Messaging on Android

You have to wonder a little if Google is afraid of getting messaging right. That's maybe the only explanation that's left following its most recent failure to take encrypted messaging seriously, and for the latest lip service paid to RCS — the next generation of sort-of-not-really text messaging that Google's been pushing for the past couple of years.

Here. We go. Again.

If you're not all that well-versed on the various ways our words fly from phone to phone, a quick recap: SMS — traditional "text messaging" is old, limited, and not at all secure. It's a feature of the carriers themselves, and it's always been clunky. But it still works everywhere.

Then there's iMessage, which Apple has seamlessly built into iOS for what seems like forever, is a proprietary, end-to-end encrypted system that only works on Apple devices. And it works very, very well, so long as you never want to leave it.

There's also WhatsApp, WeChat, Signal, Telegram and the like. They're all perfectly great messaging services, except that none of them talk to each other. (Or to iMessage, of course.) There's also Facebook Messenger, which shouldn't be ignored but also probably shouldn't be used, because Facebook. But I digress.

Jack of all trades, master of none?

RCS — which stands for Rich Communication Services — is the more modern version of SMS messages, and Google has been its biggest proponent. The problem is that it's had to rely on the carriers to implement it. Until now. In a piece on The Verge, Google says that it's done waiting on the carriers. The story is long, but here's the important part from editor Dieter Bohn:

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 into iMessage, but Google is going to require an active choice.

This in and of itself is not a bad thing. If the goal is to get people to actually use RCS Chat (the "Chat" part is Google's customer-facing branding for RCS), this is the way to go about it. But it doesn't fix any of the big-picture problems.

First among those is that RCS is not end-to-end encrypted. That should be the bare minimum standard for any messaging service in 2019. Full stop. A message should only be able to be unencrypted by the people conversing. (Or their devices, anyway.)

And RCS Chat won't do a damned thing about the fact that we'll still need multiple messaging services. We'll still have friends who only use Facebook Messenger. (I, for one, have no problem judging those friends, either.) We'll still have friends who use WhatsApp. (And given that Facebook owns it, I'm judging them, too.) There are those of us who swear by Signal. Know anyone in China? You'll have WeChat loaded. (It's another incredible service, but say hi to the government for me.)

And, of course, there are all the folks who enjoy iMessage on a daily basis. It's a great service. It's seamless, full of features that go far beyond messaging — and it's secure. (At least until your chats are backed up to your iCloud account, but that's another thing for another time.)

Let's tee that football up again, Lucy ...

By some counts, this is Google's ninth attempt at messaging on Android. I've used and loved Hangouts. It was great right up until the point that Google killed it. Allo was fun for the week we all tried it; it just never gained any traction. All the talk of RCS so far has been just that — talk.

I hope Google actually gets it right this time — but that still won't fix everything.

I'm not going to get my hopes up. I'm not at all excited for RCS. It's just a thing. Just a set of specs. A protocol. And we still don't have any idea if it's something Apple would ever support on the iPhone. I want to think it will at some point because it's the next generation of the SMS protocol. Except what's Apple's incentive to do anything that gets anywhere close to iMessage? Why would it go out of its way to improve the fallback to its own proprietary (and in so many ways superior) messaging service? Why wouldn't Apple slow roll RCS on iOS and iPadOS? It would take the carriers pushing that improvement — and we've all seen how reluctant they are to adopt RCS in the first place, with RCS on Google's own Pixel 3 line not even supported by T-Mobile.

So, no. I have no expectations. I'll enjoy iMessage when I'm using an iPhone, and revert back to something inferior when I don't. I'll continue using Signal with my family because we're cross-platform.

And I won't put any more money on RCS Chat becoming a long-term solution than I did Allo just a couple years ago. Google hasn't proven that it's serious about doing messaging the right way — or that it'll be able to focus on it as a solution and not just a product. And in any event, the best-case scenario right now is that we'd just end up with two major messaging services, instead of iMessage and everything else.

But tee it up, Google. Maybe this'll be the time Lucy doesn't yank that football away.