Apple Iphone

The Road Ahead For SMS

Apple’s reluctance to expand iMessage beyond its ecosystem or support Google Android’s RCS messaging system ensures that we are permanently stuck with a four-decade-old technology called SMS

Years ago, when I first started using an iPhone, I was surprised to know that iOS’ default messaging app offered so much more than what Android devices at the time did. There were read receipts built-in, no character limit, ability to share images and videos, even group texts — iMessage would go on to become a lot more fun with animated emoji, stickers, and a number of effects and customisations. The best part was that it was so seamlessly integrated into Apple’s ecosystem that it felt effortless. The same, though, could not be said about Android. There was also one critical flaw that prevented me from using it once the novelty wore off — there was no way you could send someone with an Android phone an iMessage. My fun, involving the blue bubble stream of messages, would just turn into dull, drab green ones when I sent them to people using Android devices.

It turned out that most people I knew used Android, and it just didn’t make sense to use two separate texting platforms to send and receive messages with different sets of people. So, that was the end of it. Of course, as Apple debuted interesting things that you could do with iMessage every other year, I would end up exchanging some messages with a handful of iPhone-owning friends, but that was it.

iMessage, I believe, is a big factor in keeping Apple users in the Apple ecosystem. In regions with large numbers of iPhone users, iMessage is the go-to messaging app and third- party messaging apps that are popular elsewhere do not catch on. Take, for instance, WhatsApp use in the US. The US has roughly 75 million monthly active WhatsApp users. Contrast that with India, which has close to 400 million WhatsApp users, and we can begin to see a strong correlation between low numbers of WhatsApp users and high iPhone sales.

For a long time, I naively believed that Android didn’t have a competing in-built new gen messaging app, because iMessage was simply technologically superior and Android couldn’t catch up. I was wrong. In fact, an underlying protocol existed even as far back as 2007 when a group of industry promoters got together to formulate RCS (Rich Communication Services). However, it was only in 2018, when Google announced that it is working with major carriers to adopt RCS, that the protocol and the technology really had its moment. The result of that was Chat — a global standard for implementing RCS.

Today, Google’s Android messages has native support for RCS messages. So, if you are using Google’s application for SMS (Short Message Service), you probably already have RCS and have, quite possibly, never used it. Manufacturers like Samsung have even built support for it into their messaging apps. Chat in itself is merely a protocol, and support doesn’t mean that you can send someone an RCS message. Thankfully, though, Indian carriers have widely accepted RCS, and the only roadblocks in using it are the pre-installed messaging apps that some manufacturers ship their devices with, and users simply turning on RCS features. Once these are done, messages automatically use the standard when being sent between two enabled devices.

What this means for a layman is that just because carriers have enabled RCS widely in India doesn’t mean that you will have access to RCS messaging on your phone. There are a couple of steps that you can take to ensure that you can send and receive RCS messages on your phone. To start with, if you have a Samsung smartphone, you will have RCS functionality baked into the brand’s default messaging app — even the toggle for RCS is on by default. On the other hand, if you are using an Android smartphone from a manufacturer that doesn’t use stock Android, you need to download Google’s Messages app from the Play Store. Switching to the Google Messages app from your phone’s default messaging app will give you the option to use RCS while texting your friends. That’s it. You are then good to go. Good luck finding other people using any of the advanced features of RCS though, or trying to convince your friends and family to move from WhatsApp.

With RCS, you can do all that you would otherwise expect to do in new-age third-party messaging apps with the added benefit of smoother integration with Android — think live locations, GIFs, and stickers. And as of June 2021, one of the major shortcomings is no longer in the picture — RCS messages now feature end-to-end encryption. SMS, if you have not noticed yet, doesn’t and won’t have end-to-end encryption. What that means is that your messages are easily available to read for your carrier and any number of nefarious agents at work.

RCS then clearly must replace SMS, a technology that is now four decades old. But there is one massive problem (a three trillion-dollar problem actually) that could prevent it from being widely adopted despite Google’s sustained efforts in getting carriers across the world to use it. Apple has for years dodged questions around making iMessage interoperable between platforms, and even allowing for RCS on iMessage. The reasons for Apple’s reluctance are easy to understand and, with the Epic vs Apple trial, some of them have become public knowledge. Over the past two decades, Apple has cultivated a walled garden of sorts when it comes to its devices and the ecosystem around them. iMessage, as we know now, keeps Apple users and their friends, family, and acquaintances locked-in to the Apple ecosystem. When having a conversation on iMessage, if your recipient doesn’t have an iPhone, they simply can’t access the added functionality that you have — you won’t be able to send stickers, images, or videos to them. With the dreaded green bubble, iMessage simply reverts to plain-old SMS. This ensures that often in families and friend groups with iPhones, someone with an Android phone is urged to get an iPhone.

Even with the advancements that RCS has had, Apple’s refusal to offer support could slowly but surely ring the death knell for the future of SMS. And Google realises this. Its Android boss, Hiroshi Lockheimer, has been calling out Apple on this for quite some time now, but Apple has characteristically chosen not to respond. In time, even as just about everyone else adopts RCS, Apple might just decide to be a holdout and that would ensure that SMS, a technology way past its shelf life, continues to exist.