Google is making a handful of announcements related to RCS today, but the piece of news you’re most likely to notice is that the default SMS app Google offers is now called “Android Messages” instead of “Messenger.” Or rather, it will be the default RCS app. RCS, if you don’t recall, is the next-generation messaging standard supported by a group of carriers and Google. It offers multimedia messages, read receipts, and other features you’d expect from a normal chat app like WhatsApp or iMessage.
Amir Sarhangi, Head of RCS at Google, tells The Verge that the app is getting renamed because Android Messages is becoming more like Android itself: an industry effort spearheaded by Google, but with other stakeholders involved (namely: the carriers). The new name is also a signal to users that the app fully supports RCS. Users will be able to download the Android Messages app directly from the Play Store — which gives the added benefit that the app can be updated directly rather than make people wait for a software update from their manufacturer.
But “default messaging app” is a very fraught idea on Android, where Google is pursuing a three-fold app strategy that also includes Allo and Hangouts. In this context, what it really means is that a slew of Android manufacturers have agreed to use Android Messenger instead of a custom app made by the manufacturer. That list includes:
LG, Motorola, Sony, HTC, ZTE, Micromax, Nokia, Archos, BQ, Cherry Mobile, Condor, Fly, General Mobile, Lanix, LeEco, Lava, Kyocera, MyPhone, QMobile, Symphony and Wiko, along with Pixel and Android One devices.
Along with the app update, Google has announced that a bunch of wireless carriers have agreed to adopt the “Universal Profile” for RCS, meaning their rich text messages are guaranteed to work when you send them. Some of them are using Google’s RCS service and others are just doing it themselves. The carriers on board with this messaging standard include: Sprint, Rogers, Telenor, Orange, Deutsche Telekom, Globe, and Vodafone.
The most powerful wireless companies aren’t playing ball yet
Google says that if you add up all the carriers together, it comes to over a billion people who will be on the new RCS standard. But if you read those lists closely, you’ll see that the most important phone makers — Samsung and Apple — are not included. You’ll also see that the most important carriers in the US — Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile — are also not included.
What will that mean? As with all things related to carriers, RCS, and standards: it’s complicated.
The short answer is that if you send an RCS message to a phone or carrier that isn’t part of this RCS standard, your message will fall back to standard SMS or MMS. The longer answer is that Google is very much hoping that to create a snowball effect that will bring those other companies in line with the standard. “It’s a momentum story for us,” Sarhangi says.
He couldn’t comment on whether Google is actively negotiating with any of those big players to come on board with the RCS standard, but at least with regard to Apple, Sarhangi notes that “we welcome them” to join.
Messages will always fall back to SMS
The good news is that even though all this sort of sounds like a mess, it’s not a mess that will really affect consumers in a direct way — even in the worst case scenarios of incompatibility, Android Messages will still just fall back to SMS.
And the potential benefits are big. Alongside the other announcements, Google said that it’s creating an “Early Access Program” for businesses to send messages via RCS. That will mean that the texts you get for stuff like boarding passes and data plan overages will be more than dumb links to websites. Businesses will be able to send messages that can act like little apps — the QR code for the train will be right there and the option to re-up your data when you get an overage alert will be a simple button in the message. Those messages will also come “verified” from their sender instead of from a random short code number.
But if the idea of getting better marketing messages from business isn’t exciting, focus on the positives. First, a bunch of Android manufacturers are going to stop making crappy SMS apps and just go with Android Messages instead. Second, a big part of the wireless industry is finally moving away from SMS toward something better.