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A trip down the Rich Communications Services rabbit hole, now that Apple will support the messaging tech on iPhones

Technology / news
A trip down the Rich Communications Services rabbit hole, now that Apple will support the messaging tech on iPhones
Google Messages offer RCS support
If you want RCS support on Android in New Zealand, use Google Messages.

One of the long-awaited interoperability features to Apple’s iOS 18 operating system for iPhones is support for the Rich Communications Services or RCS. Pressure from Chinese and European Union authorities pushed Apple to add RCS support for iPhones, which have only been able to communicate with Google Android phones using Short Messaging Service, or ye olde SMS.

What does all that mean then? Flap your arms around to disperse the swirling mists of time and you'll see that being old tech, SMS texting is from the era when every little thing you did on your phone cost and was charged separately. Texts also were counted towards a usage cap which if exceeded, were charged at a “casual rate” to fleece you. 

What’s more, there’s the 140 characters limit for SMS texts. Go over that and the text is turned into a Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) missive that costs 49 cents to send.

That’s what images and short video clips sent via MMS cost too, making the “feature” particularly dumb to use because they’re low-res and terrible, and sometimes have to be retrieved via a website.

Flash emoji, read receipts, better image and video quality, audio messages, those dots that indicate someone’s typing, geolocation info, group chats, and sending over Wi-Fi and cellular data to avoid those annoying message counts and unexpected charges are some of the handy features that are missing in SMS/MMS. 

SMS is less secure than newer types of messaging services as well. The bit between the radios on your phone and the cell tower are encrypted, but after that, nope. There are other security concerns as well relating to how mobile networks connect to each other, because back in the day everything was nice and kind and there was nothing to worry about. Yes, I crack myself up at times.

Apple’s iMessage came out in 2011, and fixed the above bugbears. What’s more, iMessage has end-to-end encryption (E2EE) so intercepting messages requires serious hacking skills like exploiting software vulnerabilities. If you remember BlackBerry Messenger, and I’m sure everyone does and it’s not just the writer who’s ancient, then that’s similar to the path Apple took with iMessage. Long story short, it involves staying away from telco tech as much as possible, putting messages through via data, the Internet and the cloud.

iMessage is Apple only, and the company has not made an official version of it for Google’s Android operating system. That has led to accusations of Apple creating user lock-in with iMessages and yes, it is kind of annoying having to be careful when texting Android users with iPhones that turn the messages into SMS/MMS, displaying the dreaded Green Bubbles.

You can work around the iMessage on Android issue with AirMessage, but that’s too involved for most people.

Another app, Beeper, looked promising but Apple took a dim view of it and that was that, you can’t use it for iMessage support anymore.

RCS, which has been around longer than iMessage, since 2008, was touted as the telco standard replacement for SMS/MMS. It offers lots of fancy messaging features like iMessage, and on paper, RCS seems rather cool. 

Unfortunately, once you start looking into RCS, you can see why Apple’s been lukewarm on adding support for the tech. A quick survey of New Zealand telcos said they don’t support it at the network level. A bunch of overseas telcos have implemented the RCS Universal Profile (a typically weird mobile technology name, just like Long Term Evolution (LTE) for 4G); it’s probably sensible by Kiwi operators to spend money on other things than RCS though, as it’s yet another complicated tech with multiple standards revisions to worry about.

This diagram tells you everything you need to know about RCS. Source: 3GPP/GSMA

In fact, Google appears to have got fed up with the fragmented and spotty RCS support, so it rolled its own into the Android Messages app. This was done in 2016 when Big G bought Jibe Mobile, and in theory you should be able to use Google Messages, enable RCS on it, and your uncle? He’s Bob, he is. There’s even a web interface for Google Messages now.

RCS support in iOS 18 isn’t ready to roll yet, so how well it’ll work eventually remains to be seen. Google recognises the importance of E2EE, just like Apple does, and has added it to its RCS implementation which is great. Apple meanwhile doesn’t want to support the E2EE Google uses for RCS, and wants to work with the telco industry standards organisation GSMA to securely scramble messages to prevent them from being intercepted.

The consequences of that manoeuvring is that RCS Messages between iPhones won't have E2EE, foregoing a major security feature. In fact, E2EE is unlikely to happen between Google Messages and any other RCS app. Maybe if Google swaps its E2EE which is based on the Signal protocol for whatever it is that GSMA comes up with for RCS it'll work but that seems unlikely to happen.

You'll still have the Green Bubbles for RCS and SMS, and Blue ones for iMessage on iPhones, but will see a line of text saying which protocol is being used. 

If you’ve come this far in the story, thinking the above is way too complicated and much too much work just to send GIFs and animated emojis and wherever, you are on the right track and should vigorously pat yourself on the back. 

There’s your reason right there as to why we have wildly popular third-party messaging apps, like WhatsApp, Messenger, or Signal that run over data connections with E2EE. They’re free, work really well, and do voice and video calls, send files, group calls, and more. 

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Great explanation from Juha, thanks.

I do not know about WhatsApp or Messenger, or text message, but I use with 99% of the people these days.


Vigorously pats oneself on the back. 


We should avoid (at least reduce where possible) to step even deeper into dependencies from the "big" ones like Google, Apple, etc hence avoid their apps and continue to use and push for independent (less dependent) third-party apps.
Signal is my strong favorite, working well across platforms (Apple and Android) because WhatsApp and Messenger are owned by "Meta" (formerly Facebook), another (too) "big one".


Not quite sure what the issue is here.There are a lot of third party apps like the (actually secure) Signal that run cross platform available - and messages won't be read to train the provider's - like Apple or Meta or Alphabet - AI chatbot engines or to try and sell you crap.

SMS runs very resource-light and it almost invariably works: just be economical in what you type.


One issue is that the "big" names are pushing for something that is in their best interest and not best for consumers like secure and cross platform availability.
A second issue is ever growing expectations of next generations. Most are not interested to "be economical in what you type".