Over the past year, Google has publicly pressured Apple to support Rich Communication Services. The latest salvo this weekend was the harshest yet, but RCS on the iPhone is not the panacea to Google’s historical messaging woes, nor will support lead to a transformatively better experience for Android users when interacting with their iPhone counterparts.
A flurry of tweets
In announcing that Verizon was preloading the Google Messages app, Google’s Hiroshi Lockheimer last July pointed out that the “fallback messaging experience on the other platform will not have encryption if it’s still SMS.” The Senior Vice President of Platforms and Ecosystems encouraged Apple to support RCS on its platforms given the importance of “security and privacy.”
A month later Lockheimer offered Google’s help as part of an “open invitation” in a quote retweet about the experience of group chats across Android and iOS. Just this weekend, the Google executive was very critical about the lock-in effect encouraging peer pressure and bullying among youths. This was later directly amplified by the Android Twitter account:
Bubble bubble, color and trouble
With 70% of people 18–24 in the United States using iPhones, according to the latest Consumer Intelligence Research Partners survey, using an Android phone to communicate makes you stick out. In addition to Apple’s Messages app labeling texts from Android users with green bubbles, SMS/MMS lacks modern messaging features due to the age of the cellular standard.
Alongside non-VoLTE phone calls, texting is one of the technologies that people use on a daily basis where the technology’s age shows. Compared to every other modern messaging app, SMS stands apart for being less feature rich and capable.
These technological downsides directly translate — as profiled by the Wall Street Journal over the weekend — into a cultural stigma in the United States where Android users get ostracized. One particular issue is the “breaking” or downgrading of group conversation features to use SMS when a non-iPhone user joins the chat. There also exists an unfortunate stigma in not owning an iPhone that results in people actively trying to get you to switch over.
As publicly telegraphed, Google’s solution to this is to upgrade the underlying SMS/MMS infrastructure to Rich Communication Services. The thinking being that Android-iOS conversations will get richer and benefit from typing indicators, read receipts, higher-quality media, and larger group conversations. Those features would go a long way toward modernizing the core, built-in messaging experience across platforms, while end-to-end encryption will make it much more difficult for somebody to snoop.
Google’s stated rationale for wanting Apple to adopt RCS is to improve the messaging experience between its users. It’s a rationale born out of not yet having a winning consumer messaging strategy. The company’s latest plan is to be fully behind RCS and rely on the default carrier offering rather than building out its own service after years of failed attempts. This standard-based approach means Google doesn’t (entirely) command the technical backend, but it does control the final user experience by designing and maintaining the Messages for Android app.
Meanwhile, what’s left unsaid by Google is that a greater level of feature parity might minimize the stigma associated with owning an Android phone. It could also make the process of switching from iOS to Android less stark. Those two things alone would be a big perception (and ultimately monetary) win for Google.
Green is here to stay
iOS getting RCS features would not be a small feat and would simply raise the capability bar. However, I believe that Google will end up finding that RCS support on the iPhone does nothing to significantly combat the lock-in effect of iMessage.
Fundamentally, Apple has no incentive to make iMessage interoperable with RCS, and as a result any hypothetical iOS support for the standard will remain siloed. At the end of the day, there’s no reason to think that Apple will drop the green bubble designation even for RCS. On a technical level, Apple can always argue that it needs to distinguish between message types.
Apple, as evidenced by internal communications, is very much incentivized to keep its users on iOS. As such, features like iMessage games, reactions, and higher-quality group conversations will remain exclusive to Apple users. Apple ultimately still wants to keep iMessage as a reason to switch to the iPhone, especially as smartphone adoption becomes saturated.
As such, you’re left with a situation where group conversations that include Android users still get downgraded, and you’re mostly back to the current pre-RCS status quo: Green conversations do get better, but they won’t be on par with blue bubbles and will remain different enough that the use of an Android device among iPhone peers still stands out.
The change Google actually wants is Apple making iMessage work with or over RCS. A company as notorious for end-to-end control as Apple would not do that for a host of reasons, including technical and privacy ones, unless compelled by regulation. That could be done with Apple releasing an iMessage app for Android, which is a whole other discussion – one for which there might be a moral case – but the current Google push will leave its latest messaging strategy right where it started.
Apple adopting RCS would be an unmistakable good for privacy/security and the technological finally needed to modernize and move away from SMS/RCS. After a year of encouragements, Google would get a public relations win, while the experience of messaging between Android and iOS would undoubtedly improve. That would be a victory for the end user and more than justify Google’s public push.
However, there’s no reason to believe that adopting the standard will in any way change Apple’s desire to keep iMessage exclusive. The iPhone can support Rich Communication Services, but Apple has no reason to make iMessage interoperable with RCS or change the cultural stigma associated with messaging between Android and iOS.
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