Google's RCS Chat for Android is the messaging service we should have gotten 5 years ago

And now it might be too little, too late.

android messages hero
Ryan Whitwam/IDG

Google has finally had it up to here with RCS. After waiting more than a year for carriers to make good on their promise to deliver the next-generation messaging service to users, Google has finally developed its own system for delivering messages with the features SMS can’t do, things like large file transfers, read receipts, typing indicators, and of course, animated stickers.

According to the Verge, Google is taking control of its RCS destiny in the UK and France and delivering something of a modern and universal messaging service to all users. No matter which phone or carrier you have, Google will enable its RCS Chat service as the new default in Android’s Messages app, so if you’re messaging a friend who has it to, you’ll be able to see whether they read your message and when they’re responding.

To say it’s overdue is an understatement. iPhone users have had RCS-style since iOS 5, and third-party OTT services such as WhatsApp and Signal replicate RCS features as well. Google’s new strategy is a move to bring Messages in line with all of those, but it could be too little too late.

Obstacles block the way

For one, we don’t know when—or if—it’s coming to the U.S. In fact, Google hasn’t announced any indication of an RCS Chat timeline other than to say the service will be coming to more countries “throughout the year.” Google has a long history of losing focus with messaging services and apps, so I’m a little skeptical of the vague promise.

Another issue is that RCS Chat, like SMS, is specifically tied to your phone number. That’s merging old technology with new, which is never a good thing, and it means Google has to jump through a series of hoops to determine whether the person you’re typing to has RCS Chat enabled. As The Verge describes: “Because it can’t rely on a central database, Android Messages sends a query directly to the other phone. Drew Rowny, product lead for Messages, tells me when you open a texting window in Android Messages, it pings everybody on that chat with an invisible message (sort of like a push notification) asking if they support RCS Chat, and Android Messages silently responds ‘Yes’ if it does.”

Links in iMessage Leif Johnson/IDG

Google’s RCS Chat service won’t be nearly as seamless or private as Apple’s iMessage.

Google says it’s the only way to make RCS Chat work “at the app level” since it’s cutting out the carriers. It’s a clever mechanism, but it also creates an extra layer that could break, thus rendering RCS Chat unusable. And it also raises the specter of privacy and security concerns, since Google is essentially sending an unencrypted message from your phone to someone else’s every time you send a message, along with your IMEI and phone number.

And that’s the biggest issue with RCS Chat: Encryption. While Apple, Signal’s Open Whisper, and WhatsApp all offer end-to-end encryption when you send a message, Google offers no such promises for RCS Chat. Granted, SMS messages aren’t encrypted either, but a lateral move when it comes to security doesn’t exactly instill confidence.

More devices, more problems

Google says that it is “fully committed to finding a solution for our users” regarding encryption, but once again, that doesn’t exactly instill confidence. The fact remains that an unencrypted RCS chat that’s only available in two countries is an extremely slow start for a messaging service that should have arrived at least five years ago. And had it, we’d likely have end-to-end encryption by now, along with global support.

pixel 3a back Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

The Pixel 3a doesn’t support T-Mobile’s RCS because reasons.

Instead, we have the makings of something that might be good one day, but will probably hit barriers that Google isn’t willing or able to overcome. The biggest one is the U.S. carriers. Not only do Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile hold far more clout than their overseas equivalents, but Google needs to play nice in order to ensure sales of its Pixel phones, even if that comes at the expense of users.

Case in point: The Pixel 3a, which launched last month and is sold in T-Mobile stores, doesn’t support RCS on T-Mobile even though older phones from Samsung do. Why? Because the carrier’s “advanced messaging RCS capabilities are built into the core of the network rather than individual apps or devices” and Google’s phones don’t support it. There’s a little blame on both sides, but Google certainly could have worked with T-Mobile to support RCS in the interest of its users.

But it didn’t. And now we’re supposed to believe that Google is going to successfully wrest control of RCS from the U.S. carriers and develop their own system on top of the one that Google won’t even support on their own phones. And then find a way to encrypt it. Maybe it will happen some day. But after Google Chat, Hangouts, and Allo all promised similar results and failed, I’ll believe it when I see it.

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