Google’s Ambition to Replace SMS with RCS. Will it Succeed?

Google’s messaging protocol RCS has over 800m monthly active users in spite of Apple not allowing it on their devices
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Of the many AI things that were unveiled and discussed at the Google I/O event, RCS or ‘Rich Communication Service’ was in focus. RCS, a supposed replacement for SMS, was first launched by Google in 2019. Four years after the rollout, the company announced RCS has 800m monthly active users, and is expected to cross over a billion at the end of the year. But, what’s so special about RCS, and is this Google’s way of pushing their messaging service? 

Rich Communication Service is a messaging protocol that is similar to an SMS (short messaging service). RCS uses the internet to transmit messages, whereas a cellular network is required for SMS services. It allows group chats, video, audio, images, real-time viewing, and other features of messaging apps such as Apple’s iMessage. 

At the event, Sameer Samat, VP of Product Management at Google, emphasised on how a messaging platform should entail the basics of “sending high quality images and video, getting typing notifications and end-to-end encryption,” which is Google’s RCS. 

RCS Message UI.  Source: Jibe Google

In the Google I/O event, further updates were announced to the messaging service. Google Messages that supports both SMS and RCS will have an AI added feature called ‘Magic Compose’ that will help in defining how the message should sound. The company claims that the conversations can be made “expressive, fun and playful.” 

Source: Youtube

All Too Similar

While the RCS features sound impressive, they all ring a familiar bell. Doesn’t a platform that does all of this already exist? With over 2 billion monthly active users, Whatsapp is the world’s leading messenger app. With end-to-end encryption, whatsapp also works on the same format. The biggest difference is that Whatsapp works as a separate platform which needs to be downloaded, whereas anyone with an Android can communicate over RCS. 

Whatsapp has added security features such as disappearing messages, blocking messages, group chat privacy settings, and others which are not available in messaging protocol RCS. In fact, when RCS started off, the encryption used to happen in transit and not from end-to-end, which meant that Google or the carrier could read your messages. Though it’s fully encrypted now, with the latest AI update that will feature on Google’s messaging service, the question of security again rises. 

Apple Will Not Budge

With Google increasingly pushing their RCS across different operators, one player has remained impervious to the change. Feud between Google and Apple regarding the latter’s non-adoption of RCS has been happening for a while now. Google did not miss a chance to take a jab at Apple in the recent Google I/O event too. Samat said that if every mobile operating system adopts RCS, “we can all hang out in group chats” irrespective of the “device” people use. 

Last year, Hiroshi Lockheimer, SVP for Platforms and Ecosystems at Google tweeted about how by not having RCS, Apple is holding back the industry and user experience for Android and Apple users. 

It did not stop with tweets and Google blogs by Google executives, there were even campaigns targeted at Apple which was run by Android, calling it Apple #GetTheMessage. 

Apple has been adamant in not adopting RCS, and Tim Cook has been clear in his stance. In a conference last year, when a user explained how he is not able to send certain videos over SMS to his mother who uses an Android, Cook responded with “buy your mom an iPhone.”Apple has always been particular in building and maintaining their user ecosystem. With iMessage being automatically available on all Apple devices, there is no separate need to download the application, and their user base naturally grows, which obviously means that there is no room for RCS.  

In June 2022, Google disabled RCS service in India for businesses as they were violating their anti-spam policy and sending unsolicited messages to people. As RCS offers richer message content as opposed to normal plain text via SMS, businesses were exploiting the functionality which led to its disablement. 

Interestingly, the company has not mentioned anything about security measures to combat spam messages or similar problems this time. 

Going by how there are other players in the market such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, and also considering how companies like Apple will continue shielding their user base, Google’s forecast of RCS users touching 1 billion per month, seems a bit far-fetched. 

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Vandana Nair
As a rare breed of engineering, MBA, and journalism graduate, I bring a unique combination of technical know-how, business acumen, and storytelling skills to the table. My insatiable curiosity for all things startups, businesses, and AI technologies ensure that I'll always bring a fresh and insightful perspective to my reporting.

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