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Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint partner to make text messaging as smart as iMessage

The carriers are working together on a messaging standard called RCS.

Smart messaging could interoperate between iPhone and Android.
Angela Lang/CNET

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint said Thursday they've formed a joint project to "transform messaging." In a rare move, all four big US carriers are working together on the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative, which will use the Rich Communications Service standard to make text messages as smart as iMessage -- and it will work on Android phones.

The service will be developed by the joint venture and will start with Android in 2020. By working together, the carriers hope to accelerate adoption of the technology, which adds new features to text messaging like seeing when someone is writing back and getting notifications when someone has seen a message

"Texting is trusted, reliable and readily available -- which is why we're using it to build the foundation of a simple, immersive messaging experience," said David Christopher, EVP and GM of AT&T Mobility.

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It'll work across individual messages and group chats, and support high-quality pictures and videos. They also want it to provide ways for people to communicate with businesses, so they can "chat with their favorite brands, order a rideshare, pay bills or schedule appointments."

They aim to make RCS available across the US and globally.

"Efforts like CCMI help move the entire industry forward so we can give customers more of what they want and roll out new messaging capabilities that work the same across providers and even across countries," said John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile.

The carriers said more details will be announced later.

Google has been working for years on the RCS messaging standard as its plan to bring SMS into the modern internet age and compete against Apple's iMessage. Back in 2017, Google announced 27 carriers across the globe would roll out support for RCS, including Sprint, Orange, Deutsche Telekom, Globe, Rogers and Telenor.

Sprint first partnered with Google on RCS in 2016. 

"The beauty of SMS is that more than 4 billion people throughout the world use it," Google's head of RCS said at that time. "It's ubiquitous and it's already embedded in your phone."

First published at 2:41 p.m. PT on Oct. 24.
Updated at 3:09 p.m.: Adds more info on Google's development of RCS; Oct. 25 at 4:25 p.m.: Adds more detail on RCS.