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Exclusive: Chat is Google’s next big fix for Android’s messaging mess

How the successor to SMS will take on iMessage

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A top-tier Android phone can cost upwards of a thousand dollars, and for that money, you’ll get some amazing features. It will have a stellar screen, top-flight camera, gobs of storage, and an absolutely atrocious texting experience.

It’s a problem. In fact, it’s always been a problem. Google has spent nearly a decade trying — and failing — to fix it with an ever-rotating cast of poorly supported apps. While iPhone users have had the simplicity of iMessage built in, Android users have been left to fend for themselves.

Now, the company is doing something different. Instead of bringing a better app to the table, it’s trying to change the rules of the texting game, on a global scale. Google has been quietly corralling every major cellphone carrier on the planet into adopting technology to replace SMS. It’s going to be called “Chat,” and it’s based on a standard called the “Universal Profile for Rich Communication Services.” SMS is the default that everybody has to fall back to, and so Google’s goal is to make that default texting experience on an Android phone as good as other modern messaging apps.

As part of that effort, Google says it’s “pausing” work on its most recent entry into the messaging space, Allo. It’s the sort of “pause” that involves transferring almost the entire team off the project and putting all its resources into another app, Android Messages.

Google won’t build the iMessage clone that Android fans have clamored for, but it seems to have cajoled the carriers into doing it for them. In order to have some kind of victory in messaging, Google first had to admit defeat.

What Chat will be

Chat is not a new texting app. Instead, think of it more like a new set of features inside the app already installed on most Android phones. “Chat” is the consumer-friendly name for Rich Communication Services (RCS), the new standard that’s meant to supplant SMS, and it will automatically be turned on inside Android Messages, the OS’s default app for texting.

When people begin using Chat, they’ll get many features that are standard in any other texting app, including read receipts, typing indicators, full-resolution images and video, and group texts.

But remember, Chat is a carrier-based service, not a Google service. It’s just “Chat,” not “Google Chat.” In a sign of its strategic importance to Google, the company has spearheaded development on the new standard, so that every carrier’s Chat services will be interoperable. But, like SMS, Chat won’t be end-to-end encrypted, and it will follow the same legal intercept standards. In other words: it won’t be as secure as iMessage or Signal.

The new Chat services will be turned on for most people in the near future, though timing will be dictated by each carrier. Google is optimistic many carriers will flip the switch this year, but there could be some stragglers. Chat messages will be sent with your data plan instead of your SMS plan, so you’ll likely only be charged for whatever (minimal) data it costs to send a message. Though, again, it will be up to the carriers.

If you are texting somebody who doesn’t have Chat enabled or is not an Android user, your messages will revert back to SMS — much in the same way that an iMessage does. Nobody outside of Apple knows when (or if) the iPhone will support Chat.

Instead of continuing to push Allo — or creating yet another new chat app — Google is instead going to introduce new features into the default Android Messages app, like GIF search and Google Assistant. Android Messages will be the default on many (but not all) Android phones. Samsung phones will also support Chat using Samsung’s app. You will still be able to download Google’s app if you’d prefer to use it, though it seems unlikely that third-party developers will be able to create full RCS-enabled apps.

Anil Sabharwal.
Anil Sabharwal.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Reboot again

Google has put a new executive in charge of the effort: Anil Sabharwal. He led the team that created the Google Photos apps, which are perhaps the most successful Google apps of the past few years. They’re also a great example of how Google salvaged ideas originally built into Google+ and turned them into a great set of cross-platform apps.

So it makes perfect sense that CEO Sundar Pichai tasked Sabharwal with fixing one of the oldest and most vexing problems at Google. Sabharwal has to find a way to make the default texting experience on Android not just good, but part of a dominant global network that can actually compete with the likes of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and iMessage. And he needs to do it without alienating any of the hundreds of powerful companies that have a stake in the smartphone market.

“I’m coming into this as a consumer product person,” Sabharwal says. Six months ago, he took over the communications team and took inventory of Google’s offerings and strategies. As a result of Google’s “try everything” approach to messaging, the company currently has four major competing messaging apps: Hangouts, Allo, Duo, and Android Messages.

