More than bubble envy, less than noble

    Google has dragged RCS (Rich Communication Services) back into the news again, poking at Apple for its lack of support for the standard. This time Google has taken a page out of the ol’ Android Police book, making the same claims we made back in 2020: So long as Apple doesn’t support RCS as a fallback for iMessage, it’s not actually making good on its privacy values. But this conflict goes deeper than a handful of Twitter threads calling for a more privacy-centric fallback. There’s platform lock-in, social bubbles, reports of “bullying,” manipulative design, and Google’s own agenda to balance.


    Google offered to help Apple transition to the SMS-replacing standard as a backup for iMessage, and Google might have “won” the RCS wars on Android, but the future of the messaging standard is still up in the air, as much because of Google itself as because of Apple.

    What is RCS?

    RCS messaging is a complicated subject, in large part because there are multiple different implementations. In general, and as this discussion applies, the only important one is Google’s Chat — it’s the RCS system that “won.” (Not that Chat. That Chat. Google’s bad at naming things.)

    RCS itself is a set of standards developed by the GSMA (the Global System for Mobile Communications, which represents mobile carriers across the world and establishes the standards they use) for enhanced mobile messaging. With it, you can send messages and media (think photos, videos) at a higher quality between devices with benefits like reactions and typing indicators. It even operates with any data connection, including Wi-Fi. It brings all the benefits of not-so-modern instant messaging to replace the aging SMS standard.

    There are several different RCS implementations (the carriers all tried and failed to spin up their own garbage, locked-in versions), but the most important one to know about is the Universal Profile. It’s the “best” version with all the most beneficial features implemented to a specific set of agreed-upon standards. But, most importantly, it encourages interoperability.

    Because RCS can work in a decentralized manner, carriers and companies can spin up their own separate servers that don’t talk to each other. But a good Universal Profile implementation means these distributed systems can intercommunicate, so a message sent on Random North American Carrier can be received by Destination Japanese Carrier. Networks still need to build that interoperability in — it isn’t actually required by the Universal Profile spec, as far as we can tell, but it’s the version that makes that easiest. But if these separate systems do things right, even if customers are on separate servers, they’re all part of the same network.

    Google’s Chat is the company’s take on a Universal Profile RCS system, but ripped away from the carriers, who had nearly a decade to get it right and simply refused to. No one really wanted a single, centralized solution under one company’s control, but it’s the answer we got when the children at AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon refused to play nice with each other. Thankfully, all of the carriers gave up and have since left it in Google’s hands, abandoning their half-baked, too-late joint venture.

    Google’s Chat requires Google’s Messages app to work, but it doesn’t require that a carrier support Universal Profile standards for messaging. It’s very cleverly done. If a carrier does support Universal Profile, Google’s Messages app will simply use that, and everything will work as expected through the carrier’s servers. If a carrier doesn’t support it or has a dumb locked-down system, Google circumvents its stupidity entirely, giving you RCS through its own Jibe servers.

    When Google decided to roll out Chat widely without waiting on the carriers to get it right, the carriers exited the conversation entirely, and now it doesn’t matter what they do. Thanks to Google, everyone with an Android phone willing to use the Messages app now has access to RCS messaging in a full Universal Profile implementation.

    What is Google’s perspective?

    The history of RCS may not have started with Google, but it ends with it. Google delivered the version of RCS messaging most customers will experience through Chat and the Messages app. As a matter of context, though, this is far from the first time Google’s worked on a messaging service, and basically every single one of its earlier efforts failed — usually because of Google itself getting distracted or making bad and dumb decisions, like randomly starting new overlapping services or abandoning projects that just needed a little love.

    In many ways, RCS messaging is Google’s last hope for an iMessage competitor — but make no mistake, it is not an iMessage replacement. It doesn’t have the same sort of feature set, and you’re not going to install some Google Chat app on your desktop computer and magically get an RCS-based iMessage replacement.

    The closest thing we have is Messages for web, but it’s not a great experience, with an awkward setup process, single-device support, and no really “native” experience, since it’s a web app. And worse, it’s all tied to a phone number. (Though we should point out, more recent Universal Profile specifications actually allow that to be decoupled, relying instead on an OpenID.)

    Whatever Google’s motivation is behind pushing for RCS — and we’ll come back to that in a bit — there are some big benefits to customers. Excluding all the improvements in utility (writing indicators, read receipts, high-quality media, support for any data connection, better group chats, etc.) RCS is also more secure than SMS, which it supersedes. RCS also supports encryption for one-on-one conversations (but not group chats yet), enhancing customer privacy and security.

