Google announces that today, a year and a half, after it first introduced RCS chat as the main Android text messaging platform, it actually makes the RCS Chat as the main Android text platform. This is because, as of today, it offers access to any Android user in the US who wants to use it.
RCS stands for 'Rich Communication Services' and is an SMS receiver. Like other text services, it supports read receipts, input indicators, enhanced group chat and high quality images. Unlike several text messaging applications, such as iMessage or Signal, it does not offer end-to-end encryption as an option. RCS is based on your phone number, so when you type with someone who also has one, they just have to automatically join your chat.
To get RCS, you just need to use Android Messages as your default text messaging app on your Android phone. Many Android phones already do this by default, but Samsung users will need to head to the Google Play Store to download it and then switch to the default one.
Google implements RCS gradually, as is often the case with new features. After you receive Android messages, you should see an option to upgrade to "enable chat features." Google says it will light this option "in the coming weeks," and the full rollout will be completed by the end of the year.
iPhone does not support RCS and in the last year Apple declined to comment on whether it would ever happen repeatedly.
Our original video on how RCS works since April 201
So far, RCS has been a service offered by carriers directly to their customers – or, more often, not offered, given the slow launch . In order to understand how Google offers RCS chat to all Android users, it currently requires some technical background. It gets even more complicated because the big four US carriers only announced that they would offer RCS in 2020.
In theory, you shouldn't know exactly how it works, because when carriers start offering their version on RCS chat, Android users will seamlessly switch to their service. Or they may still be able to continue to use Google's servers
However, it may be confusing in practice. The worst-case scenario of carrier-created text applications that contradict the native Android Messages application is still a very big possibility:
If Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint aren't doing a radically better job than they have in in the past, by offering good apps and good services, Android users will be stuck with something terrible. If that happens, all Google is really going to do with its messaging is to convince Americans that the only way to really mess up Android messaging is to buy an iPhone.
RCS chat is a short way of referring to a technical standard that is slowly perceived by operators, called "Universal Profile." (Some carriers have a form of RCS that is not compatible with what adds confusion.) When using WhatsApp or iMessage, a company handles message routing and stores a database of users. RCS, like SMS, is a "federal" system in which many companies maintain servers that need to communicate with each other.
When you turn on RCS, what actually happens is your phone acquires the ability to tell other phones that it can send and receive RCS messages, and RCS servers help with this. These RCS servers use state-of-the-art software instead of the messy mess of SMS, which in theory means that the famous Syniverse screw that sends messages to Valentine nine months later will be less likely to happen.
What Google does with Android Messaging today allows the app to use Google's own servers to enable RCS chat instead of waiting for carriers to start their own. In fact, in recent weeks, Reddit users have figured out how to configure Android Messages to use a test server that Google had set up for RCS. (Google tells me that users who have enabled this solution will be migrated to the official system.)
The bottom line is that routing RCS messages is more complicated than other messaging applications, but Google can do it easier by offering RCS services directly to waiting carriers instead. It happened in the UK and France in June, and now it happens in the US.
This is a move that Google had to make much earlier because carriers have been dragging their feet and polluting the water on RCS for more than a year. Just a month ago, US carriers promised they would finally accept it, but would not offer the service until 2020. Google is simply giving it a chance to get involved now.
US carriers have created a joint venture called CCMI (Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative), which promises to deliver a new text messaging application and offer RCS services in 2020. Google promises to interact with the CCMI system, and said earlier that it could transfer users from one RCS server to another.
There is also a problem with Samsung phones that use Samsung's own text messaging app outside the box. It also supports RCS chat, but only if the service is provided by your operator and only if your carrier has turned it on for your Samsung phone type. (Even then it may not support Universal Profile.)
The fix is simple: just switch to Android Messages, but the problem is that most users stick to the default. As Samsung sells more phones in the US than any other Android manufacturer, there should be a better default solution. Most other Android manufacturers have given up on making their own text applications and are simply using Google already.
Whether Android users will have a choice as to what text messaging app they use is still an open question. My sense of the answer to this is that Google and CCMI are still negotiating. Google says it is not surprised by CCMI's announcement and that the two companies have been in communication. CCMI has not yet responded to a request for comment.
All this is a problem for next year. This year, Google is finally doing what it had to do first: offering a simple and versatile way for Android users to have a better text messaging experience.
Hopefully this will by default also offer extreme one-time encryption someday. There is no technical reason why it couldn't, and Google has previously said it is working on it.
For more on what happened to those Valentine's Day texts, why SMS was broken, and what RCS might mean, listen to this reset episode recorded last week where I joined Ariel Duheim-Ross to talk about all this: