There is certainly nothing ‘new’ in Google’s arguments; we all understood the situation, but we accepted the exclusivity of iMessage and stopped questioning it every day. This new public outcry, however, managed to once again put Apple’s tactic and the antisocial behaviors it implicitly encourages among American teenagers in the spotlight. It’s also the first time Google has been clear about what it would like to see from Apple: RCS.
The problem, however, is that RCS is an older protocol that does nothing to solve any of Google’s problems with messaging.
RCS: Yes or no?
Why wouldn’t Google want RCS? The protocol works with your phone number, is natively supported by (many) carriers, doesn’t require you to download or sign up for a specific app or service (technically), and offers several modern chat features. Write indicators, delivery and read receipts, rich media and location sharing, group chats, and optional end-to-end encryption are all part of its feature set. And when you don’t have a data connection or the other person doesn’t have RCS, turn to SMS.
In a word, RCS is like SMS, but better. Except it isn’t. Not all carriers have enabled it yet. Not all phones support it. Not all implementations are the same, especially in terms of encryption, since that bit is optional. And even if you download Google Messages and use the ‘chat features’ that are now supposedly worldwide, you’re still at the mercy of Google’s servers, which can crash or have errors at any time. Which they have done quite frequently.
Check: How to enable RCS messaging on your phone
RCS also relies entirely on your phone number being active when you send or receive messages. This makes it closely related to your carrier’s bill (h/t Rum Amadeo for bringing this up for discussion). If you miss a payment or have a problem with your provider, or if you live in a country where number portability is difficult or non-existent, your line goes down and so does your ability to use SMS and RCS. This is unlike IP-based chat services where you can reconnect at any time in the future, get all your pending messages, and pick up where you left off.
RCS is too late for the chat game
The fascination with SMS is, without a doubt, focused on the US at the moment. The rest of the world has fully embraced IP-based messengers such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, Signal, WeChat, and QQ. The change didn’t happen overnight, it’s taken over a decade, and right now, if you live outside of the US, chances are everyone you know is using one of these apps.
These IP-based applications have made communication easy and as universal as possible. They are cross-platform from Android to iOS (and sometimes Windows, Linux, Mac and web) and update worldwide without the need for a carrier. Some of them use a phone number to identify you (yes, just like SMS and RCS), but allow portability between numbers; some prefer to rely on a username or email to be more open to anyone. Many of these apps offer end-to-end encryption on all chats, including groups. Many have added voice and video calling to give you more options for communicating. And all of them are regularly updated with new features.
See also: RCS vs WhatsApp: Thoughts from a long-time WhatsApp user
The RCS protocol, on the other hand, was announced in 2007 and receives a minor update every year or so. in the best case (Wikipedia). It has been catching up with its IP competitors’ messaging innovations for years and will likely continue to do so. It also requires many partners (operators and device manufacturers) to get along and implement it.
Talking about returning to the SMS app in 2022 sounds a bit like talking about DVD players in 2022.
But, in my opinion, the biggest public stumbling block of RCS is that of perception. To use it, you must use the SMS application. For anyone who has switched to IP-based messengers, this sounds a bit absurd. The SMS app is where we get all of our spam. It’s the same app we’ve mentally associated with 2FA codes and messaging delivery notifications, and nothing more.
Talking about going back to the SMS app in 2022 is a bit like talking about DVD players in 2022. Some people still have one, but very few use them. It feels old-fashioned, like a giant leap back in time and space to a technology and interface that we’ve abandoned long ago.
Google wasted many opportunities to do things right
Joe Hindy / Android Authority
Google had not one, not two, but many, many, many, many opportunities to send messages correctly. Google Talk, Hangouts, Voice, Allo, Chat, Messages, not to mention the countless chat features built into other apps (YouTube, Photos, Pay, Maps, etc.). I’m sure I’ve forgotten dozens more.
For more than a decade, the company has been throwing one strategy after another against the wall, hoping one would stick, but to no avail. The whole thing has turned into a sad joke, to be honest. And even the most ardent Google fans and apologists can no longer convince their entourage to try yet another Google chat app. They’ve played that ‘this is the right one, I swear’ card too many times for anyone to believe them.
Messaging apps transcend the simple ‘it’s an app’ state. They become life, our life.
And as Google spun the messaging app’s roulette wheel, everyone moved on. Apple users in the US are too involved in iMessage. Android users around the world switched to IP-based messaging apps. We’ve all spent over a decade talking to our family, friends, colleagues, and businesses about these apps. We form groups, build a chat history, fight, make up, joke around, and share thousands of photos and videos. Messaging apps have transcended the simple “it’s an app” state. They became life. Our life. Unfortunately, Google failed to capture any of that emotional attachment or loyalty.
Dig deeper: Why iMessage is so important in the US
You can’t manufacture this kind of relationship with software. Either it grows organically or it doesn’t. And for many of us, neither SMS/RCS nor Google comes to mind when we think of our favorite digital chats with our loved ones. Google missed out on being a part of this conversation and can’t get into the equation just because it would like it so much.
Let’s say Apple supports RCS…
…What will change that? Not much. Apple could give Google what it wants and add support for RCS. Those using Android phones will get a slightly better experience when talking to Apple users. They’ll get better quality media, typing indicators, delivery and read receipts, and potentially end-to-end encryption. Any other features implemented by Google or Apple in their own service will not pass through to the other side unless added to the RCS protocol. At best, it could help Google retain US Android users, especially teenagers, which it hasn’t lost to Apple yet.
However, no one is forcing Apple to change the RCS chat bubble color to blue. You could keep that exclusive color for iMessage-to-iMessage chats to signal exclusive features, and that’s the end of the conversation. The perception of the green bubble would not change, no matter how many write indicators and read receipts you see on them.
Read more: Don’t forget: a green bubble is also a person.
The only solution to the bullying problem is for Apple to disable their color coding, and that part has nothing to do with RCS support or not. However, it could happen if Apple released iMessage on Android. But that’s not what Google is publicly asking for.
The only solution to the bullying problem is for Apple to disable their color coding, and that part has nothing to do with RCS support or not.
That part is, frankly speaking, the part that baffles me the most about this recent Google protest. The company needs to be aware that there is a huge disconnect between the argument it bounced off (green bubble bullying) and the solution it proposes (RCS). Why he keeps pushing for RCS is puzzling. Google should be aware that the RCS battle is almost lost everywhere except the US. It should also be aware that the perception of US messages is also not about RCS support.
So why the push for RCS? It must be because all of Google’s eggs are in this basket now and making another messaging switch would be ridiculously catastrophic.
In the messaging game, does RCS stand a chance?