Let’s go through them one by one. Hangouts is becoming an enterprise app to compete with Slack, called “Hangouts Chat” instead of being a consumer focused app. That transition is taking awhile and at some point, Google will need to clear up its messaging for consumers that are still using Hangouts for personal texting. Right now, the company’s guidance is that “the consumer version of Hangouts will be upgraded to Hangouts Chat ... but our focus for Hangouts still rests on enterprise/team communication and messaging.” I wouldn’t be surprised if a free version was made available to consumers someday, but, as with Allo, if might be time to start looking for alternatives.

And Duo, Google’s new-ish video chat app, is actually surprisingly successful; a quarter of Duo calls are to or from an iPhone. But it’s primarily a video chat app, which leaves Allo and Android Messages: two apps that, from a “consumer product” perspective, do essentially the same thing.

Android Messages has all the users. Even though Samsung phones don’t use Android Messages as the default SMS app, most of the other major manufacturers do (outside of China, anyway). That adds up to 100 million monthly active users, according to Sabharwal. “At the end of the day … the native SMS app is where users are,” he says. “They’re not interested in going to a different place to use SMS.”

People, even in 2018, tend to just use the default app. Though WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger each have over a billion installs, those users are still falling back to SMS when they have to. It’s the universal, default option; every phone supports it, and it always works. Sabharwal estimates that 8 trillion SMS-based messages are sent every year.

“The native SMS app is where users are.”

Google Allo.
Google Allo.

Allo, though it’s a perfectly capable and functional messaging app, has never managed to build a large user base. Sabharwal looked at Allo and saw “a clearly great set of product features, a great set of capabilities.” He looked at Android Messages and saw “a product that has tremendous momentum.”

So the move was obvious: shift all that effort from Allo, which doesn’t have a clear path to getting more users, and put it into migrating the app’s features into the default, Android Messages. “My first thing is I’m going to bring these things together,” Sabharwal says. “That’s the first decision that we’ve made.”

Put more bluntly: Google is giving up on having its own consumer messaging app, a heads-up competitor to Facebook Messenger. “There are a lot of great messaging products and experiences that are out there,” says Sabharwal. “Just because Google may want to be one of them is not a reason for us to invest or build products. We fundamentally build products because we believe we can deliver better, improved user experiences.”

Take a step back. It seems ridiculous that a company as large and powerful as Google would simply give up on directly competing in the messaging space, but here we are. The question, then, is how on earth did we get here?

Allo the apps that didn’t work

Google’s plan this time around is much more complicated than just launching a new messaging app. To get it started, it has had to corral more than 40 carriers and nearly a dozen manufacturers into adopting a new standard. It had to ensure that Chat would work the same, everywhere, and that it would actually have a decent set of features. Oh, and all those companies are fierce competitors who distrust each other and Google.

It is as close to the hardest, most winding road that I can imagine for fixing the messaging mess on Android. It’s also probably one of the only roads Google had left to try.

Google’s most prominent messaging dead end was Hangouts. Launched almost exactly five years ago, it was Google’s most ambitious attempt to compete with iMessage, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. It had a huge, splashy launch befitting its scope, and it successfully managed to merge a bunch of disparate Google apps into a single, unified system.

Hangouts was undone by Google’s often scattered corporate priorities and, frankly, sometimes institutional inability to execute on consumer products. It began as a product that was deeply enmeshed in Google+, Google’s failed social network. Extricating Hangouts from that fiasco took years.

Hangouts also became an integration point for other services like SMS, a live video streaming service, Google Voice, and Project Fi. That sounds good in theory, but in practice, it meant the app’s overall purpose kept changing. One moment, it was an integrated SMS and chat app, and the next, it wasn’t. All the while, the thing began to feel slow and lumbering on phones, and too basic on desktops.

Instead of spinning Hangouts down (it’s honestly too enmeshed in Google’s own internal work culture to do that), Google pivoted it. Hangouts is now an enterprise chat app designed to compete with Slack.

