iMessage has been in the news lately, with Google SVP Hiroshi Lockheimer calling out Apple for bullying users into switching from Android to iPhone. He invited the iPhone maker to adopt RCS, calling it the “industry standard for modern messaging,” instead of developing an iMessage app for Android. And I agree. I think that RCS for iMessage could benefit both iPhone and Android users, read on to find out why.
What is RCS?
Rich Communications Services (RCS) is a communication protocol that is touted to replace SMS and bring it on par with modern messaging services such as Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp. It was developed by a group of industry promoters back in 2007 and adopted by the GSM Association the following year.
The standard was hobbled by bureaucratic inertia and languished in obscurity until 2018 when Google announced that it was teaming up with mobile carriers across the world to drive RCS implementation. The RCS standard is currently supported on Android devices via the native Messages app.
RCS offers features such as read receipts, typing indicators, and the ability to share attachments with larger file sizes, along with end-to-end encryption for one-on-one messages. It also lets you react to texts, add GIFs and stickers, and share your current location — all standard features in modern messaging apps.
RCS works over mobile networks and Wi-Fi. However, it still requires carrier support, which makes its adoption by the three major carriers in the United States — AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile a big deal.
RCS Versus SMS/MMS
SMS has been around since the 1980s and essentially offers no added features apart from the basic texting experience. In other words, it doesn’t support modern conveniences such as read receipts. Unlike WhatsApp and Telegram, SMS is squarely dependent on cellular connection to send and receive messages.
However, it has had quality of life improvements over time. One of those being MMS, which is an extension of SMS that enables basic filesharing. Unfortunately, it is hobbled by a 3.5MB limit. This severely limits the quality of images and videos transferred over the messaging protocol.
But the biggest red flag when it comes to SMS is its inadequate security. Currently, SMS is used as a fallback for Android users texting iMessage users. This means that the overall messaging experience will be downgraded for both, the iPhone as well as Android user.
iMessage’s Privacy Gotcha– the iCloud
Apple’s iMessage service uses secure end-to-end encryption, which ensures that only you and the person you’re talking to can view your messages. But iMessage comes with a big privacy gotcha, and that’s iCloud. When iCloud Backup is enabled, your iCloud messages are encrypted and then backed up to the iCloud. This backup is stored on Apple’s servers.
However, Apple receives a copy of the key that is used to encrypt that backup. This implies that the backups themselves aren’t end-to-end encrypted. So, if Apple’s servers were compromised, unwanted elements could view the contents of your messages. Remember how the Pegasus spyware hacked iMessage? Though Apple did want to offer end-to-end encryption for iCloud backups, it seemingly had to drop its plans owing to pressure from the FBI.
One workaround is to disable iCloud backups entirely. But with that, you lose the convenience of recovering your data on any device, putting you in a Catch-22 situation where you have to choose between privacy and convenience.
The “Green Bubble” Stigma Plaguing Android Users
iMessage is a huge boon for Apple and its ecosystem, so the iPhone maker has no incentive (apart from upholding consumer interests) to make it compatible across various devices. The Cupertino-based company appears to favor brand-loyalty over user experience, which could explain why it prefers its walled garden strategy.
When iPhone users communicate amongst themselves via iMessage, their message bubbles are blue. However, when an Android user joins the chat, their message bubbles turn green. This lets the iPhone users know that the mere presence of the non-Apple user has essentially robbed them of all modern messaging features.
You don’t need an academic breakdown of The Lord of the Flies to know that this will incite derision towards the Android device user. And sure enough, what is purported as a fallout of platform incompatibility, has taken the form of a class divide between iPhone and Android users.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Grace Fang, a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, said, “I don’t know if it’s Apple propaganda or just like a tribal in-group versus out-group thing going on, but people don’t seem to like green text bubbles that much and seem to have this visceral negative reaction to it.”
It came as no surprise when a survey claimed that a whopping 87 percent of American teenagers own an iPhone. Apple’s strategy sure seems to be working in its favor.
Ironically, Facebook Gains from Apple’s Stubbornness
Last year, Mark Zuckerberg suggested that Apple uses its “dominant platform position” to interfere with how other messaging apps work for its benefit. He said that iMessage is one of the key features that locks users into the Apple ecosystem, since it’s the default app on the iPhone and doesn’t play well with industry messaging protocols and standards.
However, a less-than-ideal messaging experience with non-iPhone users led many to opt for other messaging services such as Signal and Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
Why Apple Refuses to Budge on Anti-RCS Stance
Apple clearly refuses to adopt the industry-wide RCS standard to safeguard its iMessage lock-in strategy. A recent Wall Street Journal article outlined how the green iMessage texts have been pushing teenagers to switch from Android to iPhone. Emails that were brought to light during the Apple versus Epic lawsuit last year already confirmed that the iPhone maker uses iMessage to lock users into its ecosystem.
RCS: Far from Perfect
RCS is certainly a superior alternative to the antiquated SMS; however, it is far from perfect. Just like with iMessage, messages could get lost when switching phones. Group chats do not have end-to-end encryption. RCS is a standard that is spearheaded by Google, but not universally agreed upon by all carriers. Many carriers across the world haven’t agreed to implement the standard.
So far, Google has rolled out worldwide support for it through its Google Messages app. However, RCS support ultimately depends on your device and service provider.
Furthermore, RCS onboarding isn’t as seamless as it is with iMessage. You will need Google Messages if you want to use RCS on an Android phone. It comes pre-installed on many Android phones, but if it isn’t, you’ll have to head on over to the Play Store to download it. Then you will have to go to the settings and turn on “chat features.”
The Ball is in Apple’s Court
When it comes to adopting RCS, the ball is in Apple’s court. The company should consider support for RCS, at least for the sake of security. This is especially important considering how iOS users are at risk every time they dare text an Android user.
Incorporating support for RCS doesn’t even require Apple to give up its divisive green bubble/ blue bubble caste system. It can still let iOS users know that they are interacting with Android peasants, but embracing RCS will at least allow basic security features such as encryption for all parties involved. More importantly, the RCS standard could see further adoption worldwide and grow further with Apple’s backing.
The only ones losing out with this arrangement are the NSA and other malicious actors. However, considering Apple’s silence on the matter, it’s obvious where its priorities lie.