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What is RCS and how is it different than SMS and iMessage?

For many years there has been a running battle between messaging services. Despite many attempts on Google’s part, there has never been a true messaging competitor to Apple’s iMessage.


Google has been pushing another universal standard: RCS. The standoff between the tech giants has been rather public, with Google goading Apple on many occasions, and Apple refusing to support RCS for many years. Then, on November 16, 2023, Apple pivoted, saying it would support RCS in 2024. A moment of unity is coming in cross-device messaging, it seems.

Since Verizon embraced Google’s RCS protocol in February 2024, all Android phones and every major mobile carrier in the US now support RCS messaging. But what exactly is RCS, what features does it have, and which devices is it available on?

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What is RCS?

The future of text messaging is here… kind of.

Rich communication services (RCS) is a protocol between mobile operators and phones. The overall aim of RCS is to replace SMS and MMS messaging, the formats we’re all familiar with as they have been around for years. RCS messaging is very much like WhatsApp, where live chat can take place, including multimedia support, with everything handled via the data network.


This means RCS messages may carry more information, so users can send things like full-resolution photos, videos, and audio messages to one another.

The biggest advantage RCS Messaging has over SMS — and the reason it was implemented in the first place — is that it improves upon the SMS/MMS messaging experience, much in the same way that iMessage does. This means RCS messages may carry more information, so users can send things like full-resolution photos, videos, and audio messages to one another. Typing indicators and read receipts are also part of RCS messaging, which is something users surely love.

Users can carry out video calls with one another directly within the messaging app, rather than having to rely on third-party software. Group messages are possible, and little things such as read receipts and indicators to show other users are typing a message are included as well. RCS messages also did away with the 160-character limit currently found in SMS messages.


Businesses can use RCS Messaging to send things like boarding passes for airlines, package delivery notifications, and credit card fraud alerts.

What is RCS messaging? The new Android texting service explained photo 1Is RCS encrypted and secure?

Short answer: Yes, it’s end-to-end

Google Messages uses end-to-end encryption to ensure a conversation remains private between the sender and recipient. Your conversations are encrypted with a key that only either participant can access. You can verify if you’re currently having an encrypted conversation by looking for the lock icon next to the time stamps for your messages, look for a banner in the thread that shows a lock icon along with the participants’ names, or look for the lock icon on the send button.

If you want to confirm your conversation is private, you can follow the instructions Google lays out here to confirm verification codes in the Messages app with specific contacts.

RCS Enable Screen.


Which phones and carriers support RCS?

RCS is almost universal

In the US, the major US carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — have agreed on a cross-carrier solution for RCS in a program called CCMI — Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative — and we’re now in a position where RCS is globally available and interoperable, except Russia. At Google I/O 2023, Google said there were over 800 million monthly RCS users.

If you send an RCS message to someone whose phone or mobile network doesn’t support it, it will be sent as a regular text message.

stacked emoji on iphone 15 proDoes the iPhone support RCS messaging?

RCS is finally coming to the iPhone in 2024

Apple has announced that it’s going to work to support the GSMA Universal Profile for RCS on the iPhone in late 2024. Apple’s announcement that it will support RCS means that Google Messages and Apple iMessage might work together, so it’s possible by the end of the year, iPhone and Android users will have cross-platform rich messaging. Exactly how universal the support is for RCS in iMessage, and what that experience looks like when Android messages are supported, remains to be seen, but we expect to know more after the opening keynote for WWDC 2024 on June 10.


The main reason why Apple adopted RCS probably has less to do with Google and more to do with increased pressure from the EU, with rulings that messaging apps need to work together in the Digital Markets Act.

For many years, Apple has been under pressure to support RCS. Google has taunted Apple, with execs making statements about how RCS could make all devices work better together and more securely. Google really went to town on this as this video shows.

The problem — especially for users in the US — is that iMessage is dominant and there’s been some tension around blue and green bubbles. iMessage’s bubbles are green, with the default SMS bubbles being blue. When a message arrives from an Android user, it’s a different color than messages between iPhone users. There’s been plenty of social commentary around this, bordering on discrimination. But that might all come to an end in 2024.


The main reason why Apple adopted RCS probably has less to do with Google and more to do with increased pressure from the EU, with rulings that messaging apps need to work together in the Digital Markets Act.

Google Messages 1How can I see if I have RCS support on my phone?

It should be turned on by default, but you can do it manually

Firstly, if you’re an Android user, you should use the Google Messages app and make sure it’s the default messaging app (while other apps will support it, Google’s approach means you need to use its own app).

  1. Open the app and tap the menu in the top right-hand corner.
  2. Select Messages settings.
  3. Select RCS Chats.
  4. RCS Chats will tell you if you have support or not, and if it’s enabled.

When you sign in to a new phone and open Google Messages for the first time, you’ll be asked if you want to turn on RCS Messaging. If you aren’t prompted, you can turn it on via the instructions above. In the same menu, you’ll also find other options, such as controlling typing indicators and read receipts. Note that you need wireless or cellular data to send RCS messages, so there’s also the option to send an SMS instead if RCS messages can’t be sent.


If you’re an iPhone user, the current answer is you don’t have access to RCS messaging, and you’ll need to wait until Apple officially adds support — something we expect to see with iOS 18 later this year.

Related

The iPhone is getting RCS messaging support, here’s what that means for you

In the shock news of the year, Apple is adding RCS to the iPhone.

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