Before I delve into Google’s latest messaging development, here’s a bit of history regarding the situation. Google originally launched Google Talk in 2005 which allowed instant messaging with other Google accounts. Around 10 years later, Google Talk was discontinued and replaced by Hangouts which worked in much the same way, but with a more robust protocol and better features.
Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov
Google Hangouts offered SMS messaging for a few years, until it was removed, much to the frustration of many Android users. This feature was useful because you could message your Hangouts contacts and SMS contacts all in the same app, like iMessage on iPhones. In 2016, Google released Allo and Duo, messaging and video calling apps respectively. Allo didn’t have SMS fallback and had a very small pool of users, so it never seemed to catch on, but Duo now sees a fair amount of usage (including myself).
What is Chat?
In a nutshell, ‘Chat’ is a feature which will be implemented into Google’s existing ‘Android Messages’ SMS app, but with tight RCS integration. I explained RCS and its features in this blog, but it’s important to understand that RCS messages will still go through your mobile network, unlike iMessage. As such, RCS messages aren’t end-to-end encrypted, meaning the authorities could retrieve copies of your messages from the network if necessary, whereas this is impossible with WhatsApp and iMessage.
Photo by Christian Wiediger
Google’s real achievement isn’t the app per se, but the support they have gathered surrounding it. Google have successfully partnered with many smartphone manufacturers (including Samsung, Huawei and HTC) to make Android Messages the default messaging app on their smartphones, which will greatly facilitate the uptake of RCS Chat.
Additionally, through Google’ Jibe project they have raised support with mobile networks across the globe for RCS support and the ‘universal profile’. The universal profile enables networks to pass messages between each other, such that Steve on network A can send RCS messages with Jane on network B. At the moment, Vodafone is the only UK network to support RCS.
Chat is the new iMessage equivalent for Android
The advantage of Chat is that it uses your mobile number, in the same way SMS currently does. Therefore, if you already have someone’s mobile number, you can start ‘chatting’ immediately, without even thinking about it (provided your networks support RCS). If your mobiles and networks are compatible, you will instantly connect via RCS, otherwise, the app will fall back to SMS, it’s a very seamless experience.
A data connection is required for RCS messages, which is a disadvantage if you prefer to keep mobile data disabled on your smartphone, but this is also an advantage because it means you can use WiFi for RCS where a mobile service is unavailable (such as on the London Underground).
Photo by Ana Bernardo
While RCS is set to be the future of messaging for Android, it’s unclear whether Apple will succumb to the open standard and join the bandwagon, or whether they’ll keep a lid on their closed ecosystem. One thing’s for sure, and SMS will be sticking around for situations where RCS isn’t available, much like how iMessage currently works.
Android’s new ‘chat’ feature will improve the way you text between Android smartphones, but support from the networks is still poor, especially in the UK where only Vodafone currently supports it. Will chat increase the divide between iOS and Android, or will they finally convene one day in the distant future?