27 September 2023

Google wants Apple to ‘fix texting’ by ditching SMS.

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Tom Williams* says There’s a battle over the future of texting, and our blue and green bubbles are caught in the middle.

While the humble SMS has been around for 30 years, and many of us still send or receive text messages every day, Google claims that “texting is broken”.

The company has launched a publicity campaign against Apple, calling on its fellow tech giant to “fix texting” by ditching SMS altogether.

Google says its push is the result of users getting a bad texting experience when sending messages between Apple and non-Apple devices.

Its alternative vision for the future of messaging is called RCS, which it says creates a better user experience: but it’s a platform not without its own flaws.

So why does Google want Apple to stop using SMS? What is RCS all about? And what does it all mean for the future of texting?

A brief history of SMS

SMS, which stands for short messaging service, has been around since the early 1990s and allows for messages of up to 160 characters between mobile devices.

There’s also MMS (multimedia messaging service) which arrived in the early 2000s and enables longer messages and the ability to send a small amount of media such as a photo or a short video or audio file.

These technologies are still being used by billions of people, but face increasing challenges from internet-based services such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Viber, WeChat and Line.

There’s also Apple’s iMessage, which allows Apple devices to send various kinds of messages and media to each other.

So what is Google’s issue with SMS?

This is where blue and green message bubbles come into play.

Apple’s iMessages show up in blue bubbles when they are sent between Apple devices, but the bubbles are green when messaging non-Apple devices.

This is because either SMS or MMS is being used to send the message, and it shows there’s a non-Apple device in the conversation.

Google says Apple’s use of SMS instead of RCS means mobile phone users experience issues when messaging between Apple devices and those running Google’s Android software, such as:

  • Low-resolution photos and videos
  • Broken group chats
  • No read receipts
  • No typing indicators
  • No texting over wi-fi

In the United States, where iPhones dominate the youth market, the colours of message bubbles have become so significant that some students with non-Apple phones (and therefore green message bubbles) have been bullied by their peers, according to the Wall Street Journal.

At the time of that report, Google’s senior vice-president of Android, Hiroshi Lockheimer, said in a tweet: “Using peer pressure and bullying as a way to sell products is disingenuous for a company that has humanity and equity as a core part of its marketing.”

On its “Get the message” campaign page, Google says, “it’s not about the colour of the bubbles”.

“These problems exist because Apple refuses to adopt modern texting standards when people with iPhones and Android phones text each other,” the company says.

Why does Google say RCS is ‘the new SMS’?

RCS, which stands for rich communication services, was first developed by an industry organisation called the GSM Association (GSMA), which represents operators of mobile networks.

The RCS protocol, which was first released in 2008, can be used when texting between Android phones and Google wants it to be adopted more widely.

Google engineer Elmar Weber described RCS as “the new SMS in a blog post as part of Google’s recent publicity campaign.

“It enables things like high-resolution photo and video sharing, read receipts, emoji reactions, better security and privacy with end-to-end encryption and more,” he said.

“Everyone should be able to pick up their phone and have a secure, modern messaging experience.

Anyone who has a phone number should get that, and that’s been lost a little bit because we’re still finding ourselves using outdated messaging systems.”

What’s the response been to Google’s campaign?

There’s been a mixed response to Google’s PR push, with some people pointing out that RCS isn’t a flawless system.

There are concerns about how it might be used by companies to send advertising material to users more easily than is possible with SMS.

Google even turned off promotional messages in India earlier this year, after a number of businesses flooded RCS users with spam.

RCS group messages also aren’t covered by end-to-end encryption at this stage, unlike one-to-one conversations.

“In a vacuum, of course I want Apple to implement RCS.

But Google launching an entire campaign against Apple is so cringey and painful to watch,” one Twitter user wrote after Google launched its campaign.

“It’s a PR play that doesn’t solve any of the actual problems with RCS.”

The GSMA says there are almost 500 million active monthly users of RCS and more than 1.2 billion RCS-ready devices.

But there are still billions of other Apple and non-Apple devices which don’t support it.

Independent technology analyst Benedict Evans said it was “bizarre” that RCS had not been killed off yet, after having “staggered on for 15 years without ever getting traction”.

“Google, as we all know, has repeatedly failed messaging,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Now it decides to try to support this, so suddenly it’s a ‘standard’.

This is an old tech playbook, but we don’t have to take it seriously.”

Will Apple ditch SMS and adopt RCS?

The short answer is probably not any time soon.

Apple declined to comment on whether it planned to adopt RCS when contacted by ABC News.

When asked about RCS during a media event on Thursday, Apple CEO Tim Cook reportedly said: “I don’t hear our users asking that we put a lot of energy in on that at this point.”

Aside from the current drawbacks of RCS, the lock-in effect of iMessage is also believed to be a major reason why Apple is keeping iMessage exclusive to its devices.

This is because some consumers are said to be reluctant to move platforms for fear of losing their messages, running into issues with SMS or even just becoming a green bubble.

“Google’s problem is that ~80 per cent of US teenagers use iPhones, and hence iMessage, locking out Androids,” Mr Evans wrote on Twitter.

“Outside the USA, it’s a non-issue, since WhatsApp won.

“Why isn’t Google lobbying Meta to add RCS to WhatsApp?”

Apple had decided as early as 2013 that it would not develop an Android version of iMessage either, according to a 2021 court filing.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice-president of software engineering, feared that “iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones”.

The filing also showed that a former Apple employee said in an email in 2016: “The #1 most difficult [reason] to leave the Apple universe app is iMessage … iMessage amounts to serious lock-in.”

This led Apple executive Phil Schiller to respond that “moving iMessage to Android will hurt us more than help us”.

Mr Evans wrote that it is obviously “in Apple’s self-interest not to try to connect iMessage to RCS, nor to make an Android client”.

“When a company that lost … asks a company that won to adopt a ‘standard’ that it doesn’t look like anyone uses, one should probably be a little cynical.”

*Tom Williams is a journalist with the ABC News Digital mobile team based in Brisbane, who often writes about music, technology and pop culture.

This article first appeared at abc.net.au.

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