When text messaging was simple, SMS worked beautifully. You could send 160 characters to anyone with a cellphone, and they’d receive it the same way they would a phone call. In the age of flip phones and nine-key texting, that was all anyone needed. But when texting gave way to group messaging, video calls, and (Sent with Fireworks), the SMS standard just couldn’t keep up anymore.
And so users ran to solutions like WhatsApp, which grew huge audiences on the back of one simple idea: it’s like texting, only better and free. Apple built a huge devoted fanbase for iMessage by adding features right on top of texting. SMS squandered its tremendous inherent advantage—it’s built into your phone, so everyone has it—by steadfastly refusing to evolve. It raises a fascinating hypothetical: if carriers had stopped charging for texts and added in new tech like group chats and stickers, would the likes of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and GroupMe even exist?
Over the last couple of years, Google has been working with hundreds of carriers and manufacturers around the world to bring the text message into the 21st century. Using a standard called Rich Communications Services, the group plans to make a texting app that comes with your phone and is every bit as powerful as those dedicated messaging apps. This would make all the best features available to everyone with an Android phone.
Oh, and the plan’s working. New carriers have been slowly announcing RCS support over the last few months. Sprint, Rogers, Telenor, and other global giants all bought in. Now Deutsche Telekom, Globe, and Orange are on board, as is Vodafone on a limited basis. In all more than a billion subscribers now have access to RCS messaging tools. If you’re building a messaging app, those are pretty good user numbers.
Return to Sender
This adoption is a long, long time coming. The ideas behind RCS date back as far as 2007. That’s when a group at the GSMA, the trade group representing 800 or so carriers around the world, began to think about the future of messaging. It imagined a new service, carried the same way cell data is, that would enable voice calls, video and photo sharing, group chat, and more. There would be no signing up, no usernames—it would be as simple and ubiquitous as texting. GSMA CTO Alex Sinclair wrote in 2008 that RCS “will enable mobile users to see at a glance whether their contacts are available to talk or exchange instant messages, easily initiate chat sessions with a group of friends or exchange pictures or videos during a voice call, regardless of which device or network they are using.”
In retrospect, the GSMA’s proposal was dead right. But the standard almost immediately devolved into a complicated morass of spin-offs, politicking, and branding confusion.
“It’s infected with bureaucracy, complexity, and irrelevance,” industry analyst Dean Bubley wrote in 2015. He called RCS a zombie: dead, but somehow still ambling around. “I meet virtually nobody in the industry who thinks that RCS anything other than a joke,” he wrote, “apart from a couple of tired-looking vendor representatives.”
Google sees it differently. For the company with seemingly thousands of messaging platforms, each one with different features and different audiences, RCS presents an opportunity. It could help Android compete with WhatsApp and Facebook, as well as with Apple’s iMessage. iMessage is so appealing because it’s so simple: you just send a message, the same way and in the same app for everyone. It either sends with stickers and balloons to another iPhone user, or gracefully reverts to a simple text message for everyone else. The only difference is the bubble color. iMessage is one of the best (and hardest to leave) features of iOS, a reason lots of people pick iPhone in the first place. Google can’t simply build the same thing and force its success: if it goes to carriers and demand they use Allo, they’ll just say no. Since manufacturers can customize Android to their liking, Google has too woo them one by one as well.
Fortunately, Android’s marketshare is so large, particularly in developing countries, that anything supported across all Android devices would effectively be universal. If Google can convince everyone to play along, RCS offers all the new-fangled features users want, with a fallback to SMS for those who can’t use it. It could be effortless and foolproof. Just like iMessage. Just like texting.
Google bought Jibe, a startup focused on this exact issue, in 2015. Jibe’s up-until-then CEO Amir Sarhangi was promptly placed in charge of making RCS happen. The team worked with a new implementation of the GSMA standard called Universal Profile, powered it with Google tech and integrated it into the Messenger app. Then they started talking to carriers about integrating the new tech. Ordinarily, Sarhangi says, a carrier has three or more different vendors dedicated to making messaging work. “We walk in and say, ‘Mr. Carrier, we just need a couple of integration points with you around authentication, and then it’s a matter of working with the product and marketing teams to get ready for the launch.’” Convincing carriers to work with them is much harder than actually implementing anything.
Many carriers see messaging as one of the three pillars of service they provide, along with voice and data. They also see it as a place they can differentiate. Sarhangi and his team’s challenge has been convincing those carriers and manufacturers that messaging is not a place to try something new and funky and exclusive. Everyone could roll out their own GSMA-approved version of RCS, but that would likely lead to stagnation and fragmentation the way SMS did. Google believes everyone has to use the same version of RCS for it to work. “No single carrier can make this be a big hit,” Sarghani says. “Even if one carrier is completely devoted to it and launches it, they can’t move the industry.”
The Messenger app is the key to the whole equation, since it’s where users will actually engage with all these new features along with the old SMS and MMS messages. It’s no longer called Messenger, by the way—it’s now Android Messages. It’s very important to Google that this app is seen as an Android thing, not a Google-specific thing. Google’s working with mobile manufacturers around the world to pre-install Messages on all their phones rather than let those companies build their own texting apps. Google also recently put Messages in the Play Store, so it can be updated without waiting for huge Android updates that often never come to existing phones. “On older devices, we will continue to upgrade the experience to give people new experiences,” Sarghani says. Plus, this puts the onus for improvement on Google, rather than the carriers. Which is probably good news.
Google is a hugely powerful player in the mobile world, but it can’t just snap its fingers and change things.
It’s easy, and probably right, to be skeptical of Google’s plans. Carriers are not notoriously great at working together or producing innovative technology, and Google’s track record in messaging is, well, bad. There are still lots of carriers not on board with the RCS plan, and lots of versions of the standard floating around. Google is a hugely powerful player in the mobile world, but it can’t just snap its fingers and change things. In the US alone, one of the world’s biggest SMS markets, it’s a mess: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all have different ideas about how RCS should be implemented and supported, and Verizon has no support for the platform at all. If this is going to work—and that’s a real if—it’s going to take a while.
Still, for once it feels like Google’s on the right path in messaging. More than 8 trillion SMS messages are sent every year, despite the tech’s antiquity. Texting won’t die until something comes along that’s radically better and just as painlessly universal. If Google, the carriers, and the manufacturers can pull that off, messaging could be easy again. And this time, we won’t have to remember how to type on numerical keypads.