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The first SMS text message was sent in 1992. At the time, the idea of sending text messages to people all over the world for a flat fee was nothing short of revolutionary. But that was then, and in the 20+ years since, it has been supplanted by online services Text Better With These Alternative SMS Apps For Android Text Better With These Alternative SMS Apps For Android Don't like your default SMS app? Try a new one! Read More like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

No surprise. There’s something tangibly passé about text messaging, especially with its lack of group messaging and the arbitrary limit of 160 characters per SMS. Other carrier-based message services, like Multi Media Messaging (MMS), are also a bit dated, struggling to handle rich media like photos and video.

But now there’s something new. Something that might actually replace, or at the very least augment, old-school text messaging. It’s called Rich Communication Services (RCS), and it might be coming to an Android phone near you thanks to the efforts of Google. Here’s what you need to know.

How RCS > SMS & MMS

Over the past few years, there’s been a gradual drift from carrier-delivered communications (like texts and voice calls) to services provided by third parties (called over-the-top (OTT) services) — and carriers are worried because they can’t profit from SMS or MMS if people aren’t using them anymore.

And that’s why RCS is so fascinating, as it’s another step forward for mobile standards. To be clear, it’s not replacing SMS. Rather, it’s a competing standard that’s being developed by the GSM Association (GSMA). It actually started way back in 2007 and has been flying under the radar up ’til now.

WhatSapp

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So what can RCS do? For starters, it’ll make it easier to send files from phone-to-phone. It’ll also offer an IM-like text messaging experience with support for group messaging, which is long-overdue. Consumers will also be able to better block unwanted communications, which is great news for those concerned about cyberstalking Who Is Cyberstalking You? Who Is Cyberstalking You? In this generation of technology, "stalking" is a bit of a complicated term. It's so complicated that we had to add onto it, coming up with an entirely new one: cyberstalking. We've talked a bit... Read More and cyberbullying Cyber Bullying Unmasked - The Tragic Case Of Cassidy Cyber Bullying Unmasked - The Tragic Case Of Cassidy Kids can be cruel. Almost as cruel as so-called grown-ups. That cruelty has found its way on to the web and into the lives of countless young people who thought they might be able to... Read More .

RCS will also augment voice calls with the addition of live video streaming. Networks and manufacturers have tried to introduce carrier-based video calling in the past, but their efforts have largely been unsuccessful in areas outside of Japan and South Korea.

The GSMA also expects RCS to have a transformative effect on mobile advertising, gaming, and educational software. It hopes that developers will use it over their own bespoke systems, using mobile data as a method of communication.

Perhaps the biggest change with RCS is that it’s entirely based on Internet Protocol (IP) communications, which is a huge step up from current voice and SMS technology that’s based on highly-flawed and inefficient circuit-switching network technology. Check out this lecture for more details:

But the biggest benefit of RCS is cost. Circuit-switched networks are expensive to run, and this high cost is passed onto consumers like you and me.

There are reasons to be concerned about RCS though. Since it’s a carrier service rather than an over-the-top service, it’ll be subject to lawful interception by the government, meaning it will be easy to spy on How To Protect Yourself From Government Cellphone Surveillance [Android] How To Protect Yourself From Government Cellphone Surveillance [Android] Let's face it, these days the likelihood that you are being monitored by someone is rising all the time. I'm not saying that everyone, everywhere faces the threat of cellphone surveillance, but there are plenty... Read More . From the GSMA webpage:

Mobile network operators are subject to a range of laws and licence conditions that require them to be capable of intercepting customer communications, to retain a range of subscriber and usage data and to disclose this data to law enforcement agencies on demand. While RCS allows lawful intercept at both the service data layer and session data layer, any interference with mobile users’ right to privacy must be in accordance with the law.

Concerns have also been raised about how much it’ll cost consumers. Right now, if you send a message over Facebook, you’ll simply be billed for the data you use and it comes out of your data allowance. But RCS is designed to be per-unit billable in the same way SMS messages are:

Termination of RCS traffic follows the same model as standard mobile voice and data services. Mobile termination rates (MTRs) are wholesale rates, regulated in many countries by establishing a schedule of annual rate changes that are factored into mobile network operators’ business model.

