Why Apple Adding RCS Won't Change Blue Bubble, Green Bubble Drama
Commentary: Apple and Google will likely find new ways to fight for texting.
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
Back in 2003, Apple's then-CEO Steve Jobs showed a slide declaring that "Hell froze over" before announcing that the company's iTunes software was debuting on Windows, opening up a once-exclusive Mac feature to a much wider audience. Twenty years later and you could say Apple's frozen Hell over once again, this time by announcing that its iPhone will soon support the RCS texting standard -- a move that will likely improve how texts send and receive between the iPhone and Android phones.
While we don't yet know the true extent that Apple will support RCS beyond a statement that it will provide better "interoperability" when compared to SMS and MMS, Apple's already made it clear that RCS texting will co-exist with its iMessage service. That means Apple will likely continue to differentiate between texts sent between its devices and texts sent to non-Apple devices like an Android phone or a basic phone. In fact, Apple did confirm to 9to5Mac that -- at minimum -- green bubbles will still be used to label a text that's sent over RCS. While on a technical level that will continue to label who's using an iPhone and who isn't during texting, that could also continue a digital divide in countries like the US where iMessage is particularly dominant.
It's also likely that we will continue to see plenty of features remain exclusive to either Apple's iMessage or Google's own Messages app, even if both companies are going to agree to support the RCS standard. While RCS itself has more bandwidth to support features like typing indicators and high-quality photo sharing, how that will be displayed when sending texts between the iPhone and an Android phone is still very much in the air.
However there is room to celebrate. Apple adopting RCS is likely to lead to substantially more investment into the texting standard, especially when compared to antiquated SMS and MMS messages that have remained largely the same over the past 20 years. The Qi wireless charging standard, for instance, received a big boost when Apple started supporting it with the iPhone 8 and iPhone X, with Qi2 now set to bring faster magnetic wireless charging to future Android phones. But it's still probably a good idea to limit expectations, as RCS inclusion might not displace iMessage anytime soon.
Apple and Google have exclusives, and RCS doesn't mean they'll be shared
Many of Apple's best iMessage features aren't restricted to messaging, even if blue bubble chats are the most common place that they are used. These include iOS 17's Stickers – which allow you to make GIF-like images that can be "stuck" onto a text and decorative Contact Posters that can be automatically shared with your contacts should you choose. That's along with app integrations where developers can let people over iMessage play games together, send flight info, exchange payments or include even more emojis.
Google has also invested heavily into its Messages app, often touting new features alongside its campaign over the last several years to get Apple to adopt RCS. This has included features like Magic Compose that use AI to generate text drafts, text scheduling and -- perhaps most importantly -- its own encryption standard for message privacy.
Even though Google Messages may use the RCS standard to employ many of these features and encryption, that has not meant the features themselves are built directly into RCS. For instance, Apple has also told 9to5Mac that it will not use the same encryption that Google uses in its Messages app, and will instead opt to work with the GSMA organization to improve the encryption standard that's included within RCS.
Google's own statement appears to acknowledge the upcoming divide, with the company "welcoming Apple's participation" while looking forward to "working with them to implement this on iOS in a way that works well for everyone."
But even if Apple and Google find a way to share typing indicators and other modern features over RCS, both companies are still going to be rivals in the smartphone market. Expect both to continue to find ways to tout messaging features that will remain exclusive to iOS or Android, and for it to remain quite noticeable when those features are not easily shared from an iPhone to an Android, or vice-versa.
What about WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram and other services
Even as Apple and Google begin working together on the RCS standard, it's quite likely that you'll still want to use other constantly evolving chat apps. Since the RCS standard still needs to work to improve built-in features like encryption, services like WhatsApp, Signal and Facebook Messenger may still be more convenient for many conversations.
For instance, last year Apple opened up FaceTime by allowing users to invite participants to a call using a web browser link. This allows for people on Android or Windows to join a FaceTime call over a web browser. But it simply doesn't have the same inherent ease of use as a native app on those platforms. At times when I've tested FaceTime over a web browser, participants logging in over a web browser sometimes have connection issues and appear inside of a smaller window than participants on an iPhone. However, if I fire up a group video call on Facebook Messenger or Zoom, participants can just use the native app for those services and the call just works since they are fully built to work on different operating systems.
I expect that RCS texting may have its own similar growing pains. However even if there's a way to go for the RCS standard to reach maturity, Apple and Google both agreeing to support the standard provides hope that it might actually replace the decades-old SMS and MMS. If it gets us any closer to saying goodbye to grainy photos sent over MMS, that alone could be worth the wait.
Watch this: Android Finally Has an Answer to iMessage Envy