Google’s Android messaging app strategy has been a mess for years. Apple Messages, Facebook, and WhatsApp offer vastly better experiences and enjoy a much wider user base. The Mountain View company seems to have realized that to defeat its competition, it needs to do something drastic. A Verge exclusive reveals the simple and risky plan: First, stop the development of Google’s own proprietary messaging app, Allo, and reposition Hangouts as a competitor to the professional workgroup chat application Slack. Third, the company will put all of its messaging eggs in a basket called Rich Communication Services (RCS), or what Google calls “Chat.”
RCS is a new messaging protocol published in 2016 by the GSMA, the global association of mobile carriers. RCS aims to replace SMS messages completely, making it the new default. Why does SMS and its extension, the Multimedia Messaging System (MMS) need to be replaced? For starters, sending a full resolution image or video using MMS is impossible. And secondly, transmitting text messages between carriers in different countries wouldn’t work at all, which is why so many people have switched to WhatsApp, Apple’s Messages, and Facebook Messenger.
RCS aims to fix those issues, and offer most of the same functionality as Messages or Facebook’s Messenger (“most” being the key word here, more on that later). And by pushing the entire industry to activate RCS globally and creating its own default client for it, Google hopes that it could claim ground in the messaging wars. If the default messaging on any phone on Earth is as rich as the messaging experience on Apple Messages and other apps, Google’s logic goes, people will just use normal messages and stop using multiple apps to communicate.
Google’s messaging strategy has been a mess for more than a decade. Its latest effort, Allo, never took off–just like Google Talk in 2005 (an text chat tool), Google+ Huddles (a group chat tool) and Google+ Hangouts (a chat and videoconference tool) in 2011. Google Duo, a videoconference tool, is enjoying some success in 2016, but it’s not a messaging app. Many users already have better options for the features they want–like the ability to send and receive texts, full resolution videos and photos, sent and read receipts, GPS location sharing, emojis, and reaction GIFs, all through encrypted communications.
Allo was going to do all that. But The Verge reports that Google CEO Sundar Pichai decided to halt its consumer chatting efforts and make the standard itself–plain text messages–as good and rich as the top three messaging apps.
To accomplish this, Google has pushed all major carriers and phone manufacturers in the world to implement RCS, which “will enable the industry to deliver a consistent and more advanced messaging experience for 6.7 billion consumers worldwide,” according to the GSM Association. It will also concentrate on making the best RCS client, called Android Messages, that can do everything people expect from their current messenger apps–sending and receiving images, videos, emojis, and GIFs, individually or in groups, to any other user anywhere. If you can do that by default, why would you have to use extra apps to communicate? In theory, people will just use Android Messages and be done with it.
The problem with Google giving up on implementing its own message protocol is that it puts carriers in control of that communication. (It also allows other phone manufacturers to implement their own apps; while Google hopes that Android Messages will be so good that nobody would want to use any other client, it’s a big gamble.)
Crucially, RCS doesn’t offer built-in end-to-end encryption like the dominant messaging apps. Within Apple Messages, nobody, not even Apple, can snoop into your communications. Same with WhatsApp and even Facebook Messenger if you enable the encrypted mode. But with RCS, anyone–law enforcement, carriers, and hackers alike–may be able to snoop your sexts. Anil Sabharwal–who is leading the RCS effort at Google–admitted to The Verge that “RCS continues to be a carrier-owned service, so legal intercept and other laws that exist that allow carriers to have access to the data continues to be the case.” Sabharwal pointed out that RCS will not have encryption, leaving it all in the hands of the carriers.
There’s also no guarantee that carriers won’t charge for RCS messages if they want to, just like there’s no guarantee that a carrier wouldn’t want you to pay extra to access certain internet content now that net neutrality has been abolished. RCS messages use the same data paths as any other internet traffic, but so do text messages–and many carriers around the world still charge for them. Of course, if that happens, people may choose to just keep using Apple Messages, Facebook Messenger, or WhatsApp–unless the carriers decide to prioritize their RCS traffic over those protocols (net neutrality again!). We are in their hands.
The promise of universal rich messaging that works internationally and doesn’t make people hop from program to program is an extremely attractive one. I love it myself–I curse jumping from Messages to Messenger to WhatsApp to Hangouts every day. But considering the potential problems with Google’s solution, the cost of the company’s plan to beat its messaging rivals may be too much for me to stomach.