Google Chat is said to be the latest messaging solution from the company and if the rumors are true, every problem with online messaging could disappear. That's a pretty bold statement, but what Google Chat is (and what it isn't), as well as how it's different from previous attempts, makes me believe that there's nothing else any one company can do and it this doesn't work nothing ever will.
Let's have a look at what it is and why it's different than previous attempts to "fix" online messaging.
The current problem
Right now online messaging is a digital battlefield filled with companies who only care what's best for themselves instead of making it easier for us. Services like iMessage and WhatsApp are great, but only if both sides of any online conversation are using the same app. There are several different standards that can be used and two of them we're all familiar with — SMS and XMPP — but that doesn't seem to matter because no service seems to want to use them the right way. SMS has been corrupted by companies like Verizon who try to use their version as a marketing tool and XMPP (what old apps like Jabra or Google Talk used) has been all but abandoned.
As usual, corporations are being corporations and making money comes before what's best for users. Same as it ever was.
RCS (Rich Communication Services) is a standard that can enhance and replace SMS and is able to give users an experience like iMessage or WhatsApp without both parties needing the same app, being on the same platform or through the same carrier. It's based on the premise that both users will have an active data connection and messages can be sent like they would through an instant messenger client using a set of protocols about how and what can be displayed. There's also a fallback that can use SMS for a "lesser" version of a message if a user doesn't have a data connection for a short period of time.
SMS is one of those things that needs to die. We use it because it works, but it's expensive to maintain and horribly insecure and your phone company would be very happy for it to go away forever. That's not really feasible just yet, so the next best thing is for SMS to be a last resort when all the better ways to chat won't work. That's exactly what services like iMessage or Verizon Advanced Messaging are doing right now. When both sides are using it you'll have a nice messenger experience but if one side isn't the chat falls back to a text-only affair. Apple and Verizon both use this as a way to let you know how much better things would be if you used their products in the way they want you to use them.
RCS would make this become universal. No matter what app you are using on any phone, you'll have that enhanced experience as long as you have a data connection.
Where Google comes in
Google has tried all sorts of ways to give users a rich service for chatting that doesn't depend on SMS. This started with Google Talk (which used the XMPP standard) then Hangouts became a thing then Allo arrived and each service was a little bit better than the last. But each had a problem, and while that problem was different each time it always went back to one thing: Google was trying to fix it with an app and not a standard.
This has one major flaw — both sides need to use the app. Google made the app free and available for everyone, but everyone already had an app for chat and there was no incentive to change. I've said it before and I'll say it again — Allo is a wonderful app that everyone would love if there was anyone else using it. But nobody is ever going to switch away from iMessage or WhatsApp or Verizon Advanced Messaging and use Allo, and they shouldn't; switching from one app that locks you in to another that locks you in is silly.
What needed to be done is to find a way to get every company to adopt the same universal RCS protocol, and that's what Google seems to have accomplished. Mostly.
There have been a handful of carriers that jumped on the RCS train as soon as it became available. Sprint, Orange and Claro are names that come to mind and are also not the major players in each of their markets (that'd be AT&T, Vodafone and Vivo) so you always had more users unable to use a fully RCS capable messenger than you had that were. Android, Windows and iOS are all able to use RCS capable messaging clients but without carrier support that doesn't mean much.
Google Chat looks like it will just be a rebranding of the Messages app that already exists (and is already RCS-ready) and it's not the important part of of all this. The important part is that Google somehow convinced carriers to adopt the RCS universal profile and got Samsung to include it in their Messages app. These are the two things that kept us all from having a good chat experience by default all along and if the reports about Google Chat are true, we'll all be able to have that rich messaging client we want by using the same messaging client we've been using all along for texting.
The one unknown
It's important to remember than Google hasn't said much of anything just yet. Google Chat is one of those things that exists as a leak or rumor that looks to be 100% legitimate and comes from a trustworthy source. But there will probably be more details once Google makes it all official.
With that in mind, there is one big piece that will still be missing and that's the iPhone. iMessage is not RCS capable and actually uses the fact that it's not fully compatible with any other messaging service as a selling point. Because you can't change the default messenger app on an iPhone, this means that messages between an iPhone and everything else will still fall back to just text. Google can't fix this and it would take Apple adding the RCS universal profile abilities to iMessage to make things just work.
We expect more details about Google Chat and the RCS solution to come up at Google I/O 2018 in a few weeks. There are certainly a handful of unanswered questions and once we get any more details we'll add them right here. In the meantime we can think about all the extra space we'll have once we can uninstall all the various messaging apps we use now and just use one really good one for everything.