Google is trying to give the text message an overhaul. It's partnering with major phone carriers including Sprint, T-Mobile owner Deutsche Telekom, Orange, and Vodafone to succeed SMS and MMS — the standards used to send text and picture messages — with a newer communications standard called Rich Communications Services, or RCS, which would let you send higher quality photos, start group chats, and potentially do a lot more in the future. It could, for instance, be used to enable video calling.
RCS could simplify messaging... or it could be another complication
None of those features sound all that exciting in 2016. Millions and millions of people already have access to these features (and more) on other messaging services, like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Line, and even Apple's iMessage. But the introduction of RCS could still help to simplify our communications mess. If it ends up being built into the default messaging app on new Android phones, then starting a video call with someone could one day be as simple as sending a text message — no more figuring out whether you want to use Skype, FaceTime, Hangouts, or so on.
For now, it's not clear exactly how RCS will be implemented, nor if it'll actually work across all carriers. Though the carriers in this partnership have agreed to converge on a single RCS standard, which will be supported by Android, the announcement suggests that they won't get there immediately. Instead, they'll "transition" toward the new RCS standard, which may take time. Additionally, two major carriers aren't listed in this announcement: AT&T and Verizon. And while T-Mobile's owner is listed, a T-Mobile spokesperson clarified to The Verge that this does not mean T-Mobile itself is involved. If those carriers don't come on board, that would be a critical issue for what's supposed to be a universal messaging standard.
Google is working on standardizing RCS with 19 phone carriers, as well as the GSMA, a group that represents hundreds of carriers worldwide. Though RCS has been in the works for years — and even available on phones here and there — a concerted push from Google with carriers' cooperation could be what it needs to finally take off. In a statement, Google communications products VP Nick Fox calls this partnership a step forward toward creating "a better messaging experience for Android users everywhere." But even if RCS does succeed, it'll have a hard time accomplishing what is likely the carriers' hidden goal: finding a revenue stream to replace text message fees. At this point, too many people use other apps for a standard like this to easily take over.
Correction February 22nd, 7:05PM ET: T-Mobile's video calling is not based on RCS, as this article initially stated. It uses a technology related to VoLTE. This article has also been updated to clarify T-Mobile's involvement (or lack thereof) in this partnership.