How To: RCS Is Finally Bringing iMessage-Style Texting to Android — But Only for Some

RCS Is Finally Bringing iMessage-Style Texting to Android — But Only for Some

Google recently announced that they've partnered with Sprint to push forward with RCS, the next-generation standard for text-based mobile communications. This new standard is colloquially referred to as Advanced Messaging, and with any luck, it should finally give us a true iMessage competitor on Android.

T-Mobile and AT&T are on board with the new standard, so support for those networks should come soon. In all, the new RCS standard has over 50 tech companies in the fold already—including Samsung, LG, HTC, and even Microsoft—so it's an industry-wide push. But there's a lot to learn about this new standard, so we'll cover the main bullet points below.

What Is RCS?

RCS stands for Rich Communication Services, and it's hoping to become the new standard in mobile communications. Think of RCS like your favorite internet-based chat app or IM service, but attached to your phone number instead of an online account. This means that it should eventually work as seamlessly as SMS, but with far more features and capabilities.

The concept of RCS has been around for more than five years, but it wasn't until 2016 that things really started to take shape. The renewed push for RCS began when Google purchased a communications company called Jibe, who had been spearheading the standard.

But with Google's clout and industry connections, Jibe's vision for RCS had a bigger stage, and other tech companies quickly got on board. Together with the GSM Association, Google's Jibe division created a "Universal Profile" for RCS, which has now officially been adopted by Sprint, with other carriers hopefully coming soon.

The new Universal Profile is of utmost importance in all of this. RCS technology has already been implemented on most major cellular carriers, but each company is using a different profile right now, so RCS features only work when both phones are on the same network. But with the new Universal Profile, full cross-device and cross-network interoperability is finally a real possibility.

What Features Will RCS Give Me?

To put it simply, RCS will turn your regular texting experience into a feature-rich conversation. The new Universal Profile already includes support for the following features:

  • Send messages over Wi-Fi or your mobile cell connection
  • Multi-device messaging
  • Read receipts
  • See when the other person is typing
  • Send larger files, higher quality images
  • Location sharing
  • Audio messaging
  • Video sharing
  • Live sketching

A second major update to the RCS Universal Profile is expected to come in the second quarter of 2017, so these features are just the beginning. As it stands, the RCS Universal Profile can give you a similar experience to iMessage or WhatsApp, while using your regular messaging app and sending from your phone number. However, both parties will have to be on compatible networks, while using supported devices.

Which Carriers Are Supported?

As of this writing, Sprint is the only US carrier network that officially supports the RCS Universal Profile. However, most other carriers have already implemented some form of RCS on their networks, so they'd only need to update their profiles to enable seamless interoperability between devices on the various networks.

Right now, T-Mobile uses RCS for its "Advanced Messaging" service, but this platform does not work with the new Universal Profile yet. The same can be said for AT&T, who markets its RCS service under the same name. Despite the fact that both carriers use the "Advanced Messaging" branding, the RCS profiles being used are not compatible with one another, so this is why the Universal Profile is so important.

Verizon and T-Mobile are both on board with the new Universal Profile, so we should eventually be able to use all of the RCS features with devices on these carriers, as well as Sprint. There's no news yet on whether or not AT&T plans to adopt the Universal Profile, though they sent a representative to an RCS conference on the Universal Profile, so there's a strong chance that all four major US carriers will support the same RCS standard in the near future.

Google's own Project Fi carrier network is not listed amongst the partners in RCS' Universal Profile, though it's a safe bet that the MVNO will be compatible. Project Fi uses T-Mobile and Sprint cell towers for connectivity, and Google is at the forefront of the RCS movement, so all signs point to eventual RCS Universal Profile compatibility on Project Fi.

Which Devices Are Supported?

Really, there are only two requirements for getting RCS on a smartphone. For one, you'll need an RCS-compatible network, which we already discussed above. Secondly, you'll just need an RCS-compatible messaging app.

As of right now, the only app that supports the new RCS Universal Profile is Google Messenger, which can be installed and set as the default texting app on any device running Android 4.1 or higher.

Starting in 2017, all new devices sold by Sprint will have Google Messenger preloaded and set as the default texting app. Combined with their network support, this means that any new phone purchased from Sprint will be compatible with RCS out of the box.

In the future, other messaging apps should support the new Universal Profile, as it's an open standard. So in theory, you should be able to use any RCS app of your choosing once they become available.

Tablets are not supported at this time, nor are desktop computers. But Microsoft is one of the Universal Profile partners, and they're already adding Android messaging support to Windows, so it's very possible that we'll eventually be able to send and receive RCS messages from our PCs. As for tablets, we'll have to wait and see.

Unfortunately, Apple still hasn't jumped on board with RCS, so is doesn't look like these features will be available on iPhones for the foreseeable future.

What Does the Future Hold for RCS?

The fact that Apple's not on board means that even if RCS gets full adoption across the rest of the mobile industry, we'll have a dichotomy between RCS on Android or Windows, and iMessage on iOS and Mac.

In this best-case scenario, there still won't be one messaging platform to rule them all—unless Apple ditches its 30-year strategy of shunning industry standards and making their services exclusive to their own devices.

But Google is heavily invested in the RCS Universal Profile, as it apparently sees this as an opportunity to create a true iMessage competitor for Android devices. They've even gone so far as to start hiring marketers to promote RCS, so hopefully they can get as many big players on board as possible.

Cover photo by Dallas Thomas/Gadget Hacks

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