Let’s face it: Text messages as we’ve known them throughout history (i.e., since the 1990s) are tired. They don’t support read receipts, group messaging, or the animated stickers your pals trade on apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat. They rely on a cellular connection — which is restricted to places with a signal — and they stop you at 160 characters. Despite those limitations, text messaging or SMS (Short Message Service), still gets plenty of love from the public — at least for now — with some 781 billion text messages sent every month and more than 9.3 trillion texts per year in the United States, according to 2017 numbers from Statistic Brain. But that is starting to change.
To make the service more valuable and competitive with popular, feature-rich messaging apps, smartphone manufacturers, carriers, and the cell phone industry’s governing agencies have developed the Rich Communication Services (RCS) protocol known popularly as Chat, a modern take on texting that rolls features from Facebook Messenger, iMessage, and WhatsApp into one platform. Chat is a new interactive protocol that allows group chats, video, audio, and high-resolution images, and looks and functions a lot like iMessage and other rich messaging apps. You can get read receipts and see when someone is replying to your message in real-time. And it may already reside on the smartphone in your hand.
Google’s customers in the U.K., France, and Mexico have been able to opt in to Chat instead of having to wait for carriers to roll it out. And now in the U.S., Android users can get in on the new Chat action as well. Last month, Google announced the rollout of RCS as Android’s primary texting platform for anyone who uses the Android Messages app, and many Android phones come with Android Messages installed. Last year, Google and Samsung announced a partnership that allows RCS features to work seamlessly between the Samsung Messages and Android Messages apps, the default SMS apps on their devices. Or, you can hop on to the Google Play Store to download Messages yourself.
The text messaging backstory
The invention of text messaging predates the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Palm Pilot. SMS was first proposed in 1982 for the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), a second-generation cell standard devised by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).
The initial idea was to transmit texts via the signaling systems that controlled telephone traffic. ETSI engineers developed a framework that was both small enough to fit into the existing signaling paths (128 bytes, later improved to 160 seven-bit characters) and modular enough to support carrier management features like real-time billing, message rerouting (routing messages to a recipient other than the one specified by the user), and message blocking.
After nearly a decade of tinkering, SMS deployed commercially in December 1992 — a milestone that Neil Papworth, an engineer, marked by texting “Merry Christmas” to Vodafone customer Richard Jarvis. In the years that followed, handset manufacturers including Nokia and carriers like Fleet Call (now Nextel) and BT Cellnet (now O2 UK) climbed aboard the messaging bandwagon, spurring adoption. By 2010, nearly 20 years after the first text message, cell subscribers exchanged 6.1 trillion messages.
Despite the explosive growth of SMS, it didn’t evolve all that much from the systems of the early ’90s. Even as phone form factors changed and Apple’s iPhone popularized the modern-day touchscreen smartphone, SMS remained the same — right down to the original 160-character limit. RCS changes all that.
What is RCS?
Rich Communication Services (RCS) is the protocol that will replace SMS, but it got off to a very slow start. It was formed by a group of industry promoters in 2007 and brought under the wings of the GSM Association, a trade group, in 2008. But carrier participation and other factors kept it from gaining much traction for nearly a decade. In 2018, Google announced it had been working with major cell phone carriers worldwide to adopt the RCS protocol. The result is Chat, the protocol based on the RCS Universal Profile — a global standard for enacting RCS that lets subscribers from different carriers and countries communicate with each other — intended to eventually supersede SMS.
Chat is evolving to look a lot like iMessage and other messaging apps, but there are also some neat extras in store. Google has been working with businesses to add helpful features to Chat to improve communications, like branded informational messaging and sharing content like images, video clips, and gifs, or sending live updates about upcoming trips and boarding passes, and perhaps even allowing customers to select airline seats from within Android Messages. Chat is hardware agnostic, so it will work across multiple devices. It’s even possible that Chat could work on iOS, though Apple has yet to support the protocol.
But Chat is missing one critical element: While the original RCS protocol allowed the implementation of client-to-server encryption, Chat does not offer end-to-end encryption like iMessage or Signal. Rather, it retains the same legal intercept standards as its SMS predecessor.
Chat is a protocol, not an app
Chat is not designed to be just another Android messaging app: It’s the user-friendly name for the RCS protocol or RCS Universal Profile. Chat will initially be available only on two apps: Android Messages and Samsung Messages. While this may seem a bit restrictive, most smartphone manufacturers ship with Android’s default messaging app. There are a lot of moving pieces required for Chat to work. First, your carrier must support the protocol. You’ll also need to have a device and messaging app that supports Chat. Finally, your recipient will need to have Chat too, otherwise, Chat messages revert to SMS.
In addition to bringing Android messaging into the 21st century with reading receipts, typing indicators, and sending and receiving high-resolution photos and videos, people can chat over Wi-Fi or mobile data, name group chats, add and remove participants from group chats, and more. You can enable RCS by launching the Android Messages app and switching on the chat features if prompted. Text messages will automatically flow through the new protocol if both parties have RCS enabled. But not everyone will, at least not yet. Google is doing a slow roll-out, though the company predicts most people in the U.S. will have the update by the close of 2019.
Who supports Chat?
For nearly a decade, it was difficult to gain widespread support for the RCS protocol. While some carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile were on board fairly early, many manufacturers hesitated. Since RCS requires both a software and a network update, many manufacturers didn’t want to develop software to make their devices retroactively support the protocol. Currently, there are 60 supporters — carriers, OEM manufacturers, and mobile OS providers that support Chat. Google now services Chat for customers via its app, eliminating the need for carrier support and Microsoft has also committed its support to the protocol. In the U.S., all of the major carriers have signaled their support for Chat, which means it should be fairly easy for mobile virtual network operators to get on board, once they implement the standard.
This fall, the four major U.S. carriers — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint — formed the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative, a joint venture to concentrate on standardizing RCS.
- Sprint: While Sprint has already rolled out RCS Universal Profile, you’ll need a supported device to take advantage of it — and you’ll need to be talking to someone with a supported device too.
- T-Mobile: T-Mobile has begun rolling out RCS Universal Profile to some smartphones and plans to bring the feature to more by the end of the year.
- AT&T: AT&T has agreed to the RCS standard, but there’s still no word on a rollout.
- Verizon: Verizon is rolling out RCS to supported phones.
- Google Fi: Google Fi now supports RCS on all Fi phones.
Considering Google and the carriers are still a bit scattered on how RCS will come together — or even if it will coalesce into some kind of cohesive whole — there’s plenty of hope for harmony in the new, improved RCS universe.