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Google's text messaging strategy: try everything

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Sundar Pichai at Code Conference 2016 Asa Mathat / Recode

In messaging, Google has very long race ahead of it, and in many ways it's already been lapped by multiple competitors. But when you make the dominant mobile operating system on the planet, dropping out of the race isn't really an option.

Instead, Google is just betting on as many horses as it can and doing its best to whip them into catching up. Google has so many messaging strategies because it doesn't have an option that's an easy win: there's a next-gen SMS standard, its own messaging app, and a (somewhat plaintive and naive) hope that it could convince other companies to agree to interoperation.

So it wasn't a surprise to see that, at the end of a wide-ranging interview with Google CEO Sundar Pichai by our own Walt Mossberg at Code 2016, messaging came up. And here's what we learned: if you were hoping that Google was going to swoop in and keep you from having eight different messaging apps scurried away in a folder, you should probably stop.

Answering a question from Backchannel's Steven Levy, Pichai started by referencing RCS, which stands for "Rich Communication Services." It's basically a next-generation SMS, adding features that the texting platform sorely needs and has sorely needed basically since its inception. But the thing about RCS is that, like SMS, it's a standard designed by and for carriers. That's meant that it has had a long, winding, and fraught road to launching — and even if it finally starts to see wide adoption there's no guarantee the carriers won't muck it up with high prices or competing, incompatible features.

Nevertheless, Pichai said more clearly than I've heard before that Google intends to build RCS directly into Android and has been working with carriers to make it happen. And, not coincidentally, Google also bought a company, Jibe, which has allowed it to offer services that let corporations build RCS messaging systems. In fact, if the company can successfully integrate RCS into Android and get it rapidly deployed on those phones, it could serve as a way to prevent fragmentation in RCS.

In other words, when Pichai says "we're working with carriers to evolve the platform so we have an interoperable messaging standard," what may actually happen is that Google will simply be creating that standard by dint of the massive number of Android phones it sells.

That's all great, but if you haven't gathered, most people outside carrier boardrooms haven't exactly been waiting with bated breath for a next-generation multimedia SMS protocol. Instead, they've just been using the apps that are already serving that purpose: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and soon: Google's new Allo messaging app.

Pichai was careful in "distinguishing what we build as a Google service and what we build into the Android platform." And so RCS is there as a more level playing field, built into Android. Google feels like it can't pull an iMessage and build its own proprietary service directly on top of Android. Instead, it's trying again with a new messaging app.

Although Allo is not (yet?) slated to replace Hangouts, it does seem like Pichai fully understands that it's going to be a tough fight to pull users away from those other services. Perhaps the Google Assistant will be compelling enough to draw users away, but — to borrow a phrase that Google tends to repeat lately — "it's early days" in the bot and assistant space and we don't know yet how badly consumers will want that in their texting app.

The dream of every consumer is to have all those messaging apps just work together somehow, so you can just pick the one you want to use but it can communicate with any of them on a level playing field. Pichai shares that hope, saying today that "I would love to see messaging services be more interoperable."

"Hopefully we as an industry head in that direction," he continued. But asking for interoperability is the thing that the second (or third or fourth) place tech companies always do. So when Pichai admitted that "maybe I'm making an ask here," it seems highly unlikely that it's an ask that either Apple or Facebook will take up.

"To the extent the big companies can work together, I think it's good for everyone." Everyone, that is, except the wildly successful messaging apps that have a billion-plus users.

So Google has three different ways it's trying to get back into the messaging race. And again, it is very far behind. But when you're behind in a race you can't drop out of, there's really only one thing you can do: just keep running.


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