Google's plan to bring SMS text messaging into the modern internet age and compete against Apple iMessage is finally taking shape.
On Friday, the company said 27 more wireless operators and device makers around the world will soon roll out support for Rich Communications Services, or RCS, a standard that adds enhanced features to SMS texting, like high resolution photo sharing, read receipts and group chat options. Mobile carriers, including Orange, Deutsche Telekom and Globe, will join Sprint, Rogers and Telenor, in preloading Android with the newly named Android Messages as the standard messaging app on phones their subscribers use.
Several manufacturers, such as LG, Motorola, Sony and ZTE, have also said they'll embed the technology in their phones so it's preloaded on devices sold throughout the world. With the roll out announced today, more than 1 billion subscribers globally will be ready to access this new messaging technology, Amir Sarhangi, head of RCS at Google said.
"Last year, it was about getting alignment with different partners and working to get the technology pieces in place," Sarhangi said in an interview. "This year, it's about launching the service, so subscribers can start using the enhanced features."
The news is a big deal because it means Android phone users on these mobile carriers will see an automatic upgrade to their SMS messaging experience. It will give them the same kind of sophisticated functionality that's already offered on messaging apps, like Apple's iMessage, Facebook's Messenger or WhatsApp.
Text messaging is one of the most widely used services on mobile devices throughout the world, but the 160 character messaging functionality was developed for the flip-phone era. Today's phones are more powerful and users expect more functionality, like the ability to know if their text has been read or to see when someone is typing a message back to them. Even the ability to leave or join group messages is a welcome addition to your phone's basic messaging service.
RCS is the technology standard that makes this happen. Google, which has struggled to develop a messaging app for Android devices to rival Apple's iMessage, has built RCS into its messaging platform, which today has been renamed Android Messages. The announcement means carriers and phone makers that now support it will use Android Messages as the default messaging app on Android phones they sell. The Android Messages app is also available through the Google Play store.
Like Apple's iMesssage, Android Messages can switch back to SMS and MMS if the person you're chatting isn't also using Android Messages. Messages to non-RCS-capable devices or services are still sent as basic text and picture messages.
Google's Sarhangi acknowledges the company still has a long way to go in making updated SMS for all a reality. In order for every Android user to see the benefits of RCS, more carriers need to get on board. Friday's announcement is a good start, but three out of the four major US wireless carriers -- AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon -- still don't support the technology.
Sarhangi said there's nothing to announce yet, but he's optimistic. "We're working with everyone, including the folks in the US," he said.
Google also said it's launching an early access program for businesses so they can develop branding around the messages they send to customers. Millions of businesses already use SMS to communicate with customers. Banks use it to send fraud notices, doctor's offices remind patients of appointments and airlines even send links to boarding passes via text.
But the messages are limited to plain text. RCS allows business to upgrade this experience. For instance, an airline may send an interactive text allowing you to check in ahead of your flight or it may include airport maps or even a complete boarding pass.
Google is showing off some of these partnerships in Barcelona at the Mobile World Congress trade show next week.
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