Starting next year, Verizon will join AT&T and T-Mobile in preloading Android messages as the default texting app on all Android phones it sells. This is the last step in making RCS Chat – the next generation standard designed to replace SMS – the default experience for Android. In the United States, that leaves only one large cohort that won’t use RCS as their default replacement for texting: iPhone users.
Verizon has also said it will fully support interoperability between carriers, so in theory enhanced images, video, read receipts, and group chats should work – assuming everyone you send SMS also use Android messages.
Verizon was the last of the Big Three US carriers to adhere to Google’s latest strategy to make RCS the new default setting for SMS. After years of coaxing, shame, and pleading, the company has made deals with carriers to simply use the standard Android Messages app, which supports RCS by default.
Hiroshi Lockheimer, senior vice president of Android, Chrome OS, and the Play Store, quickly noted that end-to-end encryption for RCS in Android Messages is also being rolled out. It is available for peer-to-peer chats (ie chat with another person), but group chats are also on the roadmap.
The default end-to-end encrypted chats between Android phones raise an interesting conundrum for Apple. Next year, texts between Android phones and iPhones will be less secure than texts within these two ecosystems, as they will be over SMS instead of RCS.
Apple’s Messages app offers end-to-end encryption if all users are on the iMessage system, and it has shown no interest in offering iMessage on Android or adopting RCS on the iPhone. Google, meanwhile, is happy to take the opportunity to prick Apple by openly inviting it to use RCS.
“In the future, the default messaging experience on Android will be more secure,” says Lockheimer, who has previously urged Apple to adopt RCS. “The fallback messaging experience on the other platform won’t have encryption if it’s still SMS. I think this is a pretty interesting dynamic and I hope that, as everyone focuses on security and privacy, it becomes an important part of the discussion.
Lockheimer would not confirm whether Google is in active discussions with Apple, but it doesn’t look like RCS is likely to hit the iPhone anytime soon, and the company has declined to comment on the matter several times over the years. But there is clearly a campaign of pressure, even if it is not very strident. Speaking of Apple’s adoption, Lockheimer says, “I actually think getting the three major US carriers to adopt RCS consistently is a big part of the equation.
Currently, there are 473 million monthly active RCS users worldwide, according to the GSMA. Adoption in the United States is likely to significantly increase this number. Google has no plans to try to introduce an email app that supports RCS on the iPhone.
Although RCS has been closely associated with Google, the company often points out that it is a standard shared by the entire mobile industry and managed by the GSMA. Operators can use their own RCS infrastructure instead of Google’s. Yet RCS is closely related to Google in the minds of many people and Google offers RCS services to operators and will even allow consumers to use RCS directly through its services if their operator does not offer it. Google started offering RCS as a new texting experience on Android after its own messaging attempts (including Hangouts and Allo) failed.
Lockheimer says Google prefers the slightly more open RCS approach over a Google-owned SMS solution being the default on Android. “We don’t think there should be one messaging app to rule them all. We are fully aware that people will be using multiple messaging apps, ”he says.
As for Verizon, it will continue to offer its Verizon Message + (VM +) app alongside Android Messages for customers who want to use it. It’s a slandered app, and for good reason: it’s chock-full of clunky interface controls and Verizon branding – but since it’s really the only way to sync Verizon text messages across different devices, it’s going to stick.
Apparently, Verizon and Google intend to find a way to ensure that VM + and Android Messages share a database of text messages so that messages stay in sync. This is potentially a first step towards opening RCS to third-party applications – something that has been impossible until now.
Google’s deal with Verizon ends a wave of RCS activity that started last March with the T-Mobile deal, then the end of the crypto chat beta in June, and finally a deal with AT&T in June also.
Unfortunately, as with everything Android and RCS, the results of this activity won’t be felt by users until later. Verizon will not switch to Android messages until 2022.