If you haven’t already heard, Apple announced plans to incorporate RCS (Rich Communication Services) to supplant SMS and MMS in a future iOS update. This is a major departure from Apple’s previous stance on this issue and was undoubtedly fueled by hard pushes from global governments and end users alike.
My colleague and friend Christian reported on the news when it broke, but given how big of a pain point using iPhones to text message Android users has been over the past several years, there are several reasons why I think this will be a positive change for everyone — iPhone and Android users alike. So let’s talk about that.
The RCS problem
As iPhone and Android users know all too well, text messaging between these different devices leaves a ‘much to be desired’ user experience. That’s because iPhone users are spoiled rotten by the tasteful features found in iMessage while Android users have gotten comfortable with the features provided by RCS.
Unfortunately, those features don’t translate well between devices because iMessage is unique to iPhone and iPhones don’t support the RCS text messaging features that modern Android handsets do. These devices instead fall back on the antiquated SMS and MMS standards when communicating between one another, and it’s the users that are left to bear the consequences.
More specifically, those accustomed to seeing typing indicators and read receipts and sharing their location via iMessage with other iPhones hate the fact that these features don’t exist when text messaging their Android-using counterparts. Likewise, Android users have the same complaint when text messaging their iPhone-using counterparts.
Users of competing devices instead get to see lifeless green bubbles with zero context, compelling many to resort to third-party messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp Messenger just so they can be free of the lackluster text messaging experience that stems from SMS and MMS.
To make matters worse, Android users are as stubborn about switching to iPhones as iPhone users are about switching to Android, and Apple’s only “solution” to the problem was to leverage its iMessage platform as a reason why Android users should switch to iPhone. Unfortunately, that never happens because of the plethora of messaging alternatives that exist. Checkmate Apple.
RCS is coming to an iPhone near you
The only real solution to this problem is for Apple to finally embrace RCS. It’s a newer and improved form of text messaging that leaves SMS and MMS in the dust. It’s about more than just seeing when someone’s typing and when they’ve read your messages. Yes, these are great features, but they’re not the only benefits of RCS.
Another major benefit to adopting RCS over MMS is that sending and receiving photos and videos is about to get a lot better. Under the MMS standard, iPhone and Android users get compressed video and image files when the cellular network wants to increase efficiency. This results in grainy picture quality.
RCS doesn’t over-compress media, which means you can receive video or image files in full detail. In other words, when Apple adopts RCS and someone with an Android just happens to snap a great photograph at a once-in-a-lifetime event such as a wedding, party, or concert that you couldn’t get with your iPhone, they can share the same high-quality image with you via a message, sans the grainy and unsatisfying media quality of yesteryear with MMS.
RCS also supports more than basic media files. You can use it to send documents and other unique file types that aren’t supported by the SMS or MMS standards. This means RCS will make it easier to collaborate with others when they have a different phone than you do. And speaking of collaboration, RCS improves group messaging too.
Additionally, being able to share your location with other users offers major safety benefits. If an iPhone-donning parent wants their Android-touting child to be able to share their location in the same way that two iPhone users can over iMessage, then RCS will enable this feature. It’s not currently possible to do this with SMS or MMS.
As a final note, we should also add that RCS isn’t limited to 160 characters like SMS is. This means you’re free to send someone a wall of text without breaking it up into smaller text messages as you would normally have to do with SMS.
iMessage vs. RCS?
While RCS is a step in the right direction for Apple, at least in my humble opinion, it’s still not going to be as feature rich as iMessage already is or may become as time goes on.
RCS will allow iPhone and Android users to share at least some common ground in terms of what should be standard text messaging features in 2023. But as Christian noted in his news piece, features that will remain unique to iMessage include Memojis, Stickers, Sticker Reactions, and editing or un-sending sent messages. This is a good thing, as it still allows Apple’s own service to stand out somewhat.
It’s important to consider that viewing everything from the lens of iMessage vs. RCS is the wrong standpoint to take. On iPhones at least, iMessage and RCS will work together to offer interoperability when an iPhone user messages an Android user, or vice-versa.
Having said that, the services aren’t competing directly with one another; they will instead seamlessly blend together in the Messages app like iMessage and SMS already do. iMessage will exist as its own service utilizing blue bubbles for iPhone-to-iPhone communications, while RCS will exist as a secondary service that continues to display green bubbles when iMessage isn’t available.
When RCS isn’t available, either because the device you’re sending text messages to doesn’t support it or because the carrier doesn’t support it (fortunately most U.S. carriers do), text messages will fall back on the older SMS and MMS standards — retaining the green bubbles that we get currently with SMS.
Apple grits its teeth about RCS
Apple has repeatedly said in the past that they didn’t plan to implement RCS on the iPhone because they wanted iMessage to be a standout feature that attracted Android users into the Apple ecosystem.
Unfortunately, this mindset is harmful to end users whose experience suffers because of a company’s own greed. Global governments have taken notice of this, putting Apple under increased scrutiny in places such as the U.K. due to of some of their anti-competitive practices that make it hard for competing services to stand up to the dominant Apple.
Apple knows it controls a significant share of the smartphone market, so by avoiding RCS implementation, Apple could make Android users feel like they were missing out when messaging iPhone users.
Now that more governments appear to be cornering these anti-competitive practices on Apple’s part, the company is feeling more compelled than ever to adopt newer standards that benefit users as opposed to proprietary standards that line the company’s pockets. Examples of this include adding a USB-C port to iPhones and moving more in line with right to repair initiatives.
Advocates for RCS say that Apple adopting the feature will benefit everyone by bringing us all closer together in terms of communication, regardless of the smartphone manufacturer we pick, but it’s worth mentioning that voices against the move suggest that it will harm the user experience on Apple devices, which is something that I disagree wholeheartedly with.
RCS won’t replace iMessage; it will work alongside it in the same way that SMS already does. That said, iPhone users aren’t missing out on anything if Apple makes this change, and they have everything to gain from because they’ll gain many of the same features that they’ve come to enjoy from iMessage when messaging their Android-touting friends.
Perhaps the only downside to using RCS is that messages aren’t encrypted like iMessage conversations are, but the same can be said about SMS and MMS currently. Apple does hope to work with the GSM Association to implement end-to-end encryption into the RCS standard in a universal way, so it will be interesting to see what becomes of that by the time Apple adopts the feature.
The bottom line
Apple adopting RCS will be good thing, and most users won’t even notice a difference unless they’re text messaging an Android user — in this case, they’ll have upgraded text messaging features when compared to SMS.
Anyone telling you that adding RCS to iPhones is a bad decision on Apple’s part is flat out lying. It may not help Apple’s controlling business model any, but it will absolutely benefit end users on both sides of the aisle, a literal win/win for iPhone users and Android users alike.
I am incredibly excited to see these features implemented on my iPhone, especially since so many of my friends use Android devices and we all hate text messaging each other because of it.