I’ve been an avid fan of Apple’s iMessage platform since it first came along in 2011, and there’s no doubt that Apple was way ahead of the curve in developing an integrated rich messaging system. But that doesn’t mean the company’s resistance to RCS today is justified by its earlier iMessage success.
While Google juggled a half-dozen different messaging platforms (it didn’t settle on Android Messages until 2017), friends and families with Apple devices enjoyed a stable messaging experience that evolved with each new iOS and macOS release. While iMessage may not have advanced quickly enough for everyone’s tastes — especially on the Mac — there’s no doubt that Apple had achieved a seamless “just works” solution for messaging between its own devices. It was similar to the experience that Apple delivered with FaceTime a year earlier.
Perhaps the most magical aspect of iMessage was iPhone users didn’t have to worry about what anyone else was using. Apple baked the new messaging service into the same app that had been used for SMS/MMS text messages since the first iPhone arrived in 2007, so sending an iMessage was the same as sending a text. The sender’s iPhone quietly looked up the destination phone number in the background, using iMessage if possible, or falling back to SMS/MMS if not.
Apple later expanded this to support email addresses in addition to phone numbers, and with that came the ability to send and receive iMessages on an iPad, iPod touch, or Mac. Naturally, the Apple Watch also joined the party when it came along in 2014.
Google adopts RCS
Apple’s answer to the limitations of the ’90s-era SMS technology was iMessage, but the sad part is that things weren’t supposed to be this way.
When the GSMA first proposed it in 2008, Rich Communication Services (RCS) was supposed to be a game changer. Unfortunately, there were too many cooks in the kitchen, and as a result, it became the proverbial elephant that was supposed to be a mouse before a committee got its hands on it.
In an alternate universe, the GSMA and carriers would have gotten their act together, and RCS would have been ready for prime time before Apple released iMessage. In an ideal world, this would have precluded much of the need for iMessage and other third-party messaging apps, although there’s a good chance these companies would have gone in their own directions anyway.
Sadly, we live in this world, and RCS spent more than a decade failing to gain traction. It wasn’t until Google decided to adopt RCS as its answer to iMessage that some serious muscle was put behind it.
Nevertheless, even though Google is the driving force behind RCS right now, it’s not intended to be a proprietary standard. Google is arguably doing what it needs to do for RCS to succeed, and it has plenty of skin in the game since it’s spent years flip-flopping between messaging platforms, seemingly without any clear idea of where it was going.
Green bubbles are not a ‘bullying’ tactic
With Apple’s Messages app, users see a blue bubble for messages sent to folks with an iPhone or even another Apple device like an iPad, iPod Touch, or MacBook set up with iMessage. For everybody else, sent messages show as a green bubble since those travel over the standard carrier SMS/MMS networks. This is handled automatically behind the scenes, and the sender doesn’t need to know what kind of device the recipient is using.
Since iMessage supports many features that the archaic SMS/MMS technology doesn’t, this helps ensure folks know when those features are available. This includes features like full-resolution photos and videos, read receipts, and typing status indicators.
In its effort to drive the adoption of RCS, Google executives have blatantly accused Apple of being disingenuous by “using peer pressure and bullying as a way to sell products.” However, it’s fair to say that Google is also being disingenuous here by implying that Apple has deliberately chosen to turn non-iPhone users into second-class citizens.
iMessage has been with us for so long it’s easy to forget that the iPhone existed for four years without it. In those days, every sent message had a green bubble. Green was seemingly Apple’s preferred choice in those days. Even the app icon today follows the style of the SMS app from 15 years ago — and it’s still green.
“iPhones make texts with Android phones difficult to read, by using white text on a bright green background,” Google says on its #GetTheMessage campaign page. If that’s true, then clearly, Apple was doing a huge disservice to its users with the original iPhone.
When iMessage came along in iOS 5, Apple decided it needed to differentiate those messages traveling on its new messaging service, so for those, it chose to use a blue background. The shading and hues of the green and blue bubbles evolved slightly over the years as screens improved and iOS underwent at least one major redesign. Still, I don’t find a text on my iPhone 12 Pro Max any harder to read than a text on my original iPhone, which doesn’t support iMessage — or even MMS, for that matter (yes, I still have my 2007 iPhone, and it still works if one is willing to live with iOS 3.1.3).
However, the point is that the green bubbles came first. These aren’t a contrivance on Apple’s part to “bully” anybody. It’s simply the color that’s been used for SMS/MMS messages from the very beginning. It’s also the color Apple still uses for all its communications app icons: Messages, FaceTime, and Phone.
It’s not a zero-sum game
Nobody is suggesting Apple abandon iMessage in favor of RCS. That would be an absurd decision both for Apple and its customers.
