What is RCS messaging and why do I care?

How often do you talk on the phone anymore? Despite our constant need for physical connection, many of us despise talking on the phone. If we genuinely want to connect with a person, we video chat using Zoom, FaceTime, or some other method. For everyone else, we text. Think about how many text messages you get and how many phone calls. Now expand that to include messages from WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Signal, Teams, and other more private apps. Texting is communication in the ’20s.

RCS, or Rich Communications Service, is the next evolution of texting. Depending on who you are and what device you use, you might already have access to it. And chances are, at least for now, you don’t care.

A little history

Believe it or not text messaging itself dates back to 1982. That’s when the first proposals for sending short bits of data over cellular were put out there. Keep in mind, 160 characters over a wireless connection was a big deal back then. Text messaging took a decade to “get real,” with the first message sent in 1992. Most of us in the United States didn’t get into texting until the mid-2000s, since our phones really weren’t set up to send letters. Remember trying to eke out that first text message using just the 9 numbers on the phone keypad?

When texting did start in this country, it took over. People sent billions and billions of texts and before long, texting dominated communication. It replaced both email and phone communication for those quick exchanges which we all need every day.

Texting is primitive and you don’t even notice

Texting, by today’s standards, is incredibly primitive. You get a limit of 160 characters, no emojis, no videos, no GIFs or even static pictures. You can’t send to more than one person at the same time. Frustratingly, you can’t tell if people have even gotten the message.

For the most part, you don’t notice these limitations. For all of us, our phones switch automatically between SMS, which is really “texting” by the strict definition, and MMS, its successor which allows pictures and multiple recipients.

Some Android users see multiple texts from the same person are automatically combined into one large message, which helps us understand them better.

iMessage and Samsung Messages

The real reason that most of us don’t realize how bad SMS texting is, is that we don’t do it. About half of us use iOS, and when you’re texting between two iOS users, you’re not using SMS. You’re using Apple’s proprietary iMessage protocol. iMessage, which was unveiled in 2011, uses Apple’s own servers for messages that look like texts but have things like read receipts and advanced notification features. On iOS phones, iMessages are shown in blue, while regular texts (both SMS and MMS) are shown in green.

Samsung phone users have an app called Samsung Messages which does some of the same things but stops short of providing a completely different protocol.

Third-Party messaging apps

Of course, we don’t just text. There have always been third-party messaging apps, dating back to AOL Instant Messenger. The appeal of a third-party app is its gating. You can’t connect with anyone who you don’t want to. You know who is connecting with you, their information is connected to yours. Apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (both owned by Facebook) keep you connected in much more intimate ways.

In reality, all these messenging apps can be seen as a reaction to the fact that SMS, in other words text messaging, isn’t as good as we all want it to be. If the world of cellular communication had evolved a little faster, we wouldn’t have to rely on so many apps.

Enter RCS

RCS, Rich Communications Service, was first envisioned in 2007 as the next evolution of texting. It also supports read receipts, multiple recipients, threaded chats, and multimedia. In other words, it’s just like iMessage. But, while it’s tempting to say that RCS is a “ripoff” of iMessage, take a look at the receipts. RCS was proposed four years before iMessage hit the market.

With RCS, you get security, encryption, and all those features you want. It’s growing fast in Europe, but in the US it’s still not completely supported. Users of Samsung Messenger can enable it through preferences, but it’s still not enabled by default.

Just like iMessage, RCS messages automatically send as plain SMS messages whenever the receipient can’t be confirmed as using RCS. Of course you lose all the things that make RCS special, but that’s to be expected. It’s a good feature since right now only Samsung phones whose users have enabled RCS can send and receive using RCS.

RCS isn’t coming to everyone anytime soon

The biggest reason that US users probably won’t see RCS anytime soon is Apple. At the moment Apple is the only major phone manufacturer who hasn’t committed to RCS. Their iMessage service is considered the gold standard of phone-based texting and they haven’t made any moves toward RCS because it would remove their advantage. iMessage is only for iOS devices, at least for now. Apple had originally planned to port it over to Android but a few weeks ago legal documents were introduced saying Apple realized that giving iMessage to Android users would hurt Apple’s market dominance. Adding RCS, which gives iMessage-like features to everyone, would do the same I’m sure.

Until recently, the major cell carriers were supposed to be working together on implementing RCS. Part of the RCS standard includes verifying the sender, so just like STIR/SHAKEN this requires carriers to all verify their users. Unfortunately, their Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative recently fell apart. It’s not clear why, but Apple and Samsung never participated in the initiative. That could be why it simply didn’t go anywhere.

Will there ever be “one app?”

Yes, I believe there will one day be one app that at least gives you basic access to Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Teams, iMessage, RCS, and plain texting. It would be great if all these services just adopted RCS so they could all integrate. But realistically that isn’t going to happen. However, there is sure to be some integration in the coming years. It’s just going to take a while. Remember it took 20 years for texting to become common here in the US, and another 10 for people to realize that it needed improving. Unfortunately it’s still going to be a few more years before our tech companies find a way to make everything work together.

My prediction? Sometime in the next two years, a small company will introduce an app to tie everything together including iMessage and RCS. Apple will try to sue them, and sometime about a year after that Apple will announce that iMessage is merging with RCS and everyone will think it was Apple’s idea. Sounds about right.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.