RCS Incoming: Meet Google Jibe

It should come as no surprise that one of the biggest proponents of RCS is Google, who recently doubled down on the technology with the launch of Google Jibe, which itself stems from the September 2015 acquisition of Jibe Mobile for an undisclosed sum.

The first component is a yet-unreleased messaging app for Android which will support SMS, MMS, and RCS. The app will be delivered through the Google Play Store Google Play vs. Amazon Appstore: Which Is Better? Google Play vs. Amazon Appstore: Which Is Better? Android comes with Google Play, but that isn't the only app store you can use on Android. Android allows users to use third-party app stores, and Amazon has stepped up with a competitor of its... Read More , will work with any RCS-compatible device, on any network that offers RCS as a service.

Speaking to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said that the RCS client will only work on mobiles and tablets, not on other Android-based products. It’s also worth noting that carriers and device manufacturers will be able to choose whether they want to ship the RCS client with their products.

This is disappointing, given that Google has struggled with device fragmentation in the past. The decision to not make the RCS client mandatory will only serve to fragment the messaging experience between clients, and may hinder or even prevent RCS adoption going forward.

GoogleJibeClient

Google also declined to give a time-frame for release of the RCS client, but I expect it to drop soon, given that it’s been available in some European and Asian countries since 2012. (In some locales, it’s been marketed as “Joyn”.) In the U.S., progress has been slow with only T-Mobile offering it as something called “Advanced Messaging”.

The other component is a cloud service called the Jibe Platform that Google itself will offer. The platform does two things: it provides servers and software for processing RCS messages, and it facilitates the sending of RCS messages between mobile networks.

Consumers won’t be using Jibe directly, but it still benefits you. First, it means that networks will more easily and more readily offer RCS to customers because most of the work will be done by Jibe — all they have to do is plug into it. Second, this means that Google will now be a major player in the carrier-based messaging industry.

How Google Jibe Came to Be

Before Jibe Mobile was acquired by Google, it was just a little-known telecommunications startup. They started life as a maker of apps, and in 2008 launched a mobile app that made it easier to share content on social networking sites.

But they ultimately pivoted and, instead of focusing on applications, decided to tackle the broader challenge of changing how the telecommunications systems we use work. They started focusing on building IP-driven mobile communications systems, as demonstrated below:

This ambition earned them a lot of buzz across technology media and secured for them a successful round of funding, where they attracted just shy of $9 million from Vodafone Ventures, Japan’s MTI, and some other unnamed investors.

As for Google, it’s no stranger to acquiring smaller companies. That’s been its modus operandi for much of its existence, sometimes because it wants to enter a new market without having to develop a new product, but more often because it wants to acquire a particular company’s team of developers (known as an “acquihire”).

That’s what seems to have happened here. Jibe Mobile was deeply involved in the development of RCS and its developers are experts in this very niche field. Buying Jibe gives Google a foothold in what will likely be the future of telecommunications, which gives them an advantage over their nearest competitors.

What Do You Think of RCS?

RCS is a fascinating development, and one that looks set to make a big splash in the years to come. But it’s worth noting that it’s still in its infancy — perhaps not even — and there are a number of questions yet to be answered.

How much will it cost consumers? What will the finished specification look like? Will it be pioneered by Android, or will Apple and Microsoft embrace it with the same enthusiasm? For now, we’ll have to sit back and wait to learn more.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether you’re excited about it? Will RCS drag you away from services like WhatsApp and Twitter? Let me know in the comments below.

  1. Inspironator
    March 9, 2016 at 3:03 am

    Google has been trying to break down communication barriers that the cell phone companies have built upon for super-profit. The problem with that is that it doesn't reward innovation and stifles progress at an excessive price. How many times have we not received a SMS or MMS that traversed cellular providers? Too often! Short will be the business cycle of those companies under the false belief that this type of slow-to-progress, greed-based approach is best. Google will flex it's muscles and own the technology that answers consumer's needs, much like Apple has done. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint...be very afraid as your business cycle is ending and you have no technology property to keep consumers paying too much for too little.