The next road Google took was more obvious: launch a new, mobile-first texting app and convince people to use it. That app was Allo, which launched two years ago.

Allo is a “fine” app, with all the features you’d expect along with integration with Google Assistant, which launched alongside Allo. “The strategy behind Allo was ‘let’s build a really great consumer messaging product really from the ground up,’” Sabharwal says.

But in 2016 (to say nothing of 2018), simply making a good messaging app wasn’t enough — not when it has to compete with established giants. Allo also likely suffered from Google messaging app fatigue. People worried it wouldn’t be supported over the long term. (It turns out, they were right.)

If you’re going to launch a messaging app, you need a good strategy for achieving growth. iMessage worked because it was built right into the iPhone. WhatsApp worked because it was tied to phone numbers and let users avoid paying SMS fees. (And it had the benefit of being the first popular app to take advantage of push notifications.) Facebook Messenger worked because it was built on Facebook.

“The product as a whole has not achieved the level of traction that we’d hoped for.”

Allo had no such strategy for acquiring users. The closest Google came was a scheme using Google’s own services on Android. When you sent an Allo message to somebody who didn’t have the app installed, they’d receive a Google push notification instead of an SMS. The notification encouraged them to install the app (though they could reply directly without it).

Two years later, fewer than 50 million Android users have installed Allo. Considering that WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger both clock in at over a billion installs, those numbers just aren’t good enough. As Sabharwal gamely puts it, “The product as a whole has not achieved the level of traction that we’d hoped for.”

That means that Google had to admit that the Allo experiment didn’t work. As a result, Sabharwal says that Google is “pausing investment” in Allo. That doesn’t mean that it’s shutting down; Sabharwal says that Google is “continuing to support the product.” But if you’re an Allo user, it’s definitely time to start looking elsewhere. My guess is that it’s a dead app walking (or, if you like, texting).

There’s one other option that I and many others have always hoped Google would have the courage to try: just copy iMessage, but for Android.

Though Google won’t say so, I think that road is fundamentally too dangerous for the company. One would think that Google has more than enough leverage to simply create something that the carriers would have to accept whether they like it or not. What are Verizon and Deutsche Telecom and all the rest going to do, switch to Tizen in protest? Please.

But the truth is that these carriers have points of leverage over Google that go beyond choosing to sell Android phones. Android is, after all, open source. And though Google can (and does) dictate some requirements in order to include Google services, it can’t dictate them all. A carrier could set Bing as the default search, for example, or set up its own RCS client as the default texting app.

Perhaps Google could have gotten away with a proprietary, baked-in messaging protocol back in 2011 when iMessage launched. But in 2018, carriers aren’t fond of iMessage, and they aren’t going to take kindly to a similar service acting as the default, especially on Android, the globally dominant operating system. Even though it looks like they won’t charge exorbitant SMS prices to consumers, RCS is still preferable to carriers as it will give them the opportunity to sell RCS services to businesses. The GSMA estimates that will be a $74 billion market by 2021.

In sum, Google tried damn near everything. Only two roads were left: one that would cause all its carrier partners to freak out and one that handed them the keys to a shiny new messaging platform they could call their own.

Sabharwal doesn’t paint the decision to partner with carriers in those terms, of course. Instead, he points to Google’s penchant for keeping Android not just open, but neutral. Instead of the nuclear option, Google wants to keep the platform at least nominally neutral. “We believe that there’s a fundamentally better experience we can deliver to users,” Sabharwal says. He continues:

We can’t do it without these [carrier and OEM] partners. We don’t believe in taking the approach that Apple does. We are fundamentally an open ecosystem. We believe in working with partners. We believe in working with our OEMs to be able to deliver a great experience.

Android Messages web client preview.
Android Messages web client preview.
Image: Google

The rollout

SMS is awful. It started as a kind of a hack on top of preexisting cellular systems, and it never really developed much. The Multimedia Messaging Service add-on came later and was equally crappy. These services aren’t just antiquated; they’re expensive. “No one says ‘Hey bud hit me up on MMS,’” Sabharwal quips. They say “text me.” And again, the default texting experience on Android is bad. This is a problem that needs fixing.