However, it’s equally absurd for Apple to force users back to ancient SMS/MMS technology when there’s a better way. Apple has done its best to make the SMS/MMS experience as pleasant as possible, but it’s still just putting makeup on a bovine.
There are still things that iMessage does that aren’t part of the RCS standard, and Apple can keep moving iMessage ahead independently of RCS. For instance, iOS 16 will introduce the ability to unsend and edit iMessages. That’s not available with RCS right now.
In other words, iMessage will always have a competitive advantage, as it’s a messaging system entirely under Apple’s control. It doesn’t need to rely on anybody else getting on board before it can push out new features.
Even with Google pushing RCS, it could be years before it reaches the level of something like the Unicode Consortium, which has become universally accepted enough to ensure that everyone gets the same new emoji characters each year. However, even that’s not perfectly in sync, as they rely on Android and iOS updates to add support, which may arrive weeks apart.
Putting the customer experience first
The cynical view — and the one that Google is hinting at — is that Apple is using iMessage to lock users into its platform and sell more devices through peer pressure. The theory is that customers will choose a device that lets them communicate more easily with their friends.
While there may be some truth to that — the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that many teens “dread the green bubble” — it’s far from Apple’s only advantage in its product ecosystem.
Perhaps that was true six years ago when Apple executives internally opposed the idea of releasing an iMessage app for Android, but that’s also a long time in technology years. For instance, even though I chose to give my daughter an iPhone for her 13th birthday, iMessage had little to do with that. She already has an iPad, and she uses iMessage to communicate with exactly one person: me. The rest of her social circle lives entirely on third-party messaging apps, most notably Instagram.
If Apple still genuinely believes, as Craig Federighi said in 2016, that adopting more feature-rich cross-platform messaging “would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones,” it’s clearly out of touch with the reality of today’s families — and it’s also severely undervaluing the rest of its ecosystem.
Today, features like Screen Time, Family Sharing for in-app subscriptions and purchases, and Apple One family bundles make far more compelling reasons for iPhone families to stay with Apple devices. Unlike iMessage, these are intrinsic features of Apple’s operating systems that third-party apps can’t easily replicate. Apple’s not slowing down in growing its family ecosystem, either; iOS 16 is adding an impressive Shared iCloud Photo Library feature that will provide a family photo album and intelligently figure out which photos should go into it.
As much as Google is trying to make RCS about Apple’s opposition to Android, Apple’s customers suffer the most from the lack of RCS support. I have no control over my friends’ and colleagues’ platform choices, but RCS is also relatively new; many Android-toting folks are used to SMS/MMS messages and don’t know any better. It’s iPhone users who are getting a much worse experience than folks on the receiving end of those green-bubbled texts.
While Apple can sometimes be myopic and guilty of ivory tower thinking, I believe it genuinely wants to provide the best experience to its customers. Even Apple isn’t arrogant enough to think it can wag the dog. iPhone users will always have regular contact with people on other platforms, and if Apple wants to do right by its customers, it needs to work on improving seamless cross-platform messaging.
Comments by Apple executives from an era when the iPhone 6s was the leading edge of its technology aren’t applicable today, and it’s important to remember those conversions were about developing an iMessage app for Android — something that I think would be as bad of an idea as Google bringing Android Messages to the iPhone.
We don’t need more proprietary messaging apps on multiple platforms. We need a universal communications standard like RCS to replace the primitive SMS/MMS technology we’ve relied on for far too long.
From day one, the whole point of the Messages app was to offer a seamless transition between iMessage and SMS/MMS. There’s no reason that RCS can’t become a third fallback option that sites between Apple’s more feature-rich iMessage platform and the least common denominator of SMS/MMS. Choose a third color to represent RCS messages and let users have the best of all three worlds.
I’m willing to give Apple the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s at least considering RCS. Thanks to Google, RCS is getting a lot more attention now, but it’s also important to remember that it’s only about a year old in its current form — Google only added end-to-end encryption last year. Anybody who understands Apple knows it’s pretty cautious about adopting new technologies. As RCS becomes more widely supported, Apple may eventually have no choice but to get on board, but for now, it’s likely waiting to see which way the wind is blowing.
Unfortunately, this may turn out to be a catch-22 situation. It’s fair to say that Apple’s participation would help drive the adoption of RCS as a universal messaging standard, but RCS may not even have a chance of going mainstream if Apple continues to hold out.
Apple has shown a willingness to work with other industry leaders in the past, from the well-intentioned but ill-fated COVID-19 Exposure Notification System to the Matter smart home standard. RCS needs to be the next area where big tech companies can set aside their differences and work together for the betterment of all.