The big four US carriers rarely cooperate on anything, but they have joined forces to “transform messaging” on your phone. ATT, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint have formed a joint venture called the “Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative” (CCMI). Its goal is to deploy a complete RCS-based messaging system for all carriers by the end of next year. However, there’s just as much chance the CCMI will deliver yet another messaging standard that makes an even bigger mess of RCS.
What is RCS?
At its most basic, RCS (or Rich Communication Services) is a standard from the GSMA describing the “next generation” of text messaging. With RCS, you can send messages with advanced features like read receipts, high-resolution media, typing notifications, and more. Google and Samsung are among the companies leading the charge on RCS, but by its very nature, RCS requires the cooperation of carriers.
In a perfect world, all networks that support the RCS would be able to send advanced messages to each other over data connections. However, there are multiple implementations of RCS including Google’s Jibe and Samsung’s RCS AS. The specific implementation determines which servers your RCS-enabled devices use to push messages to other phones, and carriers have dragged their feet deciding anything.
So far, carriers have only supported RCS in a piecemeal fashion. Select devices get support, but only with select messaging apps, and usually without cross-carrier support. Sometimes, they don’t even use the official “Universal Profile” standard, which makes cross-carrier messaging impossible. That’s a major problem for Google, which has hung its messaging hopes on RCS. Last year, Google decided to kill off its Allo chat client after previously abandoning Hangouts to focus on Allo. Now, Google wants to push the RCS standard, but it’s letting carriers take the lead.
CCMI and the “New” RCS
Carriers say that CCMI’s goal is to bring RCS messaging to everyone next year, but it sounds like that might only be on the carriers’ terms. CCMI won’t be using either Google’s or Samsung’s existing RCS versions — it’s making its own. There will also be a new app from CCMI to send RCS messages. Yes, you might be forced to use a carrier-developed messaging client if you want to send better messages.
This move may very well be a response to Google, which took aim at carriers earlier this year when it announced RCS support in the UK and France. Rather than wait for carriers there to get things figured out, Google is deploying RCS servers for Android users in those countries that will plug into its Messages app. At the time, it looked like Google was firing a warning shot — get it done or we’ll do it ourselves.
The big US carriers don’t want to be cut out of the next generation of messaging, so they’re finally moving toward RCS. However, they’ve cut out Google, which isn’t mentioned even once in the announcement press release. However, things can get even worse when carriers get together and try to dictate how a standard will work. Rememeber the ISIS initiative to build NFC mobile wallets into SIM cards, completely bypassing Google? Yeah, that didn’t go well.
The good news is that it should be feasible to include support for existing RCS apps like the Google and Samsung messaging clients. The new messaging hub will support the Universal Profile, but just because it can work with other apps doesn’t mean that it will. CCMI has said it will discuss compatibility with other companies like Google, but it stopped short of making any promises.
RCS is a complete mess, and it’s probably not going to be fixed next year. Still, at least we’ll know what the next generation of messaging looks like. We can only hope it isn’t spoiled by carrier bureaucracy.
Update: Shortly after the carriers announced this plan, someone discovered a publicly accessible Google RCS server. This may be related to the UK and France RCS deployment, but it’s possible to enable RCS on almost any Android device with the Google Messages app. It’s a multi-step process, but we’ve confirmed it works. There’s no longer any doubt Google can flip the switch on RCS for all Android users any time it wants. It’s simply a question of how much it wants to upset the carriers.
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