AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Have Given up on Their ‘iMessage Killer’

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If you’re an Android user who has been hoping for a universal rich messaging system to rival iMessage, it’s probably time to stop holding your breath.

After 18 months of supposedly working on a “Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative” (CCMI) to roll out Rich Communication Services (RCS) nationwide, the three major U.S. carriers have effectively abandoned the joint venture, leaving the future of the messaging standard totally up in the air.

RCS was first proposed over a decade ago as a new mobile industry standard that would replace the 90s-era SMS technology. However, since the GSMA developed the standard — an organization made up of over 800 worldwide carriers — it’s never really succeeded in gaining any traction.

In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when Google built RCS into Google Chat and started pushing the standard on its own, that the carriers sat up and took notice. Rather than risking the rise of another iMessage-like service that would roll out without their involvement (and ability to get a piece of the pie), they formed the CCMI to deploy a universal RCS solution that would allow customers to use the richer messaging system between carriers.

Unfortunately, it seems even that didn’t light enough of a fire under the carriers to get RCS up and running, and now they’ve basically thrown in the towel, Light Reading reports.

A Verizon spokesperson told the publication that “the owners of the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative decided to end the joint venture effort.” At the same time, AT&T offered a nearly identical statement to The Verge.

The owners of the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative decided to end the joint venture effort. However, the owners remain committed to enhancing the messaging experience for customers including growing the availability of RCS.

The carriers insist that this doesn’t spell the end of RCS, but considering how glacially the messaging standard has moved in the past, it’s hard not to see this as a huge step backward.

However, The Verge has a somewhat more optimistic take, suggesting that the CCMI would have been bad for consumers. Considering that the CCMI’s plan was for the consortium to create their own Android messaging app to support RCS, it’s hard to disagree with that point.

To be fair, this could just mean that the carriers are now more willing to cozy up with Google and let it take the lead with its Android messaging apps.

In fact, T-Mobile is already ahead of the game, having chosen to cooperate with Google in its RCS adoption. Late last month, the carrier announced a multi-faceted partnership that would include making Android Messages “the default messaging experience” on all of its Android devices, including full RCS support.

It’s a very positive move for the carrier, which like its two competitors, had previously only enabled RCS sporadically on certain smartphones, creating a fragmented mess.

In a statement to Light Reading, Guillaume Le Mener, who heads up RCS at messaging technology provider Mavenir, lauded T-Mobile’s partnership with Google as “great news for RCS adoption,” since putting Android Messages on top automatically means every Android smartphone will be able to use the RCS messaging service, without the need to wait for individual smartphone manufacturers to get with the program.

So far, however, AT&T and Verizon have been dead quiet on any further developments in this regard. Without true cross-carrier support, the messaging standard will have a hard time gaining widespread acceptance since users will be limited to using it only with friends and family who happen to be on the same carrier.

Analyst Lynnette Luna of GlobalData told Light Reading that when it comes to RCS, “the market has been impossibly slow for a decade now,” and she doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon. U.S. carriers are far more concerned about expanding their 5G networks at this point than implementing RCS. Then there’s the fact that Apple, which makes up almost half of the U.S. smartphone market, has no plans to support RCS either.

Google’s motivation for pushing RCS, however, isn’t just about building an alternative to iMessage. According to Luna, it’s ultimately just another vehicle for the search giant to advertise to users.

Google hopes to use it to make money by using the service for business-to-person advertising. Research from users in Japan, where RCS has already been in widespread use for years, has shown that consumers are significantly more likely to open an RCS message and click through to an ad than they are to click on a mobile banner ad.

Meanwhile, at Apple…

This whole problem with RCS shows exactly why Apple prefers to own all the pieces of its solutions. iMessage was developed exclusively as an Apple service, without any carrier involvement whatsoever.

Further, since Apple also controls the entire iPhone user experience, it could tie it directly into the standard default messaging app. So, when iMessage first debuted, almost every iPhone user on the planet could suddenly send rich messages to each other without having to switch to a different app or worry about whether their carrier supported it. All that was needed was a normal cellular or Wi-Fi data connection.

By comparison, the fact that RCS is a mess stems from how much of a fragmented mess the world of Android is in the first place. This is demonstrated by the fact that Google had to make a special deal with T-Mobile just to get the Android Messages app front-and-centre.

The problem with Android is that each manufacturer customizes the Android operating system, adding their own apps and services. Then the carriers get to take their own kick at adding apps for their services too.

That’s not all, however, as the very nature of RCS makes it entirely dependent on the carriers. With iMessage, Apple owns all the servers, whereas, with RCS, your messages could be traveling through Google’s servers, your carrier’s servers, or even servers belonging to third-party companies you’ve never heard of.

So, it’s easy to see why Apple doesn’t have any particular interest in getting into RCS’s confusing mess. Perhaps, when (and if) it ever becomes an actual widespread standard, Apple will get on board, but meanwhile, it’s quite content to keep iPhone users happily hooked on iMessage.

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