What is RCS messaging, and why is it important to Android?

Google Messages Rcs Chat Dark Mode
Google Messages Rcs Chat Dark Mode (Image credit: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

RCS, or Rich Communication Services, is the latest supposed savior of the disjointed and frustrating world of cross-device messaging. RCS is being pushed heavily by Google and adopted by carriers around the world. In 2021, if you buy one of the best Android phones, you're probably using RCS if you text.

But like all things, it helps to have a basic understanding of what people are talking about. There's plenty of information about RCS out there on the internet, but let's try to sort it all out in one place and talk about what RCS is and why it matters to everyone.

What is RCS?

Messages app

Source: Google (Image credit: Source: Google)

In a nutshell, RCS is a set of communication standards for SMS, MMS, and calling that make text messages look and feel more like dedicated messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, and so many others. Basically, it aims to bring "texting" up to the modern standards with features we expect from messaging apps.

In 2007, a group of telecommunication industry companies founded the Rich Communication Suite industry initiative to use new technologies to create inter-operator communication services based on IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem). Text messages and phone calls generally work well, but they're pretty bland and don't make use of the full capabilities of the network they're being sent on. They had three primary goals:

  • Use a better contacts list with more information about your people, if they were available, and if they have seen the message you've sent.
  • Build a better messaging system that enables extras like instant chat, emojis, and sharing data between the people participating.
  • Support enhanced calls with features like video calling and data sharing in real-time.

That sounds like things your phone already does (and does well) without any new communications standard, but the secret sauce here is that this is all part of your phone service and will work the same way on any phone that can call or send texts, without downloading and signing up for some separate app system.

RCS makes texting better with rich messages, media, big groups, and extra features.

The GSM Association (the same folks who run Mobile World Congress every year) thought it was a great idea, too, and formed the RCS Steering committee a year later to push the idea of supporting this to phone carriers all over the world. They've since refined and expanded the standards, releasing new tools under the RCS blanket for a while. The technical parts of the standards have adapted and changed, but the core goals remain the same: make phone service have a better way to communicate without adding anything additional from any app stores or carrier download sections.

Unfortunately, there has been a mixed response from carriers, phone makers, and app developers. Google has been spearheading the RCS rollout by working with carriers and Android phone companies to support RCS officially and by default, but it's slow-going. Eventually, Google decided to simply start rolling out RCS features in Google Messages, which anyone can enable. Whether RCS actually works is a murky situation that ultimately depends on your carrier (and your contacts' carriers) supporting it.

Is this a good thing?

RIP Allo

Source: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central)

Your chats get better and you didn't have to do anything. Sounds like a win to me.

Google pushing RCS on its own is a good thing for the most part. This is different from other rich messaging platforms we've seen or used. You're not required to use a specific phone or specific brand, and you aren't limited to only chatting with people using the same phone carrier as you. You send messages the same way you always have, but some will support more features. When chatting with someone who is using a phone that doesn't support RCS or has opted out, everything is the same as it always was. No harm, no foul.

There are a few things that you'll want to understand about how RCS works, though, and how it still differs from dedicated third-party chat apps:

  • Encryption — RCS messages are not end-to-end encrypted. Messages are encrypted during transit from you to a service provider (whether it be Google or a carrier) and from the provider to the destination, but the provider does have access. Google says messages will be deleted once they are received, but it may hold onto attachments until all recipients have downloaded them. End-to-end encryption is something that can be added to RCS, but until that happens, you need to know that the service provider will have access to your messages. Google has enabled encryption in the Messages app so if you use it, you're covered.
  • No multiple devices — At least not the way a service like iMessage allows. RCS still depends on your phone number like regular texting, so you won't be able to get messages on a computer or tablet unless your phone is the actual device doing the sending and receiving, like with Messages for the web.
  • No centralized user database — Services like Facebook Messenger or iMessage have a database of who is using the service and how. Google Messages with RCS enabled sends a query to the recipient's default messaging app asking if it's RCS capable. If it is, it says yes to the query and both parties will be able to use the extras that RCS brings. If it doesn't answer, you fall back to the regular SMS experience.
  • It's not available everywhere — Google is pushing the RCS rollout with its own Messages app, but there are still incompatibilities with certain carriers and countries, and things get messy when you start talking about group messages with people across regions.

