Apple Goes RCS-ish Next Year

Apple announced on Thursday (November 16, 2023) that Rich Communication Services (RCS) will be coming to iPhone in late 2024. This was not on my Bingo card for 2023! It is a welcome piece of news but there will be some caveats to how it is implemented. Before we get in to that, let's discuss what RCS is and how iMessage is different.

What is RCS?

RCS also known as Rich Communication Services and is positioned as the evolution of text and picture messaging (SMS & MMS).

Imagine you're sending a text message from your smartphone. Normally, these messages are sent using SMS (Short Message Service), which is a basic form of text messaging. While SMS gets the job done, it has some limitations. For example, you can't send high-quality pictures or videos, and features like read receipts (knowing when someone has read your message) are often not supported.

Now, enter RCS. RCS is like an upgraded version of traditional SMS. It brings a bunch of new features and capabilities to your messaging experience. Here are some things RCS can do:

  1. High-Quality Media: With RCS, you can send high-resolution pictures and videos, just like you would on other messaging apps.
  2. Read Receipts and Typing Indicators: You can see when someone has read your message or is currently typing a response. This adds a layer of communication beyond the basic text.
  3. Group Chat: RCS allows for more advanced group messaging. You can easily add or remove people, name your group, and share multimedia in a group setting.
  4. Delivery Notifications: You get more detailed information about the delivery status of your messages. This can help ensure that your messages are being sent and received.
  5. Interactive Content: RCS supports interactive content, such as suggested actions or responses. For example, if someone sends you an address, you might get a suggestion to open that address in your map app.

In essence, RCS is an evolution of traditional text messaging, bringing it more in line with the features you might find in popular messaging apps. It aims to make your texting experience richer, more interactive, and more in line with the way we communicate in the modern digital age.

That Sounds Like iMessage to Me...

It sure does, but they are not the same thing. iMessage and RCS (Rich Communication Services) are both technologies that enhance the messaging experience on mobile devices, but they have some key differences. Here's a breakdown:

  1. Platform Specificity:
    • iMessage: iMessage is exclusive to Apple devices, such as iPhones, iPads, and Macs. If you're sending a message between Apple devices, and both parties have iMessage enabled, the message is sent using iMessage.
    • RCS: RCS is not tied to a specific platform or manufacturer. It is designed to be a universal standard for messaging across different Android devices and potentially other platforms.
  2. Interoperability:
    • iMessage: iMessage works seamlessly within the Apple ecosystem. However, if you're communicating with someone using a non-Apple device, the message might be sent as a traditional SMS, and you won't have access to some iMessage-specific features.
    • RCS: RCS aims to provide a more consistent experience across various devices and operating systems. It is intended to work on Android devices, and efforts are being made to make it more widely adopted.
  3. Feature Set:
    • iMessage: iMessage offers a range of features such as read receipts, typing indicators, high-quality media sharing, and the ability to send messages over Wi-Fi. It also supports end-to-end encryption for enhanced security.
    • RCS: RCS is designed to offer similar features, including high-quality media sharing, read receipts, and typing indicators. The specific features can vary depending on the implementation by different carriers and device manufacturers.
  4. Security:
    • iMessage: iMessage uses end-to-end encryption, meaning that messages are securely transmitted and can only be decrypted by the intended recipient.
    • RCS: The security of RCS messages can vary. Some implementations might offer end-to-end encryption, while others may not. It depends on the specific implementation by the carriers and device manufacturers.
  5. Global Availability:
    • iMessage: iMessage is primarily available on Apple devices and relies on Apple's infrastructure.
    • RCS: RCS has the potential to be more globally available, as it is not limited to a specific platform. However, its adoption has been slower and varies by region and carrier.

In summary, while both iMessage and RCS aim to enhance messaging capabilities, they operate in different ecosystems and have varying levels of interoperability, features, and security. iMessage is specific to Apple devices, whereas RCS is designed to be a more universal standard for messaging on Android and potentially other platforms.

How I See Apple Implementing RCS on iPhone

Technology the Apple way

Apple is known for doing similar technologies but in the 'Apple' way. This is both good and bad, Apple designs things that tightly integrate in to their vertical business model. It is what masterfully creates this uncanny stickiness with it's customers. This can lead to Apple not adopting standards put out by organizations like the GSMA whereas other devices follow those standards. This in turn creates division both technologically and socially with non-Apple users.

This does not mean that Apple should kowtow to some governing body, but it does present murky waters for the company to navigate.

When Apple adds RCS, expect it to be the bare minimum approach and if they add encryption, expect it to be the Apple way and not how Google does end-to-end encryption. RCS does not require this feature but I would hate to see Apple not enable it as the differentiator between iMessage and RCS. They have a long-standing history and public record of being for a user's privacy.

Green, Blue, Something New?

The Green Bubble vs Blue Bubble debate is a uniquely American phenomenon that is not necessary. The rest of the world generally installs WhatsApp when they get a mobile phone, regardless of Android or Apple based operating systems.  It is a popular, platform agnostic service that is creeping up on 3 billion monthly active users.

The tribalistic nature in the United States puts Apple at a crossroads on how they make RCS messaging appear to users. Recently Piper Sandler released their biannual 'Taking Stock With Teens' survey that showed 87% of teens in the United States own an iPhone and 88% percent of teens expect an iPhone to be their next phone. That is a staggering number that inherently creates the social gap of Green Bubble vs Blue Bubble. I see this now even with my own children who are 13 and 11 that have been hounding me for an iPhone for Christmas.

So what does Apple do? Do they create a new color bubble? Do they make RCS messages blue?

The answer is likely a new color since iMessage has always been blue and SMS has always been green. I would expect an orange or purple messaging color to take up our messaging screens in the future.

When in 2024?

Apple stated that RCS was coming late 2024. This means you can likely expect RCS alongside the launch of iOS 18 and the new iPhone 16. Given past Apple releases, sometimes in September 2024 is when this is likely to happen.

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