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Don't be jealous of iMessage. Google's fancy texting update is rolling out

Here's everything you need to know about RCS, the new messaging service for Android phones.

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Apple's iMessage is the glue that keeps users stuck to the iPhone. 

Jason Cipriani/CNET

If you're an Android user and have grown tired of boring text messaging, help is on the way. Google recently announced a slow rollout of RCS Messaging for users in the US, joining users in the UK, France and Mexico who gained access earlier this year. Google expects to make the feature available to all users in the US by the end of the year. The new messaging capabilities are built into Google's own Messages app, much in the same way that iMessage features are built into Apple's Messages app, so if you don't use Google's Messages app, you'll want to start. 

Let's face it, Android phones do many things well, but when it comes to texting, the iPhone ($600 at Amazon) has Google beat. Apple's iMessage supports group messaging and read receipts and has that addictive blue bubble that automatically texts other iPhone users over Wi-Fi, not just your cellular data connection. 

The fact that Android phone-makers use different messaging apps by default keeps the act of texting from becoming as distinctive as iMessage is to iPhone users. Google wants to change all that, and is working to make text messaging more powerful, more consistent across Android phones and more fun to use. And it's doing it with a messaging protocol called RCS.

Here's a look at what RCS is and does, what it'll give you and when you'll able to start using it on your Android phone.

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What does RCS mean?

RCS is a type of messaging protocol that stands for Rich Communication Services. When it's widely available, it will replace SMS, the text messaging standard that's been used since the 1990s. 

SMS messaging has evolved some over the years, expanding past the original 160-character limit and adding MMS (multimedia messaging) for sending pictures and videos. However, SMS is starting to show its age and limitations. RCS would allow texting on Android to be as flexible and powerful as text message platforms like WhatsApp and WeChat

Google doesn't refer to RCS Messaging by its name in the Messages app. Instead, Google refers to it as Chat. Just know that the two terms are interchangeable. 

Group messaging gets a whole lot better with RCS messaging. 

Google

How will RCS make texting better?

The biggest change is that RCS messaging will let you share high-resolution photos, videos, GIFs and texts over Wi-Fi as well as over your phone's data connection. You'll be able to see if contacts are typing to you and when they've received and read a message. Group conversations will also see improvements. 

It's basically iMessage, but for Android. 

Google has an entire website dedicated to explaining the benefits of RCS messaging if you want to get into the finer details. 

What other features will RCS have? 

Once RCS messaging becomes more prominent, you'll be able to chat with businesses to place and track orders, make payments and get help with a product. Business chat is something that Apple's iMessage platform currently has, but bringing a similar feature to Android users is a welcome addition. 

Are RCS conversations end-to-end encrypted, like iMessage?

No. RCS messages are routed through Google's servers on the way to the recipient and are deleted as soon as they're sent, but the protocol currently lacks end-to-end encryption. If you want a more secure messaging protocol, you'll have to use another messaging service like Apple's iMessage, WhatsApp or Signal

How RCS texting will work on Android phones

In order to use RCS messaging, you'll need to use Google's Messages app as your default text messaging app. If you live in one of the countries where Google has rolled out the service (more on this in a minute), then at some point you'll receive a prompt in the app asking if you want to enable chat features. Follow the prompts in the app to turn on chat, including entering your phone number if prompted. 

After chat is enabled, you can continue to use the Messages app as you normally do, but when you're talking to someone who also has the feature turned on, you'll get the added features of RCS messaging. You can tell when someone you're messaging has chat turned on because the text box will say "Chat message" instead of "Text message."

Some phone-makers, like Samsung, have integrated Google's RCS platform into their own default Messages apps, and over time companies like LG could do the same. But right now, your best bet is to use Google's Messages app. Doing so will give you the added benefit of being able to send text messages from your computer.

For more details, read our article about Chat features in the Messages app

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If your carrier supports RCS, Google's Messages app will have settings for the chat feature.  

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Does it matter which carrier I use?

Not anymore. Prior to Google's recent announcement, the availability of RCS messaging depended on who made your Android phone and who your wireless carrier was. Now, with Google bypassing carriers altogether, the only thing you need to worry about is making sure that you're using Google's Messages app. 

It was a bumpy road getting to this point, however. We'd seen a number of announcements and partnerships from Google, Android device makers and even carriers that RCS is finally going to roll out. But the truth is, only a small number of phones on an even smaller list of carriers ended up supporting it.

Verizon added RCS support for the Pixel 3 ($464 at Amazon) and Pixel 3 XL ($1,100 at Amazon) and intended to support the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, but that's where the fun stopped. In 2018, Google and Samsung announced a partnership to bring RCS messaging to more Android devices, but at the time, without carrier support, it didn't mean much. 

Adding to the confusion were companies like Verizon, whose Message+ text messaging app supports RCS, but doesn't use Google's Universal Profile. So, if you're a Verizon customer who uses Message+, you can use the RCS spinoff as long as you're chatting with another Verizon user who is also using Message+. 

Some carriers supported Google's RCS Universal Profile and have made RCS available to users, such as Sprint and Google Fi

Outside of the US, Google enabled RCS for the UK and France in July of 2019. 

It's easy to see why Google has decided to forgo carrier support and release RCS messaging on its own. 

When will I get RCS messaging on my Android phone?

Good question. Google said only 1% of users in the US would receive access to RCS right away, but the company expects the majority of US users to have access "by the end of the year." 

We're following the story and will update this FAQ as development arise. Until then, the only thing we can do is wait.

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Samsung's Messages app supports RCS as well. 

Angela Lang/CNET

What about RCS on my iPhone?

Apple has kept quiet about whether it plans to support RCS on the iPhone. But it's much more likely that Apple will keep using its own iMessage platform to make iPhone users feel like they're part of a rarified community.

How to use RCS right now, with a catch

Don't want to wait? Reddit users figured out a way to enable RCS on any Android phone, regardless of whether or not the rollout has reached your device. The process is somewhat technical, but the instructions are straightforward. Keep in mind that you're accepting some risk by trying it out, and the program could stop working at any moment. That's the nature of the beast.

If you're tired of standard text messaging, check out these messaging apps that offer their own iMessage-like features. Then again, you could always jump ship to iOS -- switching to an iPhone isn't as hard as you'd think

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Hopefully, we'll see mass adoption of RCS messaging sooner than later. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Originally published earlier this month. Updated with new information.