Since 2007, the fix was always supposed to be RCS, but RCS hasn’t taken hold for completely predictable reasons. Different carriers developed incompatible versions of the “standard,” each trying to gain an edge. All the while, they were getting disrupted by tech companies who simply made over-the-top vertically integrated messaging products that just relied on data connections. Talk to nearly any analyst in the tech space, and you’ll find they’re dismissive that RCS could ever work. Here’s Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis last year on RCS:

So ignore it. There are no customers, no use-cases, and no revenues associated with “advanced messaging”. It’s the same pointless RCS zombie-tech I’ve been accurately predicting would fail for the last decade. It’s still dead, still shambling around and still trying to eat your brain. It’s managed to bite Google and Samsung, and they’ll probably try to infect you as well.

And yet, Google has spent the last couple of years trying to get consensus around something called the “Universal Profile,” a standardized way to make RCS work across carriers. Google’s pitch to carriers is simple: SMS is going to be replaced one way or another. You can either be part of the replacement or continue to watch Apple and Facebook run away with text messaging.

Google has also been lining up businesses that want to replace SMS for communicating with customers. Instead of a text message with a short link, you can have your boarding pass or Subway sandwich order or whatever appear right in your texting app. Right now, the best options for businesses that want rich messaging opportunities for customers are iMessage and Facebook — neither of which are as universal as SMS.  

Carriers have slowly been coming on board. Two big holdouts, AT&T and Verizon, quietly agreed to support the standard in the past few months. Given how fractious the history has been here, I’m sort of impressed that Google got everybody to call this feature “Chat” instead of “AT&T super premium advanced messaging plus” or whatever. As of this writing, 55 carriers, 11 OEMs, and two operating system providers have all pledged to either adopt or switch over to the RCS Universal Profile.

Android Messages Group Chat Preview.
Android Messages Group Chat Preview.
Image: Google

The two operating system providers that have signed on to the Universal Profile: Google and, interestingly, Microsoft. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can expect a native Chat app in Windows 10, but it does mean it’s possible. Microsoft’s statement on RCS is noncommittal at best: “RCS Universal Profile support for capabilities such as dialer and messaging functionality or other applications is considered on a device-by-device basis, where there is demand for those features.”

Unfortunately, we aren’t likely to get one big, splashy moment when Chat “just works.” I press Sabharwal multiple times on this issue: when are carriers going to switch users over? “I don’t have a crystal ball,” he demurs. “I don’t know exactly how long it’s going to be, but we really feel that we are on the cusp of it right now.” Later, he relents and says, “Look, I can speculate, which I think is what you’re asking me to do.”

”By the end of this year, we’ll be in a really great state, and by mid-next year, we’ll be in a place where a large percentage of users [will have] this experience.” Though, he cautions that “it will differ from country to country” and from region to region. Europe and Latin America are likely to enable it before US carriers. Still, he stresses, “This is not a three- to five-year play. Our goal is to get this level of quality messaging to our users on Android within the next couple of years.”

In the United States, Sprint supports Chat right now between compatible Android phones. T-Mobile has promised to do so in Q2 of this year. When I asked for comment, neither Verizon nor AT&T would give me a timeline for when they intend to flip the switch to support Chat.

The middle period is going to be annoying. If your carrier or your device doesn’t support Chat, you’ll get old-fashioned SMS and MMS messages — and vice versa. Importantly, that means that iPhone users won’t be part of this ecosystem.

But I have a hunch that the pressure is on to get Apple to support Chat, not just from Google but from carriers and other businesses. Sources familiar with RCS say Google, along with multiple mobile operators, is in discussion with Apple about supporting RCS. Apple declined to comment.

