Google has officially adopted the next-gen “RCS” text messaging protocol - and you can get it on your phone right now. The company is currently pushing every single carrier to move to RCS from SMS — a much-needed upgrade — and that will have a significant impact on your texting, selfie-sending, and GIF-blasting going forward. Here's everything you need to know.
It’s been a while since Google announced plans to push RCS adoption so that Android users could finally move on from the outdated SMS technology, but most users are stuck waiting for their mobile carriers to flip the switch at some point in 2020—that is, unless you decide to take matters into your own hands and flip those switches yourself.
What is RCS?
RCS (short for Rich Communication Services) is the next iteration of carrier text messaging technology, but it’s actually been around in one form or another since it was first proposed in 2007. The originally agreed-upon RCS standard, known as Universal Profile, included a number of enhancements over SMS messaging:
8,000 character limits per message (versus SMS’s 160 limit)
Supports read receipts and displays when the other person is typing
Web-based chat and cross-platform message syncing
Uses WiFi and mobile data to send messages
Native audio messaging support
End-to-end message encryption
While those features might look like standard offerings in today’s most popular messaging apps, they’re a massive upgrade over SMS — basically, bringing an iMessage-like service to the ancient format.
Unfortunately, adoption of RCS by mobile carriers, developers, and phone manufacturers hasn’t really taken off due to the network and software updates required to implement it. Since RCS recently received an enthusiastic backing from Google — mighty arbiter of Android OS, a phone manufacturer, and a service provider itself — change is coming, but Google’s version of RCS differs a bit from Universal Profile.
Introducing the “Chat” Protocol
You may have seen Google’s new text-messaging technology referred to as “Chat.” Despite the name sounding like a dedicated app, Chat is actually the RCS protocol developed by Google in cooperation with several other manufacturers and carriers. It’s basically identical to Universal Profile, save for one major difference: Chat does not support end-to-end encryption (though messages sent through Universal Profile-based services/apps will be, provided users meet the requirements).
The lack of end-to-end encryption is a glaring omission, but it’s not that surprising. Google has been axing or repurposing its first-party messaging apps with encryption, including Allo and Hangouts, and instead suggesting that users migrate to the the Chat-based Android Messages app. Additionally, Android Messages will soon be the standard texting app on all Google phones and many other Android devices.
How to Use RCS
In order to send and receive RCS messages, all participants in the conversation must be using:
An RCS-supported phone on an RCS-supported network(s)
The same Chat- or Universal Profile-based texting app
If either requirement is missing, your messages will be converted to SMS instead.
If you need to know whether your carrier supports RCS messaging — or your favourite app — we recommend bookmarking this handy guide that a number of Redditors from /r/UniversalProfile have been working on. It’s a great way to see, at a glance, what you need to do to get RCS messaging working on your device/carrier/app combination (if it does).
Finally, a quick word on Apple’s RCS support. iOS cannot currently support RCS. However, iMessage includes many of the same features as RCS, but (obviously) only works when you’re texting between Apple devices. Apple has recently signalled an interest in future RCS support, but the company’s timeline for rolling it out (if it does) is anyone’s guess right now.
This article has been updated since its original publication.