Apple's iMessage Should Improve Texting to Android and Other Phones
Commentary: Apple's fallback to iMessage is still SMS, but there are better options.
Mike SorrentinoSenior Editor
Mike Sorrentino is a Senior Editor for Mobile, covering phones, texting apps and smartwatches -- obsessing about how we can make the most of them. Mike also keeps an eye out on the movie and toy industry, and outside of work enjoys biking and pizza making.
ExpertisePhones, texting apps, iOS, Android, smartwatches, fitness trackers, mobile accessories, gaming phones, budget phones, toys, Star Wars, Marvel, Power Rangers, DC, mobile accessibility, iMessage, WhatsApp, Signal, RCS
Since Apple has full control over its messaging platform, iPhone owners get a consistent experience that works well regardless of the carrier or specific iPhone model. But it's also inadvertently created a long history of separating people into "blue" and "green" bubbles based on whether they're using an iPhone or Android phone. Apple also relies on the dated MMS standard for non-iMessage group chats, which results in a lack of support for modern features like read receipts and higher-quality images.
While social pressures among those that do and do not show up as a blue bubble have been frequently documented, such as in the Wall Street Journal among teens and young people, the much bigger issue revolves around universal communication. There is no single, modern texting standard that works across all phones. Rich Communication Services, or RCS, is the closest alternative that potentially wouldn't require installing yet another chat app.
While RCS itself is an open standard, the most common way people are using it is within Google's Messages app on Android phones. Google reported at this year's I/O developer conference in May that Google Messages has a half billion monthly active users. The company's investment in both the RCS standard and its Messages app comes after a long history of launchingproprietarytexting apps that did not gain the notoriety of iMessage or Meta's WhatsApp. Google is continuing this proprietary texting strategy alongside its RCS investment, most recently by shutting down its Hangouts app and migrating users into the Google Chat app instead.
RCS supports many iMessage-like features such as typing indicators and read receipts. But its rollout has been fragmented as US phone carriers each separately announced plans to make RCS the default option on most Android phones. While RCS isn't currently interoperable with iOS, Google has built cross-platform message reactions into its texting app to improve how texts from an iPhone appear within Android. Other features that are already in iMessage, such as group chat encryption, are still in development for RCS and Google's Messages app.
The RCS standard is a step forward in making messaging more uniform across the wide variety of Android devices that exist. But without iOS adoption, its impact on the quality of messaging between Android and iPhones remains limited.
As one of the biggest players in the mobile phone industry, Apple could make a bigger effort to establish a more consistent texting experience across devices. But the question is whether doing so is in the company's interest. Apple often touts its control over iOS as a selling point for consumers, and shifting away from iMessage could jeopardize that.
Apple did not respond to CNET's request for comment. When this commentary was originally published, Google pointed CNET to a series of tweets from Hiroshi Lockheimer, its senior vice president for Android. Lockheimer criticizes Apple for using "pressure and bullying" to lock in users in the tweets.
Supporting RCS in Apple's Messages app, even a little bit
Apple should consider bringing RCS support to iOS 16. Apple has a history of adopting open formats after they have spent a few years developing, and RCS already includes many iMessage-like features such as typing indicators, enhanced group chats and encryption.
Apple doesn't even have to give RCS a full endorsement to make a difference. It could keep non-iPhone messages green and lean on iPhone-exclusive features like Memoji, which uses the iPhone's Face ID to create facial animations, to keep Apple loyalists hooked. But supporting a few key features would go a long way in allowing for a smoother communication experience while keeping a degree of Apple exclusivity.
Apple could also support encryption between messages regardless of the platform, especially since the company positions itself as a consumer privacy advocate. One would reason that this alone should be enough for Apple to embrace RCS.
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Improve how Apple's Messages app sends and receives SMS
If supporting RCS is simply not going to happen in iOS, Apple could instead make the most of the limited bandwidth available within SMS and MMS.
Apple is doing this for at least one feature in the iOS 16 public beta. Within group chats that are being handled over MMS, Apple's Messages app will translate reactions so everyone receives an emoji instead of a text about how someone "Liked" or "Loved" a message. Google's Messages app has similar functionality.
Perhaps when photos and videos are sent over MMS, which was never designed for the multi-lens cameras on modern phones, Apple's Messages app could proactively suggest sending an iCloud link instead of a grungy compressed picture. This could work similarly to a feature currently available in Google Photos that allows users to select multiple photos and generate a web link to share with your friends or family members.
And, similar to how Apple recently brought a version of FaceTime to the web for Android and Windows users, maybe it could create a version of iMessage that is viewable on the web. This could benefit its existing iPhone customers who would like to access iMessage from a Windows PC or Chromebook, while also allowing Android phone owners to view messages and other shared content the same way an iPhone user would. This idea would still be annoying for Android users, but it's better than receiving texts out of order during fast-flowing group chats.
Build iMessage for Android
One of the most surprising revelations from last year's Apple v. Epic trial was that Apple had discussed building an iMessage client for Android back in 2013. But Apple executives passed on the idea over concerns about the competition. The possibility of Google buying WhatsApp worried Apple, and the company also feared that bringing iMessage to Android could make it easier for iPhone owners to switch to Google's phone platform, as the WSJ story pointed out.
But much has changed in the years since, including Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp instead of Google. Although Apple has opened up some of its products like FaceTime, it also relies on its services to lock in iPhone customers.
On the other hand, bringing iMessage to Android could instead draw more customers to Apple's iPhone ecosystem. It's a strategy that worked way back in the 2000s, when launching iTunes on Windows considerably increased the customer base for Apple's music store. Sure, it might convince some iPhone customers to jump ship and switch to Android. But it could also help Apple reach a wider audience by exposing Android users to its products and services.