Messaging platforms and bubble colors go hand in hand: There are Google’s green bubbles—how messages sent from its Android phones appear on iPhones—and of course the well known blue bubbles of iPhone users.
On that front, Google is adding even more color to the situation by trying to publicly shame Apple into adopting a protocol called RCS with a new website and social media campaign launched this week. “Get The Message” lays out Google’s arguments for why Apple should enable RCS instead of SMS—and encourages users to “Help @Apple #GetTheMessage” by Tweeting about it.
Messaging, of course, is an incredibly important feature of smartphones. Collectively, we send billions of iMessages, WhatsApp messages, and other kinds of text messages every single day. It’s understandable that this is something Google feels strongly about: texting between iPhones and Android phones using SMS sucks. Plus, the SMS protocol that’s used between the two platforms really is objectively worse than the iMessage protocol used for iPhone-to-iPhone texting.
So, let’s look at what’s really going on.
Messaging for dummies
Not all text messages are the same. Depending on the protocol or service you use, they can be sent in entirely different ways.
To start, SMS (Short Message Service) and MMS (Multimedia Message Service) are what many of us grew up with. Developed in the 1980s, they’re wildly out of date, inefficient, and insecure—and still widely used today. You’re limited to 160 characters per message and they’re sent over the cell network. (On an iPhone, they’re displayed as a green bubble.)
Then there’s iMessage, Apple’s proprietary messaging protocol. Messages are end-to-end encrypted and sent over the internet. It also allows you to see when someone is typing, receive “read” notifications, send and receive high quality images and videos, and participate in group chats. Plus, it has add-on features like reactions and voice notes. (On an iPhone, they’re displayed as a blue bubble.)
Next comes Rich Communication Service (RCS), which is supposed to be the successor to SMS and MMS. It enables messages to be sent over the internet, which allows many of the features people expect in a messaging app that are missing from SMS—like group chats, live typing notifications, read receipts, audio notes, and high-quality photos. While the iPhone doesn’t support RCS, it’s available through Google’s Messages app on modern Android phones.
This is what all the current drama is about: Google wants Apple to use the RCS standard for messages sent between iPhones and Android phones, not SMS, which it currently uses.
Is RCS really the same as iMessage?
While Google attempts to equate RCS and iMessage, the two are fundamentally different in a couple of ways. Apple’s iMessage is more akin to WhatsApp, Signal, or Skype than SMS. Yes, on an iPhone, they’re sent from the same app, but they’re not the same sort of texts.
On the other hand, RCS is an open standard built on top of SMS and MMS. It was designed by a consortium in 2007 before the iPhone even launched, and it has taken years to roll out. One big barrier was that it originally required support from wireless carriers who are hardly famous for their rapid embrace of new technologies. In 2019, Google did an end-run around them and launched an app that would allow it to enable RCS on Android on its own.
One big iMessage feature that the RCS protocol lacks is end-to-end encryption. However, Google has developed a workaround: All one-on-one RCS conversations using its Messages app are end-to-end encrypted. (Group messaging will be encrypted later this year.) However, this undermines one of the supposed points of RCS: that it’s an open standard that any compatible app can use. If encryption is only available between certain apps, it’s no longer open.
Locked in and loaded
As interesting as the subtle differences between the various messaging protocols are, the latest news is related to something else: Google’s absolute failure to develop its own messaging protocol despite countless attempts. It is trying to shame Apple into using RCS, because it has utterly failed to compete with iMessage.
That’s not to say it wouldn’t be good for consumers if Apple embraced RCS, but it’s only in the last couple of years that it has become a credible alternative to SMS, let alone any other service. And it still doesn’t offer all the features that are available in iMessage—in particular, always enabled end-to-end encryption.
Could Apple embrace RCS messaging and work with Google to make it end-to-end encrypted between iPhones and Android devices? Sure, but Google would have to solve a few more problems first. And for now, Apple clearly enjoys the benefits of the customer lock-in that comes with iMessage, despite Google’s increasing public pressure.
Meanwhile, in Europe, another option looms large: Meta-owned WhatsApp is installed on more than 90 percent of smartphones in some countries. It’s cross-platform, end-to-end encrypted, and supports all the features you could want.
But whatever happens over the next few years, remember, RCS is still a fundamentally different protocol to iMessage. Don’t expect the green bubbles to ever go away.
Correction on August 12: This post has been updated to clarify that WhatsApp is installed on more than 90 percent of smartphones in some European countries.