Google launches its iMessage-like RCS texting service now for everyone

Google is now completing the global rollout of its Rich Communication Services, popularly called RCS, to the Messages app on Android phones. The first effort to expand the launch was in mid-2019 when Google announced that it will need to support a large number of carriers for the global launch. RCS-based communication is similar to iMessage, and supports features like write prompt, read receipts, real-time media sharing, group messaging, and more. In addition to these features, the Messages app is now testing end-to-end encryption to improve privacy.

To give you an explanation, the Messages app on your Android phone has so far supported text messages, emojis in graphical format, and read receipts for carriers that allow it. Of course you have the Multimedia Messaging Service, also called MMS, but it is extremely limited and not common among users. MMS are also charged through operators, so customers have refrained from using them to share media and other interactive content. Their problems ended when dedicated apps like WhatsApp entered the picture, allowing them to freely share anything over the internet for free. The only money customers had to spend was the Internet plan.

What are Rich Communication Services or RCS?

Rich Communication Services were created by Google to dramatically improve native messaging on Android phones, revamping the Messages app to support features that are available in Apple’s iMessage and instant messaging apps. But since these services had to be built from the ground up, operators had to support formats that can be transferred over their networks. This is because all the data will need the cellular network to reach the other user, in a system that is based on IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem).

This method is similar to how calling works on different networks, but when it comes to messaging, it wasn’t making the most of the potential of cellular networks. The full potential encompasses a data exchange system in which dedicated applications such as WhatsApp, Telegram or Facebook Messenger work for communication.

All the things WhatsApp allows you to do form the basis of what RCS is aimed at and the efforts behind it were spearheaded by Google. RCS is backed by a group of telecommunications companies and approved by the GSM Association, the group that organizes the Mobile World Congress each year.

How does Google participate?

Google ensured that telcos are happy to make RCS a success despite the concerns these operators initially expressed about barriers in the technology they own and the technology they will need to acquire. Now that Google has cooperated with a large fraction of operators to understand RCS and implement it for their networks in spectra and regions, the technology company is moving forward with the global launch.

And now, Google is trying to allay concerns that privacy advocates have long favored. The technology company is introducing end-to-end encryption for messages so that information shared between end users remains private throughout the exchange process. Even Google or the telecommunications company that provides RCS on your phone will not be able to intercept any of the content shared between two individual users, thanks to E2E encryption.

How will end-to-end encryption work?

Google will soon begin testing E2EE in Messages. In a post, the company has explained how end-to-end encryption will work. This will be intended for one-to-one conversations in Messages. To guarantee E2EE, Google is using the Signal protocol.

For E2EE to work, both individual users must have the latest beta version of Messages and have the Chat function over data or Wi-Fi enabled within the Messages app. When the connection is successfully established, E2EE will be activated. There will be a padlock sign next to the text that says “Conversation with XYZ”. The encryption standard cannot be disabled manually, but in case there is a barrier in the communication channel, it will be temporarily disabled.

The default behavior for Messages here will be to retain messages until end-to-end encryption is recovered, but in case the sender wants the message to reach the recipient instantly, they can choose to send those messages as SMS, in which case E2EE it will not be compatible. It is also not compatible with MMS due to the security standards that this encryption protocol follows. But E2EE will work on all devices and interfaces, including Messages on the Web that can be opened within an Internet browser.

What to do?

Well nothing. I suggest that you wait for RCS to appear on your Android phone, post where you can chat with other RCS users freely over an internet connection without paying any additional charges. I’m not sure if your carrier will support all the features that are available within RCS, but you will surely get some of them, at least initially.

For end-to-end encryption, you can try using the beta version of the Messages app, but I suggest that you wait for this feature to become available within the Messages app on the stable channel.

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