Google is announcing that today, a year and a half after it first unveiled RCS chat as Android’s primary texting platform, it is actually making RCS chat Android’s primary texting platform. That’s because it is rolling out availability to any Android user in the US who wants to use it, starting today.
RCS stands for “rich communication services,” and it’s the successor to SMS. Like other texting services, it supports read receipts, typing indicators, improved group chats, and high-quality images. Unlike several texting apps, like iMessage or Signal, it does not offer end-to-end encryption as an option. RCS is based on your phone number, so when you are texting with somebody who also has it, it should just turn on automatically in your chat.
To get RCS, you simply need to use Android Messages as your default texting app on your Android phone. Many Android phones do that already by default, but Samsung users will need to head to the Google Play Store to download it and then switch to it as their default.
Google is rolling out RCS incrementally, as it often does with new features. Once you have Android Messages, you should see an option to upgrade to “enable chat features.” Google says it will be lighting that option up “in the coming weeks,” and the full rollout will be completed by the end of the year.
iPhones do not support RCS, and over the past year, Apple has declined to comment on whether it ever will multiple times.
Until now, RCS was a service offered by carriers directly to their customers — or, more often, not offered, given the slow rollout. So to understand how Google is offering RCS chat to all Android users right now requires a bit of technical background. It gets even more complicated because the big four US carriers just announced that they will offer RCS in 2020.
In theory, you shouldn’t need to know exactly how it works because when carriers begin to offer their version of RCS chat, Android users will seamlessly switch over to their service. Or it’s possible that they will be able to continue to use Google’s servers.
In practice, however, it could get messy. The worst-case scenario of carrier-made texting apps conflicting with Google’s own Android Messages app is still very much a possibility:
If Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint don’t do a radically better job than they have in the past at offering good apps and good services, Android users will be stuck with something awful. If that happens, all Google will have really accomplished with its messaging machinations is to convince Americans that the only way to actually solve the messaging mess on Android is to buy an iPhone.
RCS chat is a shorthand way of referring to a technical standard that is slowly being adopted by carriers called the “Universal Profile.” (Some carriers have a form of RCS that isn’t compatible with that, which adds to the confusion.) When you use WhatsApp or iMessage, a single company handles the routing of messages and keeps a database of users. RCS, like SMS, is a “federated” system where multiple companies maintain servers that need to interoperate with each other.
When you get RCS turned on, what’s really happening is your phone gains the ability to tell other phones that it can send and receive RCS messages, and RCS servers help make that work. These RCS servers use modern software instead of the rickety mess of SMS, which, in theory, means the famous Syniverse screw-up that sent Valentine’s Day messages nine months late will be less likely to happen.
What Google is doing with Android Messages today is letting the app use Google’s own servers to enable RCS chat instead of waiting for the carriers to light up their own. In fact, in recent weeks, users on Reddit figured out how to configure Android Messages to use a testing server Google had set up for RCS. (Google tells me users who enabled that workaround will be transitioned to the official system.)
The bottom line is that routing RCS messages is more complicated than other messaging apps, but Google could have made it simpler by offering RCS services directly instead of waiting for carriers. That’s what it did in the UK and France in June, and now it’s happening in the US.
It’s a move Google should have made much earlier because the carriers have dragged their feet and muddied the waters on RCS for over a year now. It was only a month ago when US carriers promised they would finally adopt it but wouldn’t offer the service until 2020. Google is just making it possible to turn on now.
The US carriers have formed a joint venture called the CCMI (Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative), which promises to ship a new texting app and offer RCS services in 2020. Google promises it will interoperate with the CCMI’s system, and it has previously said that it can transition users from one RCS server to another.
There’s also the issue of Samsung phones that, out-of-the-box, use Samsung’s own texting app. It also supports RCS chat, but only if the service is offered by your carrier and only if your carrier happens to have turned it on for your type of Samsung phone. (Even then, it might not support the Universal Profile.)
The fix is simple: just switch to Android Messages, but the problem is that most users stick with the default. Since Samsung sells more phones in the US than any other Android manufacturer, there needs to be a better default solution. Most other Android makers have given up making their own texting apps and just use Google’s now.
Whether Android users will have a choice of what texting app they use is still an open question. My sense of the answer to that question is that Google and the CCMI are still negotiating around that. Google says it wasn’t surprised by the CCMI announcement and that the two companies have been in communication. The CCMI has not responded to a request for comment yet.
All of that is a problem for next year. This year, Google is finally doing what it should have done in the first place: offer a simple and universal way for Android users to have a better texting experience with each other by default.
Hopefully, that default will also offer end-to-end encryption someday. There’s no technical reason it couldn’t, and Google has previously said that it’s working on it.