Ultimately, RCS will be a good thing. It's the next evolution of SMS, and once rolled out properly, it will elevate the base messaging standard for everyone on Android. It may not take a big chunk out of the market share of WhatsApp, WeChat, or Facebook Messenger, but for anyone who doesn't use those apps or communicates with people over regular SMS today, the chat experience will be improved regardless. We just have to wait for that rollout to actually happen.

Which carriers and apps use RCS?

AT&T sign

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

A lot of carriers all over the world use RCS, but not all of them use all of it and provide a service you can use with everyone else. For this to work the way it was designed, all of the carriers involved and all of the devices being used have to support all of the standards. Of course, companies usually only support what makes them money or what they are forced to support, and RCS is no exception.

The U.S. carriers are mostly on board, but the branding and implementation still vary.

The GSMA maintains a list of carriers using RCS around the world. It's impressive when you see some of the biggest carriers in the world listed, but it's also an incredibly short list considering the scale of the entire world of carriers. Remember, this is a tool to make others see how popular RCS is in order to entice them to support it. That means it doesn't tell the whole story. So we're going to.

For starters, since we're based in the U.S., let's talk about our carriers. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Google Fi, and some prepaid/regional carriers support RCS. They all have slightly different branding for it, though — some call it RCS, while others call it "Universal Profile," "Advanced Messaging," or just "Chat." That makes it a bit confusing ... but once you know your carrier supports it, the rest is (mostly) in your hands.

Carrier support is more important than device-level support, but you still need both. Android and iOS both support what you need.

On the device side, Android, iOS, and Windows all can support the full RCS standards when using a compatible app. Apple's macOS doesn't offer the same support, which puts another hurdle in front of RCS — Apple would rather keep using iMessage because it works on MacBooks, too. But honestly, device support isn't as big of a problem as network support. Even Apple would quickly offer an RCS compliant version of iMessage if people really wanted it.

On Android, your best shot at making sure your phone is using RCS for messaging is to use Google Messages. If you have a popular modern phone from one of the supported carriers, its built-in messaging app probably works with RCS, but those apps aren't always great. Samsung's latest messaging app supports RCS, though, which is the default for a lot of people. And of course, you can always download Messages from the Play Store on any phone.

That means worldwide, a whole lot of people have access to RCS. And a whole lot of people don't have access. For things to work the way the RCS industry initiative intended, everyone needs to support it. We're getting there, and things in 2021 are a lot better than they were just a year or two ago.

Why is this important for Android?

Google Messages app

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

This is the easy part. RCS is important to Google (and all of its partners) because Apple's iMessage exists and people love it.

RCS can make all your texting as good as iMessage.

It's cool to hate on Apple, but if you've ever used iMessage you know what I mean here. Combined with FaceTime, iMessage already offers exactly the things RCS is trying to achieve. Voice and video calls are simple, group chats can be large, and messages are rich with great media sharing, read receipts, typing indicators, and everything else. And it uses SMS in tandem with regular data to do it. It's the best SMS app you'll ever use until RCS becomes ubiquitous (if it ever does).

iMessage is probably never coming to Android, so RCS is Google's best hope to bring a great experience to every phone.

Google knows this and it's doing everything it can to get carriers to adopt RCS. In February 2016, Google bought a company called Jibe, which provides RCS services to carriers and phone makers in one compliant package. AT&T, O2, or any other carrier can use Jibe to make phones on their network offer the same features as iMessage does and connect with any other carrier that supports RCS. Since about 80% of the phones in the world use Android and can't use iMessage, this is a big deal.

Apple has almost no incentive to bring iMessage to Android. And Google has repeatedly tried and failed to launch its own over-the-top messaging system to compete with it. RCS, when implemented properly, is the best shot Google has at having a proper cross-device iMessage competitor that is as seamless and powerful as Apple's solution.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.