After two long, complicated years, every Android user around the world (except China and Russia) now has access to the next-generation text messaging standard that replaces SMS. Google directly offers RCS chat services through its Android Messages app to anyone who installs it and uses it as the default text messaging app, which partially circumvents the carrier’s distribution, which sometimes ranges from slow to inconsistent to broken.
Equally important, Google has announced that it is finally starting to activate a key privacy feature: end-to-end encryption. For Android users who use Android Messages, conversations “individually”
Although encryption is starting to spread only to people who sign up for the public beta for Android Messages, enabling RCS encryption is a big deal. This is a huge gain for privacy, as it could mean that the actual SMS replacement by default will be private to the smartphone platform used by most people around the world.
As for the people who use this other platform for smartphones – iPhone – we have no word on whether Apple intends to adopt the RCS standard. But as every carrier in the world gets on board, and now that there is a clearer way to provide private communication with RCS, the pressure on Apple to participate is likely to increase.
Unfortunately, SMS, which becomes completely withdrawn and replaced with RCS, will only happen if everything goes according to plan for Google. Since initially announcing its plans to move to RCS as the main text messaging platform for Android, the implementation of the standard has been confusing. In an effort to be neutral and make Android text messaging a standard shared by carriers around the world, Google has set out to raise billions of dollars in cats – with sadly predictable results.
Last year, however, Google began to take matters into its own hands, slowly allowing users in different countries to receive RCS services directly from Google, instead of waiting for their operator to turn it on. (Even when operators turned it on, it was often not interoperable.)
Today, the company announced that the process is complete and RCS is available through Android Messages wherever Google offers its services (ie not in China). In certain regions and with certain operators, Google will continue to allow those operators to manage your RCS services if they choose.
Global accessibility is an important milestone, but for me, the fact that Google is upgrading RCS to eventually make Android Messages encrypted by default is much bigger news. So let’s find out exactly how it will work, because there are some things you need to know.
First, as mentioned, it will be released in beta this month, and Google has no schedule for when the encrypted chats will move to the main app. As for people who want to sign up for the public beta of Android Messages, keep in mind that, as usual, Google will release the feature gradually, so you may not get it right away.
End-to-end encryption will only work in one-on-one chats when both users are using Android Messages and have received the update. Enabling end-to-end encryption in group chats is a much more complex issue, so Google won’t commit to a timeline to expand the feature.
Android Messages on the web is just a portal to the messaging app on your phone, so just like Signal and WhatsApp, the texts you send in this interface will also be encrypted. Speaking of Signal, Google chose the Signal protocol for its implementation of encryption – just like WhatsApp. (The alert protocol is simply the code used to protect messages; this does not mean that these applications can interact.)
If you send messages to someone who doesn’t use Android Messages (say, someone who uses Samsung Messages or iPhone), the discount to less encrypted RCS chat or SMS will still work fine. And because the more advanced features of Android Messages are built into the app instead of living in the cloud, enabling encryption shouldn’t interfere with other apps.
The saga of bringing carriers and various other business interests in line with the RCS standard continues. This standard is called the Universal Profile and is still evolving as I write this. One thing that is not part of the universal profile is the encryption standard that Google accepts. Builds it on RCS directly in the Android Messages client.
This does not mean that Google intends to make its encryption decision a property. The company tells me that we will be happy to work with any company to work for compatibility. Google has published a short technical document that provides an overview of Google’s method of encrypting Android Messages.
In other words, Google’s encryption implementation may one day become part of the Universal Profile standard. As with Apple, there may be some pressure on the GSMA (carrier consortium) to move to more encryption. Facebook still intends to make all its messaging apps encrypted by default, so it’s increasingly becoming the norm for text messaging. (Disclosure: My wife works at Facebook Reality Labs, the company’s AR / VR division. Read my full ethics statement here.)
As with all RCS things, it’s better to think of today’s messages as part of an evolving process, rather than as a startup. Many things in technology have big, unpleasant moments when products become immediately available and begin to have an immediate impact. RCS is not one of those things.
Updated, 10:25 AM ET, November 19: Google has released the technical document about how he has already applied encryption, instead of later this month as expected. We also added a link to availability cardwhich shows that both China and Russia are excluded. The article has been updated to reflect this.