Google announced a number of updates to its Messages app on Thursday, including an in-line reply feature for responding to individual messages and the ability to star or set a reminder on a text. Some of the best new features require users to have RCS enabled, which seems to be precisely the point: Google is pushing harder and harder to get carriers and developers to make RCS the standard, even if it means some complicated compatibility issues in the meantime.
RCS is a long-in-the-works standard aimed at replacing SMS as the primary infrastructure for mobile messaging. Since it works over the internet and not carrier bandwidth, it can support a huge number of additional features: encryption, multimedia, more interactive features, and much more. Ultimately, Google’s goal is to move past SMS and onto full RCS as soon as possible, said Sanaz Ahari, who runs Android and business communications for Google. “From a Google perspective, we think every Android user should just have messaging over Wi-Fi,” she said.
Ahari stopped just short of saying Apple is the main reason RCS isn’t yet everywhere. And then she sort of said it: “The reality is, there’s also a lot of conversations that happen across the Android and Apple ecosystem.” SMS had its time, she said, and served its purpose well. But now it’s time for SMS to go away in favor of its replacement. “But it takes the whole ecosystem to move forward.”
Some of the new Messages features aren’t RCS-specific but are instead just Google doing a better job of integrating other tools into the Messages app. Android users will now be able to watch YouTube videos in Messages without needing to leave the app, for instance, and the app will also automatically suggest adding a reminder or calendar event if it detects timely information in a message. If you’re on a recent Pixel device or a Samsung Galaxy S22, Fold 4, or Flip 4, you’ll also be able to get automatic transcriptions of voice messages. Google’s also updating the icons for its Messages, Phone, and Contacts apps to better fit the rest of its app ecosystem.
Google is also continuing to experiment with business messaging and is adding a new inbox to Messages that pulls together all your official text communication. “It is very convenient that a lot of these business chats are initiated from Search and Maps,” Google Messages product manager Jan Jedrzejowicz said in a briefing ahead of the announcement. “And so users just naturally kind of go to Messages to complete that conversation and have that interaction.”
The best new features in Messages require RCS, though. In addition to the reply feature — you can swipe a message to reply to it directly, and it shows up in the chat similar to what you’d see in WhatsApp or iMessage — users with RCS support can also text on in-flight Wi-Fi on United planes, thanks to a partnership between the two companies.
For many years, Google tried too hard to play nice with Messages. Caught between its own desires and the needs of carriers and Android partners, Google never really took control of its messaging experience, and so it lagged behind more closed systems like iMessage and WhatsApp, which could launch features quickly. Now, Google is getting much more aggressive about pushing the issue.
For many years, Google tried too hard to play nice with Messages
Google has touted that 500 million people now have RCS access, but the ecosystem is far from complete. RCS is only useful when everyone’s using it, which means it needs to get all carriers — and Apple — on board with the standard.
That’s why Google has been picking loud fights with Apple and trying to get the company to adopt the standard, even as Apple CEO Tim Cook said users simply aren’t asking for RCS. Google’s now out to change that: the Messages app now allows Android users to react to SMS messages with emoji, which will send that horrible “So and so reacted heart-emoji to ‘Sounds great see you there!’” message each and every time. (If everyone in the conversation is on RCS, the emoji just appears on the message like it should.) “And whether iMessage does something to parse that or make that look different,” Jedrzejowicz said, “that’s kind of up to them.”
Apple’s version of this feature eventually forced Google to hack those tapback reactions into Messages; Google’s clearly hoping it can annoy iPhone users enough to persuade Apple to buy into RCS. “We would much prefer that everybody adopts RCS,” Jedrzejowicz said, “which has the capability to support proper reactions, but in the event that’s not possible or hasn’t happened yet, this feels like the next best thing.”
At the same time, Jedrzejowicz preached patience about RCS. When asked about Signal dropping support for SMS on Android because it can’t support encryption, he said that opening up RCS to everyone is “a question of timing and maturity.” Encryption across devices is a particular challenge, he said. RCS is on the right track, but “we don’t believe that we’re yet at a point where the RCS ecosystem is stable and mature enough with all the foundations in place for this to be ready.” He also declined to say when or if Google Voice might get RCS support, except to acknowledge that Google Voice exists and should probably have RCS support.
“At the end of the day,” Ahari said, “communication is a fundamental use case of why we have phones.” Google feels an obligation to support the old ways of communicating, but it also has an increasingly clear view of what’s next, and it’s increasingly willing to pick fights to make it happen. While it spars with Apple in the court of public opinion, it’s also just starting to build out the RCS ecosystem, compatibility issues be damned. Apple can keep up or face the consequences.