    Recently, Google has taken to bashing Apple’s lack of support for the standard, not just highlighting the social bubble effect, but even the “bullying” the company claims it imposes. Apparently, Apple users can get tribal about being blue or green bubbles — as if there weren’t enough other issues to be divisive about in the world right now.

    But separately from the ecosystem lock-in Apple imposes to keep its customers, Google SVP Hiroshi Lockheimer also recently highlighted a critical fact we wrote about back in 2020: If Apple actually cared about customer privacy, it would support RCS as a fallback mechanism for iMessage, rather than pushing all its customers to insecure SMS-based messaging. With the vast majority of people using Android devices and not iPhones, Apple’s not just leaving all of them behind; it’s also ignoring the privacy and security of its iPhone-using customers when they communicate with the world at large.

    Whether you accept that claim or not, Google would clearly stand to benefit if Apple did adopt a Universal Profile-compatible RCS messaging standard on iPhones. After all, RCS implements many of the best features in iMessage, and Android customers would get a better experience communicating across the aisle with iPhones, reducing the effect of Apple’s messaging lock-in and potentially swinging over customers who only stay for the blue bubble.

    What is Apple’s perspective?

    iMessage is one of Apple’s biggest sources of ecosystem lock-in, especially in North America. The conflict between blue and green bubbles has been brewing for more than a decade now, as the limitations of SMS and MMS slowly pushed iOS users to leave Android devices outside of their group chats. And honestly, it’s easy to see why. SMS is ancient technology in the mobile world, lacking features we now consider essential for messaging, including read receipts, typing indicators, and high-quality media.

    Forming an iOS-only group chat in iMessage isn’t just a better experience — it’s night and day, the difference between communicating like you’re rocking a Moto Razr in 2006 and actually talking to your friends in 2022. And because iMessage is automatically available on every single Apple device (iPhones, iPads, Macs, even Apple Watches) there’s no onboarding process, no app to download. Its user base expands naturally, without any effort from the company behind it.

    At any moment, Apple could effectively solve the “green bubble” issue with a simple iOS update. Adding RCS support to iMessage — even as a fallback, just as the app supports SMS and MMS — would give Android and iPhone users the ability to communicate using features we now consider essential. Sending a photo to your iPhone-owning friends in a reasonable quality would no longer require sharing a Google Photos link, reactions wouldn’t have to cause a flurry of spam messages, and read receipts would update everyone in a conversation on who’s seen what. All of those iMessage-exclusive features — Animoji, mobile payments, and more — would remain locked to Apple’s own devices, but the overall situation would improve for everyone.

    Green-bubble-mockup emaki fix

    Of course, that would also reduce the divide between blue bubbles and green bubbles, and therein lies the problem. Even if iMessage wasn’t necessarily built from the ground up to become a way to lock users into Apple’s devices, it’s certainly grown into one. If you live in the United States or Canada, you undoubtedly know of at least a couple of people who switched from Android to iOS, usually due to some sort of green bubble conflict with their friends or family.

    This is especially true with younger users, people in their teens or early twenties who experience social pressures and, in some cases, outright bullying when they aren’t using iMessage. Whether it’s iPhone-owning parents picking up a matching smartphone for their tweens or teens or friends at school mocking those who cannot access those exclusive messaging tools, the effect is the same: iPhones flying off store shelves.

    Apple may also be resorting to a handful of frankly dirty tricks, like sending lower-quality videos over MMS than Android devices do, and breaking its own accessibility guidelines to make those Android-based green bubbles look subtly worse than blue ones. If feature lock-in weren’t enough, Apple does what it can to degrade cross-platform communication.

    Apple is well aware of how advantageous iMessage remains to selling new iPhones. In 2013, SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi admitted as much in an email while discussing the possibility of an iMessage client for Android: “iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones.”

    Apple doesn’t need to make its messaging app available on Android to improve the experience of millions of chatters around the world. Adding RCS support would bring some basic compatibility and improved security between the two smartphone giants without giving up all of those fancy effects and tools that have been built into iMessage over the years. But with ecosystem lock-in more crucial than ever, there’s really no reason for Apple to relent here. The company’s solution to the struggle between green and blue bubbles is simple: Buy an iPhone.

    Potential solutions and problems

    Is it possible to find a workaround for accessing iMessage on Android or RCS on iOS?

    While there are no RCS or Chat clients available on iOS, several iMessage clients are available for Android in the Play Store. Each requires an always-on server running on a relatively recent Mac device to forward and send messages between your Android phone and other compatible gadgets. AirMessage is probably the most popular of these apps, though there’s a wide variety of alternatives online as well.

