numbers are likely not dramatically different today). It’s not a better solution than, say, Apple suddenly announcing an open iMessage standard, but it is a clever use of an item that might have been headed to the shredder.

And that is why we’re excited. Finding a use for older hardware, even one as niche as “passing along my iMessages so I don’t have to pick up my phone every time,” is a far better outcome for a 9-year-old iPhone than trashing, recycling, or even trading it into Apple. Creating new markets and uses for yesterday’s phones is so important that even Samsung is in on it, launching a “Galaxy Upcycling” program to turn its older phones into usable smarthome tools.

It also lends credibility and purpose to jailbreaking, the practice of opening up an iPhone to non-Apple-approved software. Back in 2012, iFixit petitioned the US Copyright Office to make jailbreaking legal for the exact kind of reasons Beeper provides. By creating new uses for old iPhones, Beeper, and jailbreaking, save phones from the ever-growing e-waste pile. Should they succeed, Beeper could also encourage more companies to consider the value to be had in repurposing old devices, rather than manufacturing all-new plastic and circuit boards for very new ideas.

Because of ours and other advocates’ efforts, jailbreaking an iPhone is legal, and Beeper can encourage people to use old iPhones to work around iMessage’s Apple-only limits. It’s a fun, virtuous circle. There should be more like it.