Carrier control

If you’re still trying to wrap your head around the idea that Google won’t have a standalone consumer chat app, well, so am I. “The fundamental thesis behind the RCS protocol is it’s a carrier service,” Sabharwal says. That means that the carriers will be the final arbiters of what Chat can and can’t do — and whether it will be successful. The good news is that Google appears to have herded all the carrier cats into a box where their Chat services will actually be interoperable.

Right now, the expectation is that carriers won’t charge SMS-style rates for Chat messages. “Messages will work just like any other IP-based messaging protocol. So, in that respect, it’ll just be ‘free’ and part of your data plan,” Sabharwal says. That’s probably true, but it’s definitely outside Google’s control. Any communication standard that depends on the largess of wireless carriers is inherently at risk of getting messed up in dozens of ways, including price.

The companies that support the RCS Universal Profile as of April 2018.
The companies that support the RCS Universal Profile as of April 2018.
Image: GSMA

The worse news is that carriers aren’t fond of strong encryption and don’t have a great history of pushing back against government demands for information.

”RCS continues to be a carrier-owned service, so legal intercept and other laws that exist that allow carriers to have access to the data continues to be the case,” Sabharwal admits. And though Google isn’t shutting down Allo, it’s also not working to create a chat service that is as secure as iMessage, Signal, or even Telegram. “At this point, the answer is no. We will not have that option,” Sabharwal says. Allo offers an “incognito” mode that does support end-to-end encryption, but that’s it.

For a company that has a reputation for rapaciously collecting user data and then turning that data into ads and services, it’s surprising to hear that Google doesn’t want an owned-and-operated chat app. Basically, it sounds like Sabharwal doesn’t think it has to. And it may not have an alternative: the company hasn’t been able to find a way to make an owned-and-operated chat app succeed in nearly a decade.

”I don’t want to say that were ‘ceding messaging’ [to the carriers],” Sabharwal says. Instead, Google believes that it can deliver Google services inside the Android Messages app. It won’t control the transport of those messages, but it can improve the user experience by building the app itself.

Smart reply in Android Messages preview.
Smart reply in Android Messages preview.
Image: Google

So expect a couple things to happen on the app front. First, Google will finally make a desktop web interface for texting. At least in the initial version, you’ll authorize it with a QR code, much as you do with WhatsApp. That makes it essentially an extension of your phone, like the WhatsApp client, so the only message history it’ll have is what is on your phone.

Second, expect the Android Messages app to rapidly acquire more features. With luck, its development won’t stagnate like Hangouts did. It’s worth keeping an eye on, because some features can be developed in the app itself and others may require coordinating work with all the carriers on the Chat standard itself.

Sabharwal can explain the nuances of RCS hubs, carrier negotiations, and Google’s own (optional) Jibe RCS cloud services. But more than any of that, he’s eager to talk about the features he wants to bring to Android Messages. Smart replies. Google Assistant. Integration with his other project, Google Photos. Clearer organization of messages. Better search. More “expressiveness” (read: GIFs and stickers).

At the end of the day, users care about those features. They care about having “blue bubbles,” those cultural indicators that you’re having a conversation in a channel that isn’t limited to 160-character messages hurled into the void. Google’s path to getting those features to the 2 billion-plus Android users around the world has been rocky, to put it mildly.

The rollout of Chat could be equally rocky. Some carriers will hold out either through obstinacy or inability. Some Android phones may also be left out, depending on their manufacturer. There are risks that infighting between all the companies trying to work together could collapse the whole effort. And, especially in the US, nobody really knows if or when Apple will bow to pressure to support RCS. (Apple, as you’re surely aware, isn’t one to bow to pressure.)

After talking about all that, Sabharwal finally lets me take a look at a presentation showing an upcoming version of Android Messages. It has all the features he’s hoping to deliver. The messages delivered over Chat happened to be blue. But that was just happenstance: one of the features of Android Messages is that you can pick a custom color for your chat messages, depending on whom you’re speaking with. This is Android, after all, and Android is all about customization.

Customization is messy. Android is messy. So it makes sense that the ultimate fix for Android messaging wasn’t to eliminate messiness, but to embrace it.