There’s really no doubt that Apple’s iMessage has become the glue that holds many iPhone users together, and often keeps many of them in the iOS ecosystem. Although it was far from the first instant messaging platform, it has the advantage of being available on every iPhone, iPad, and Mac, as well as seamlessly integrating into the normal SMS text messaging experience. Users don’t have to think about whether they’re sending an iMessage or a normal text. In short, it “just works.”
Users in the Android world haven’t had it nearly as easy. Google has been struggling for years to figure out how to handle a messaging platform, and so far has had more than a few false starts.
Long before Android was even a gleam in Google’s eyes, the company launched Google Talk, which naturally became the first messaging platform when Android launched back in 2008. However, the company later decided to go in a different direction with Google+ and Hangouts, ushering about 7 years of absolute chaos as the company continued to compete with itself, releasing a collection of messaging apps that didn’t really talk to each other, including Google Messenger, Duo, Allo, Hangouts Chat, Android Messages, and most recently, simply Chat. If you think all of this sounds like messaging on Android has been a complete mess, you’re right.
However, it’s this last attempt — Chat — that may represent Google’s most ambitious and potentially successful attempt. Instead of building its own messaging system (yet again), Chat, also known as RCS, was proposed as a new standard that would replace the decades-old Short Message Service (SMS) that’s used by carriers around the world.
While many have predicted the demise of SMS, the reality is that the standard continues to live on because of its absolute ubiquity. You may not know what messaging platform — or even what model of phone — someone is using, but if you know that they have a mobile phone, you know you can send them an SMS. It’s far from the most advanced messaging service, but it just works on pretty much any mobile phone made in the past 30 years, whether it’s a smartphone or not.
The Flaw in Google’s Original Plan
Improving SMS to provide more modern messaging features in a platform-agnostic way is a laudable goal. In theory, users could gain the seamless integration of iMessage without being tied into the Apple ecosystem, since it would be an open standard. RCS offers features like read receipts, high-quality attachments, and even typing status indicators — but end-to-end encryption isn’t currently part of the spec.
However, when Google first announced these plans last year, it made the mistake of simply proposing the standard and then leaving it in the hands of carriers. While the carriers all agreed in principle that RCS is a great idea, they don’t all share the same priorities for it, and most of them don’t consider it anywhere near the top of their list at all.
So with the RCS services in the hands of the carriers, it was left up to them when to turn it on for their users. Google seemingly wanted to keep its hands out of the mix, likely to avoid friction with its carrier partners, so it decided to let them take the lead. Not surprisingly, the rollout of RCS has therefore been glacial, and while it’s up and running in a few places, it’s still a mess due to how complicated the carriers are making it.
For example, most carriers are only approving and enabling it on a per-model basis, so just because your Android phone supports RCS, and your carrier supports RCS doesn’t mean that it will have been enabled for your specific model of phone. To make matters worse, a Pixel 3a user on AT&T might have RCS available to them while a Pixel 3a user on T-Mobile won’t, simply because the latter carrier hasn’t enabled it for that model yet. The result is that what was supposed to be an open, universal standard, has turned into an even bigger mess than Google’s original proprietary messaging platforms.
So up until now, if you wanted to use RCS on your Android phone, you needed to check if your carrier supported it, wait for them to turn it on in your area, and then wait for them to enable it on your particular model of smartphone. Then you’ll be able to use RCS to communicate with those users who have also been blessed with RCS support by their carrier, for their particular model of smartphone.
By comparison, if you want to use iMessage, you buy an iPhone, and start a chat with anybody else who is using any iPhone model released in the past eight years.
Google Is Taking Charge
Understandably, Google has now decided to take the bull by the horns and wrestle back at least some of the control from the carriers. As The Verge reports, Google Senior VP Hiroshi Lockheimer expressed frustration last year at the pace of the rollout of RCS, and the company has since decided that it’s tired of making Android users wait for their carriers to provide RCS services, so it’s going to start doing that itself.
That said, Google isn’t going “going full iMessage” (as The Verge puts it), since it’s still seemingly more concerned about ruffling the feathers of carriers and antitrust regulators. The service is still going to be opt-in, and carriers can still run their own RCS servers (unlike iMessage, where everything is run entirely by Apple), but Google will provide the service by default for those carriers who haven’t gotten their own systems up and running, thereby guaranteeing universal availability of RCS. In short, if your carrier doesn’t support it, Google will.
Because it’s opt-in, users in the Android Messages apps won’t start using it by default, but should see a “Chat” prompt in the app letting them know it’s available and giving them the option to switch over to it. This is the opposite of how Apple handles iMessages, where users are opted in by default and have to turn the feature off if they want to fall back to only using SMS.
Once enabled, the RCS end user experience will be a lot like using Messages on iOS. When chatting with another user who supports RCS, all of the advanced, rich messaging features will be available; otherwise, it will be the same SMS experience that Android users are already familiar with. Android Messages (or any other app supporting the RCS spec) will communicate silently in the background with everybody you’re chatting with to determine if they support RCS or only SMS, and use whichever standard is most appropriate.
RCS vs iMessage
The most important differentiator between RCS and iMessage, however, is that RCS is not end-to-end encrypted, and probably won’t be for the foreseeable future as long as carriers are capable of running their own servers. RCS messages will of course be encrypted in transit, but not when they’re stored on the RCS servers. Speaking for itself, Google told The Verge that it won’t be retaining any of the messages that pass through its servers for any longer than it takes to guarantee delivery to all recipients.
However, that only applies to the servers that Google runs, and as an open standard, the company isn’t in any position to dictate what the carriers do with it. So if your carrier runs their own RCS server, they’re going to be able to set whatever retention policies they like, even choosing to keep all of their customers messages indefinitely if they so desire, and since this is a messaging standard that’s run by the carriers, it’s going to be subject to the same FCC rules as SMS, allowing them to block and censor messages as well as monitor them, and of course disclose any messages that they have to any government agencies that request that data, legitimately or otherwise.
By contrast, Apple controls all of the pieces of iMessage, and has promised that the service is end-to-end encrypted, meaning that even Apple cannot read your messages, and of course they’re not stored by your carrier at all. In fact, as far as your carrier is concerned, iMessages aren’t any different from email or web browsing — they’re just like any other data that travels across their cellular network.
On the other hand, RCS is an open standard that’s available for anybody to use. This means that Apple could choose to adopt RCS in a future version of iOS to allow for richer text messaging with non-iPhone users. Whether the company has any interest in doing this is open to debate, of course. The cynical viewpoint is that Apple likes the idea that iMessage locks iPhone users into its ecosystem — or at least makes it harder to leave — but there’s also an aspect of this that would help to lure more users in, especially if they’re one of the first in their circle of friends and family to be considering a switch to an iPhone.
While there’s nothing in the design of RCS that would prevent end-to-end encryption being added in the future, we’re skeptical that this will ever happen as long as it remains an open standard controlled by the carriers. Even if Google were to propose an add-on to the specification that enabled full end-to-end encryption, this would still have to be approved by the GSMA — an organization of over 800 carriers worldwide that regulates these standards, many of which are located in countries where government surveillance of communications is mandatory. Further, even if the spec was approved, carriers almost certainly wouldn’t be forced to support it. We expect we’ll be making plans for a skiing vacation in hell before this happens.