    Ultimately, apps like AirMessage can work in a pinch, but they aren’t ideal. In addition to some obvious privacy concerns, you also won’t get access to those Apple-exclusive iMessage features. While AirMessage does present you as a “blue bubble” in chat, outside of improved group chat and media support, it doesn’t add a whole lot. You won’t even see typing indicators when chatting with friends — a pretty serious drawback compared to the usual experience iMessage provides.

    Conversely, there aren’t any solutions we know of at all that bring RCS messaging to iOS, and it’s likely only Apple can bring that functionality to the iPhone anyway. iOS and Android work very differently, and where Android allows you to swap apps basically at will (and even install them from anywhere you want), Apple forces you to use its apps for certain things, and one of them is SMS. Apple’s “Messages” app is your only choice, period.

    RCS messaging works differently from SMS, and technically speaking, it could be possible to develop a third-party Universal Profile-compatible RCS messaging app for iOS. However, there’s a question of where you’d get that app from. Again, Apple refuses to let its customers install applications from any source but its own monetized store, and it would not approve an RCS-based messaging app on the App Store. (The company likes to knock down anything even vaguely similar to a built-in app’s features with spurious claims of “duplicating functionality.” It won’t even let real third-party browser engines on iPhones — Chrome is just Safari with a skin.)

    Could Apple be forced to support RCS in the future?

    The GSMA does have some power over companies like Apple, especially when it comes to setting standards. It could establish RCS as a requirement for future parts of 5G or other networking standards, forcing Apple’s hand on the subject. As touched on before, RCS itself isn’t a set standard, though. If Apple wasn’t specifically made to support Universal Profile, it could do something dumb like develop its own in-house RCS platform to meet those requirements — potentially one that doesn’t support the Universal Profile or talk to Google’s servers.

    Theoretically, Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile could require iPhones on their respective networks to support RCS as a standard, even going as far as to specify Universal Profile support as a must-have. However, the carriers have surrendered complete control of RCS, effectively leaving them without any motivation to take action on the part of Google.

    Problems in Androidland: Google’s flimsy moral high ground

    There’s one other big issue that Google needs to address, and it probably doesn’t want to. Right now RCS on Android essentially means Google’s version of it. The causes here are complicated, but the company has cornered the RCS messaging market due to its position. Google saved us from carrier selfishness and dithering, but it also enslaved us to its version of things.

    That’s because RCS messaging needs to connect to a server to work, and Android itself doesn’t support RCS at a system level like it does for SMS. Any company hoping to spin up an RCS implementation needs both the backend resources and a user-facing app to connect it to. Google has its Jibe servers and its Messaging app, but third-party developers can’t make apps that plug into that.

    Google was rumored to eventually open its Chat APIs up, but so far, that hasn’t panned out (seems it was just for Samsung). When we asked Google ourselves more recently if it had any plans to open up those APIs for third-party apps, our questions went unanswered.

    Of course, Google Chat isn’t the only RCS solution, merely the one that “won,” and another company could spin up its own Universal Profile-compatible backend, but there’s still that issue of a lack of APIs in Android itself, so they’d need to develop, market, and distribute their own app to go with it, increasing the barrier to market entry — that’s a businessy way of saying it’s hard for new solutions to compete.

    All this is a complicated way of saying that Google isn’t entirely benevolent here. We’re not sure how or if it plans to monetize its RCS messaging system Chat just yet (its Verified SMS strategy could imply one route), but it’s made sure third-party apps can’t use it, and it has seemingly prevented Android itself from having system-level support for RCS. You could argue it’s manipulating its dual-position as Android’s gatekeeper and Android’s sole good RCS provider, or you can say it just hasn’t gotten around to the change, but either way it hasn’t happened. We also asked Google if it had any plans to integrate RCS support into Android (making things a whole lot simpler for third-party developers and competing RCS systems), but the company didn’t answer those questions either.

    We don’t know Google’s motivation, but context could be an indicator: RCS-based Chat is really the first “win” the company has ever had when it comes to messaging, and it probably doesn’t want to let it go or mess that up.

    My friend (and AP alumnus) Ron Amadeo at Ars Technica has written what is basically the authoritative text on Google’s self-inflicted messaging failures (and you should read all ~25,000 words of it), but the short version is that Google just can’t get a single messaging service to stick — at least, until now. This time the company got to play the role of our savior, rescuing us from the carrier’s walled-off systems, but we may have simply moved from a smaller walled garden to a bigger one.

    A cynic might say now that Google has a real opportunity in the messaging space, it will do everything it can to maintain control by not opening its own APIs or giving Android system-level support that other RCS systems might use. And while Google might point to Apple’s hypocrisy when it comes to privacy, Apple can just as easily point at Google’s claims being at least a little off-base while it effectively controls RCS on Android.

    Will Sattelberg contributed reporting to this piece.

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