Google’s plans for direct RCS support is long overdue. It’s also good for everyone involved — including you.
Google does a lot of things well. Services and products like Search, Android, or Chrome are examples of how Google has taken an idea from a meeting room and put it into everyone’s hands and things were made better because of them. Remember Yahoo! or Ask Jeeves?
Messaging has been the thorn in Google’s side for years.
Messaging is not one of the areas where Google has found the right answer, though. That’s not to say the company doesn’t have the right idea — rich chat services complete with media and all the flair people want for free — it just hasn’t been able to find the one way to offer the total package.
Making Android Messages a full RCS client was a good first step. RCS can give much of the iMessage or WhatsApp experience to your texts, but to do so, it relies on carrier support. And you know how difficult it can be to get just the big four carriers in the U.S. to agree, let alone the whole world. Taking control and applying a bit of the “do it yourself” philosophy when it comes to RCS might be the one thing that sticks.
What is RCS?
RCS stands for Rich Communication Services and the best way to describe it is to say it can make regular texting more like WhatsApp or Facebook Messager.
It’s a set of rules from the GSM Association that handles things like text formatting, video calls, media file attachments, emojis and stickers, and even quick chat through your contacts. The GSM Association doesn’t make any company use these rules and standards, though; that’s up to carriers and companies that make devices or the software that runs on them. And not every company involved is using the standard the same way.
More: What is RCS and why is it important to Android?
The GSMA is pushing for the change both because it’s a better experience and because SMS is in dire need of a replacement. The service wasn’t designed with billions of users around the world in mind, so it’s expensive to maintain and operate. Your phone carrier wants to replace SMS but your carrier also wants to make its service unique and a selling point. Business is business, after all.
Most carriers in the West support RCS. They just don’t support it the same way.
In the U.S., the four major carriers all support RCS in some form. And they’re working on adopting what’s known as the Universal Profile for RCS that would make all texting work the same way no matter which service or app you’re using. If you’ve ever used something like Verizon Messages, you’re using RCS. Same goes for T-Mobile’s Advanced Messaging. You can also have an RCS chat using Android Messages on certain phones using certain carriers.
It’s a wonderful idea, constantly being improved by the GSMA, and a thing that is better for carriers. But it’s taking forever to make the switch.
Is this a good thing?
Google doing RCS on its own is a good thing for the most part. The way the company is doing it should fend off any further antitrust lawsuits because you can opt-in once it becomes available and if your carrier provides RCS services, it is the company that handles the messaging. All a user will know is that they agreed to let Google handle their messages (RCS texts have to go through a central server sometimes) and when they are chatting with someone else who has a phone that’s RCS capable everything looks and feels like WhatsApp.
Your chats get better and you didn’t have to do anything. Sounds like a win to me.
This is different from other rich messaging platforms we’ve seen or used. You’re not required to use a specific phone or specific brand, and you aren’t limited to only chatting with people using the same phone carrier as you. You send messages the same way you always have, but some will support more features. When chatting with someone who is using a phone that doesn’t support RCS or has opted out, everything is the same as it always was. No harm, no foul.
There are a few things that you’ll want to understand along the privacy front, though.
- Encryption — RCS messages are not end-to-end encrypted. Messages are encrypted during transit from you to a service provider (whether it be Google or a carrier) and from the provider to the destination, but the provider does have access. Google says messages will be deleted once they are received, but attachments may be held until all recipients have downloaded them. End-to-end encryption is something that can be added to RCS, but until that happens, you need to know that the service provider will have access to your messages.
- No multiple devices — At least not the way a service like iMessage allows. RCS still depends on your phone number like regular texting, so you won’t be able to get messages on a computer or tablet unless your phone is the actual device doing the sending and receiving, like Android Messages for the web.
- No centralized user database — Services like Facebook Messenger or iMessage have a database of who is using the service and how. Android Messages with RCS enabled sends a query to the recipient’s default messaging app asking if it’s RCS capable. If it is, it says yes to the query and both parties will be able to use the extras that RCS brings. If it doesn’t answer, you fall back to the regular SMS experience.
- It’s not available everywhere — Google is trialing things in the UK and France and there is no word on when to expect an expanded rollout.
Taking some control over messaging is something Google has been trying to do for a few years now. We’ve seen the rise and fall of Hangouts, services like Allo that were too little and too late, and Chat busting onto the scene like the Kool-Aid Man. Google has been making a big deal over RCS for well over a year, and it’s great to see the company take the initiative and just do it.
This doesn’t solve everything — the lack of end-to-end encryption can be a deal-breaker for many (including myself) — but it should make texting a better experience for most people without installing any specific app or buying a certain phone. And that’s great news.