Google is back. After starting and shutting down nearly half a dozen instant messaging apps, the company is once again trying to close the iMessage gap in the Android ecosystem.
For a year or two, Google has been working on avoiding a fundamental solution, encountering the same obstacles that have affected its previous message attempts. On Thursday, Google marked its first milestone when it launched an update to enable a service called RCS Chat for its standard SMS app in the United States.
I'll save you a technical lesson, but here's the essence: you can imagine RCS ̵
As long as you and the recipient use RCS-supported clients, you can chat over the Internet as you would normally expect from WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. If this is not the case, the app automatically returns to SMS – similar to what is offered in iMessage. The ultimate hope of Google is that regardless of your Android phone or SMS app, you should be able to send text through RCS.
If this sounds too confused, it's because this is the case. The previous RCS trip from Google was, to say the least, eventful. You see, Google does not own RCS. It's an open protocol like SMS that's been around for about a decade. No one accepted it because people started using services like Hangouts, Facebook, iMessage or WhatsApp to chat for free, and somehow every RCS forgot.
Google picked up RCS because, technically speaking, it's a powerful framework that may possibly be the answer to all your messaging problems. For the RCS plan to work and reproduce the ease of use of iMessage, it must be present on every Android phone. Google needs both network operators and phone manufacturers. That's what Google is trying to do in recent years. Google has led these companies to improve RCS compatibility.
Unfortunately, Google failed and at the end renounced it. In some countries, including the US, users can try RCS with the Android Messages app. With the exception that it may have landed in a bigger mess than it already was.
The four major operators in the US – AT & T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint – announced a joint venture to offer a new RCS-based messaging app by next year. While the association and Google (who initially did not seem aware of it) promise interoperability, there are still so many details in the scale and moving parts that it's entirely possible that the RCS dream never sees the light of day.
But is all this effort worth it and does Google even need RCS to fight iMessage?
In an ideal world in which every company would have agreed on the same terms, RCS could be successful. However, this is hardly the case here.
In addition, messages sent through RCS are not completely encrypted, even if Google manages to bring everyone to the same page. This tradeoff will get worse as you consider how RCS channel data.
Each RCS service provider must manage its own separate servers that forward inbound and outbound messages to the correct destination (possibly another server). For example, a message from Android Messages to a Samsung SMS app must go through two servers. This setup leaves a lot of room for anyone to browse your data. Mobile operators, in particular, have a bad history of encryption and repression against governments forcing them to private user information.
RCS depends on having too many "Maybes" to ever blow up.
More importantly, Google has a better chance to incorporate iMessage with a simple instant messaging integration into the SMS app. Some other companies, such as Truecaller and Facebook, have done this in the past – albeit not to the extent Google intended.
Over a year ago, Truecaller has pressed an instant messaging switch for the SMS tab of its Caller ID app. If the app detects that the recipient is also signed in to Truecaller, you can use the usual IM tools. Otherwise the app sends a normal SMS message. It works smoothly and is the best solution ever to deliver an iMessage-like experience on Android.
I'm not saying that Google should develop another instant messaging app with this concept, but Google should develop another instant messaging app with this concept concept. During the hangout days, attempts were made to merge SMS and instant messages. It was anything but perfect and did not work as intended most of the time.
The fragmentation that was the main cause of Google's past IM efforts is likely to be one of the biggest obstacles again. Although it will still be better than the RCS confusion Google is in right now.