  2. Antti
    March 8, 2016 at 8:59 am

    RCS will never become big. It is a specific billable way to transmit specific kind of data, according to this article. Applications already send and receive data in general common way (IP) including the RCS kind. RCS was born dead and outdated. People use Messenger and WhatsUp kind of software for their RCS kind communication needs.

  3. Ben
    March 8, 2016 at 3:42 am

    One thing's for sure, it's definitely going to make a big splash in (what I like to call) the "mobile content delivery system".

  4. donald
    March 7, 2016 at 11:56 pm

    One problem is that we want our conversation and files on cellular phone, on tablet, on the computer. I don't want to be tied to a specific platform for my communication.

    Second problem is cell dead zones. At my house, i get cellular reception for voice or data randomly about 25% of the time (and usually not both)

    Skype and Hangouts are much better answers as they use wifi when available, and cellular data at other times

  5. Patricia C
    March 7, 2016 at 11:28 pm

    Probably no effect on me unless the service is free and doesn't require cellular access to send MMS messages. I have unlimited text messaging included with my plan.

  6. Jim Lipscomb
    March 7, 2016 at 10:53 pm

    Will this free devices form the carrier? For instance you find yourself with no signal, cell service but have wifi, will it work then? Or will this also be device specific. The ability to bill per text is obviously a bummer as is more easily snooped.

  7. Ben Stegner
    March 2, 2016 at 6:03 pm

    This excites me, because like the others I feel trapped by SMS. Since I don't use an iPhone, SMS is the least common denominator when messaging with people. I'd much rather use Telegram for a whole host of reasons, but telling less technically-minded people "Hey, you need to install this app if you want to talk to me" won't go over well. Thus I default to SMS.

    I hope this gets implemented soon and fixes a lot of the drawbacks of SMS. It'll probably be the best thing outside of Telegram or another messenger once it's part of Android.

  8. GodSponge (EB)
    March 2, 2016 at 6:00 am

    SMS and everything to do with it needs to go away as fast as possible in my opinion. The problem is that I have several friends that don't have smartphones and can't use anything but sms and mms. RCS sounds nice for those people, but I'd still rather not have to rely on carrier messaging.

    I like Hangouts right now because it can integrate my sms, mms, google voice, and hangouts messages all into one interface. I used to like Trillian, but it stopped working properly for me and doesn't integrate sms.

    Maybe this RCS thing will catch on and the US carriers will roll it out, but I'm not holding my breath. US carriers are notoriously bad for getting updates out for phones so this will prob be similar.

  9. Abby
    March 2, 2016 at 5:15 am

    I like you likefun butnot. I hate SMS and wish it would just go away. I also don't like the lack of privacy. Currently I'm looking for more secure ways to communicate, not more easily invasive modes. The problem that I do have is the multitude of communication apps out there. Not enough people use WhatsApp or Hangouts and I hate using anything owned by FB. That means I'm unfortunately tied to SMS. Biggest gripe is the out of order messages btw.

  10. likefun butnot
    March 2, 2016 at 3:17 am

    I refuse to use SMS messaging as it is because I don't want to deal with a service that ties me to one particular device. I have a white list of senders whose messages reach me as emails that appear simultaneously on all of my computers and devices. Texting, being tied to a particular handset and with character limits, out of order message delivery and incompatibilities across networks, is stupid in comparison. RCS sounds like a continuation of the same stupidity. Communications tools should be universal and allow for open access rather than arbitrary limitations. Why in the hell does anyone put up with this?

  11. Derp
    March 1, 2016 at 9:53 pm

    It seems absolutely pointless to me. Carrier-based, still? There are already better things like XMPP for messaging, or SIP+SIMPLE, that do all of those things, but are decentralized, and not as subject to government snooping if you're worried about that. Rather than carrier-based, you can sign up at whatever server you choose, and contact someone from any other server (much like how a person with a @gmail.com email can email someone with a @hotmail.com email). This means there are tons of free providers, or you can host your own, or pay some service to host it for you, but it is vastly better than SMS, MMS, or RCS.

    I can't see any reason to be excited for RCS.

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