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Google is finally taking charge of the RCS rollout

We’ve been hearing about RCS, the replacement for SMS texting, for over a year now, but actually using the next-generation service has been nearly impossible due to complicated carrier and phone maker politics. But now Google is taking over: later this month, Android users in the UK and France will be able to opt in to RCS Chat services provided directly by Google instead of waiting for their carrier to support it.

That seems like yet another minor status check-in on the service meant to replace SMS, but in fact it’s a huge shift in strategy: as Google rolls this offering out to more countries, it should eventually mean that RCS will become universally available for all Android users.

For the first time in years, Google will directly offer a better default texting experience to Android users instead of waiting for cellphone carriers to do it. It’s not quite the Google equivalent of an iMessage service for Android users, but it’s close. Not knowing when or if RCS Chat would be available for your phone was RCS’s second biggest problem, and Google is fixing it.

RCS’s biggest problem is that messages are still not end-to-end encrypted. iMessage, WhatsApp, and Signal are secured in that way, and even Facebook has said it will make all its apps encrypted by default. Google’s chat solution is increasingly looking out of touch — even immoral.

But there is hope on that front as well. The product management director overseeing Android Messages, Sanaz Ahari, assures me that Google recognizes the need for private chat within RCS and is working on it. Here’s her full statement:

We fundamentally believe that communication, especially messaging, is highly personal and users have a right to privacy for their communications. And we’re fully committed to finding a solution for our users.

What it means to you should be simple: if you have an Android phone, the timeline for when the RCS switch will be available has become shorter. Google says that it will release the services to more countries “throughout the year,” but wouldn’t commit to saying that it would be available in all regions by the end of the year. However, as Ahari puts it, the goal is “a great, simple user experience that just works for every Android user.”

As with all things related to Google’s messaging strategy in general, and Rich Communication Services (RCS) specifically, none of this is happening with the speed or clarity I’d like. But it’s happening, finally, and there are a lot of details to go through if you want to fully understand how it will work and what it means.

How Google’s RCS Chat service will work

RCS is the next-generation texting protocol that most carriers around the world have agreed should eventually replace SMS. It offers most of the features that you’d expect from a modern messaging app, including read receipts, high-quality attachments, and typing indicators (though, again, it lacks end-to-end encryption). Google’s Android Messages app refers to RCS as “Chat,” which is a more consumer-friendly name for the service.

The process will be opt-in. When users open up the Android Messages app, they’ll see a prompt offering to upgrade to RCS Chat. This will also apply to new phones. RCS Chat will be in the default app and offered to every Android user, but for now the plan is not to make it the default. Apple automatically opts users in to iMessage, but Google is going to require an active choice.

Ahari says that “A user also needs to know that Google is providing the service … [from a] terms of service standpoint.”

For most users, this is all you really need to know:

If you see the Chat prompt, click yes to enable RCS services from Google. Then if you see “Chat” in the app, you’re talking to somebody else who has RCS. It’s encrypted in transit, but it’s not fully end-to-end encrypted, so your RCS provider can potentially see the contents of your messages, and turn them over to the government if properly asked. Google says it will delete them from its servers as soon as they’re delivered to your phone — more on this below. It will work with any other phone that supports the RCS Universal Profile, regardless of whether Google or the carrier provides the service. Finally, unless you’re in the UK or France, there’s no official timeline for when Google will flip the switch in your country.

But if you want to dig in beyond those bullets, there are a ton of interesting and relevant technical details. One notable difference between RCS Chat and other chat apps: there’s no database of who has it and who doesn’t. When you send an iMessage, Apple uses a central database called the “Apple Identity Service” that determines whether the person you’re contacting also has iMessage.

That option isn’t available for RCS, because it uses a “federated model” where different carriers are in charge of the servers that deliver messages to their users. That makes it more complicated, but it’s important that whatever replaces SMS not be solely controlled by a single company.

Because it can’t rely on a central database, Android Messages sends a query directly to the other phone. Drew Rowny, product lead for Messages, tells me when you open a texting window in Android Messages, it pings everybody on that chat with an invisible message (sort of like a push notification) asking if they support RCS Chat, and Android Messages silently responds “Yes” if it does. Those messages are a “capability exchange,” and Rowny calls it a “point-driven” model, as opposed to Apple’s server-based system for iMessage.

Because the phone itself is responsible for telling others that it has Chat, it’s still tied to a phone number. It also means you won’t be able to have messages come in to multiple devices at once, like iMessage allows. You can still use a web interface by scanning a QR code with your phone, but it still depends on your phone for sending and receiving.

The point-driven model matters because it’s also what enables Google to just roll this system out without waiting for permission from carriers. RCS supersedes SMS because the Android Messages app can simply tell other phones that it has Chat capabilities. Rowny says that “from a technical architecture point of view, the more we’re able to do at the app level, the easier that is.”

Although RCS Chat is not (yet) end-to-end encrypted, there is at least one small piece of good news in how Google has implemented it. Rowny says that the company doesn’t keep any of the messages that pass through its servers. “From a data retention point of view, we delete the message from our RCS backend service the moment we deliver it to an end user,” he explains, adding “If we keep it, it’s just to deliver it when that person comes online.”

There is one minor caveat to that data retention. In a later statement, a Google spokesperson said “Files (stickers, GIFs, photos, videos) within messages might be retained for a period of time without user identifiers following delivery to ensure that all recipients can download the file.” I also asked about metadata, which is often a loophole that gets ignored in privacy discussions. Those should be temporary, too: “We temporarily log metadata about the device such as IMSI, phone number, RCS client vendor and version, and timestamps for a limited period of time to provide the service.”

If a carrier directly offers RCS, Google will let that carrier handle your messages. So if you’re wondering about data retention policies, you’ll have to figure out whether it’s Google or your carrier transporting your messages. As with SMS, there’s no reason those carriers can’t hang on to your messages and hand them over to governments that demand them. So until RCS supports end-to-end encryption, the safest assumption is that someone else can read your messages.

Here’s one last technical detail, as long as we’re already deep in this rabbit hole: if you switch your SIM card over to a phone that doesn’t support RCS Chat, Rowny says that Google won’t “black hole” messages. In other words, its system should recognize fairly quickly that you can’t receive Chat messages and revert back to SMS automatically.

Apple, of course, has not said whether it intends to ever support RCS on the iPhone.

Our original video explaining RCS Chat from April 2018. Why Google had to do it

A brief and very incomplete history of Android’s Messaging mess

August 2005: Google Talk (aka Google Chat) October 2008: Android launches with support for Google Talk & SMS. June 2011: Google+ launches, distracting everybody. It includes Huddle and Hangouts video chat. August 2011: Facebook Messenger launches as a standalone app. October 2011: iMessage launches. WhatsApp reports 1 billion messages per day. May 2013: Google+ Hangouts launches, merging other Google messaging and video chat apps. September 2014: Google Voice integrated into Hangouts April 2015: Project Fi launches, also integrating with Hangouts. January 2016: Google Messenger becomes the preferred SMS app on Android, deprecating Hangouts for texting. June 2016: Google Talk for Android and Google Chat in Gmail discontinued August 2016: Google releases Duo, a video chat app. September 2016: Google releases Allo, a texting app. February 2017: Messenger is renamed Android Messages, announced it will be the default RCS app March 2017: Google announces Hangouts is becoming Hangouts Chat, focused on enterprise use April 2018: Google is “pausing investment” in Allo, focusing instead on Chat, a new standard to replace SMS. May 2019: Google shuts down Allo.

Until now, carriers have been in charge of deciding when to turn on RCS — it’s been their service, not Google’s. Google had made the decision not to just up and replace the default texting app with its own service and seemed committed to it. Whether that was because of concerns over aggravating carrier partners or simple product mismanagement is a question only Google executives can answer — though that answer is surely a combination of both.

Unfortunately, and all too predictably, the rollout of RCS has been terrible (especially in the US). Although Google notes that RCS is live in “24 markets,” that doesn’t really mean that much because of how many complications and caveats are involved in getting the service.

Even if your carrier supports RCS, that doesn’t mean that its chat messages will interoperate with other RCS users. Your carrier has to support the Universal Profile, and not all of them do. And even then, just because a carrier supports RCS doesn’t mean that every Android phone on that network will get it, because they’ve been approving handsets one by one. For example, T-Mobile isn’t supporting RCS on the Pixel 3A.

If you want to use iMessage, you buy an iPhone. If you want to use Signal or WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, you install the apps. If you want to use RCS, you’d wait to see if your carrier planned to support it, wait for your carrier to turn it on, and hope that your particular phone was blessed to use it. And the same process applied to everybody you’d want to talk to. It is like the Upside Down, Demogorgon version of the network effect. It is untenable.

It is also exactly the sort of mess that we were all worried Google would wade into when it told me about its plans for RCS Chat over a year ago. “The experience is still pretty hard to understand for users,” Ahari admits. “That’s something we also feel the pain of.” Last month, Google’s Hiroshi Lockheimer said “I’ll be honest, and I’ve mentioned this to [carriers], I’m a little bit frustrated at the pace of this. It needs to get better,” during The Vergecast.

So instead of making you wait for your carrier to provide RCS services, Google is finally just going to do it itself.

It’s the option I’ve always referred to as “going full iMessage”: just taking over texting and carriers be damned. Google’s not going that nuclear — it’s still opt-in and carriers can run their own RCS services if they want, but it’s the most user-friendly thing to do, and hopefully Google doesn’t take too long rolling out support in more countries.

What it means

If you’re an Android user, this RCS news is cause for celebration. If you’re worried about Google’s market power, it’s cause for concern.

Android runs on something like 75 percent of smartphones worldwide, and using that dominance to transition billions of people away from SMS and toward a Google-run service is the sort of thing that should widen the eyes of antitrust regulators everywhere. Google’s RCS Chat in Android Messages will be yet another part of the services and apps from Google that have already being scrutinized in Europe.

In a sense, the incredibly messy rollout of RCS over the past year could be Google’s best defense against accusations of monopolistic practices. The argument would probably go something like this: Google doesn’t control this standard, the GSMA carrier association does, and all Google is doing is implementing it. Besides, Google did its level best to get carriers to do it themselves and they haven’t. Plus, if any carrier wants to take over running RCS for its customers from Google, Google will happily let them.

It’s also possible that Google is starting this process only in the UK and France as a kind of test balloon to see if regulators would buy any of the above arguments — or if they’ll even notice.

Ahari says that Google wanted to “start with a smaller set of markets, just to make sure that we have the right experiences [for customers],” adding that Google is “also doing this making sure that we’re partnering well with the ecosystem.” Ahari points out that many carriers have been asking Google to provide this service.

In fact, Ahari came back to the idea that Google is “partnering well with the ecosystem” a few times in our conversation. In a later statement, a Google representative repeated the point that Google will be “flexible to operator needs.” In other words: if there is any pushback from carriers or regulators, operators at Google are standing by to take their call.

Assuming the rollout continues and goes worldwide (except, of course, in China), Google will also be taking on a huge responsibility. When I asked how it intends to, you know, pay for all this, Ahari’s answer was twofold. First, “Monetizing those messages is not an immediate priority for us.” Google believes messaging is a core phone feature and it’s too important to leave in the messy state it’s in right now, whatever the cost.

The second part, of course, is the real answer: Google won’t charge users, but it can charge businesses that want to use RCS chat to communicate with customers. “That is an area where there is an opportunity to provide a better experience,” Ahari says, “and given that [SMS] is monetized today, we know that as long as it creates value for businesses, then there is value to be created.”

If that sounds like Google serving you ads, it’s not meant to. It’s simply Google charging businesses that want to use RCS to provide customer service. A spokesperson notes that users need to opt-in to communicate with businesses, and more importantly that “Google does not access messages for advertising or for other Google services.”

The fact that Google is finally taking responsibility for fixing the RCS rollout is heartening. It took some gumption to face potential carrier ire and a greater chance of antitrust investigations. It’s going to take even more for the next step: end-to-end encryption.

Technically, there’s nothing in the RCS spec that would prevent building in end-to-end encryption. Google just has to get the GSMA to agree to a standard to add on to the Universal Profile (the spec that lets RCS services interoperate). That’s easier said than done, but again, it’s technically possible. It’s not just carriers, however: plenty of governments would be unhappy to see the default texting method on 75 percent of the world’s phones “go dark,” as the FBI likes to refer to it.

I can’t tell you if Google has the leverage — or the courage — to bring encryption to RCS. I can only tell you that it should.

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