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What is RCS messaging, and why is it better than SMS?

The Google Messages app supports the RCS standard (Google)
The Google Messages app supports the RCS standard (Google)

The humble SMS text message is showing its age — which is unsurprising, given it celebrated its 30th birthday last year.

While text messages are still sent every day, they’re waning in popularity as more flexible options such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal and iMessage grow.

To bring text messages up to date, smartphone manufacturers, phone networks and the industry’s governing bodies have developed the Rich Communication Services protocol — or RCS Chat.

What is RCS messaging, why is it better than text messaging and is it iPhone-friendly? We answer all these questions and more below.

What is RCS messaging?

RCS stands for Rich Communication Services and it is designed to replace the ageing SMS and MMS messages.

Like WhatsApp, messages and media sent are handled by the data network, meaning there’s no cost per text like the bad old days of 10p per message. This will just come out of your data allowance (or be sent over WiFi).

The advantage is that because it replaces text messages, it’s theoretically on every phone, saving you the hassle of figuring out which service to find which friend.

While RCS is picking up in popularity, it’s been a long road to get to this point. RCS has been kicking around since 2007 but only really made progress 11 years later when Google announced it would be working with networks around the world to adopt RCS with Chat — a protocol based on the RCS Universal Profile.

Why is RCS messaging better than SMS?

In short, it’s a whole lot more flexible as the promo video for Android Messages below explains.

The features won’t seem hugely revolutionary if you’ve been happily using WhatsApp for the last few years. However, it brings your standard messaging up to speed with things such as rich media; emojis; read receipts; visibility of when people are typing; and group chats. Oh, and that pesky 160-character limit is thankfully a thing of the past, too.

Does my phone support RCS messaging?

If you’re using an Android phone, then almost certainly, because Google has ensured that RCS Chat is widely accessible through its Messages app.

That might not be the default app on your phone, but it’s available through the Google Play Store here.

You don’t need it if you have a Samsung phone. Thanks to a collaboration between Google and Samsung, the two company’s respective Messages apps will work with each other just fine.

For RCS to work, your network also needs to support it — but EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three all do, and that means that mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) including Giffgaff, Lyca Mobile and Smarty do as well.

Also, messages sent via RCS Chat to someone without compatible hardware or software are automatically converted to SMS or MMS. In other words, it’ll seem to them like you’ve just sent a regular text message with any additional bells and whistles stripped out.

Can I use RCS on an iPhone?

Google is extremely keen for Apple to get on board and adopt RCS, but it has so far shown no interest in doing so whatsoever.

It has its own proprietary messaging technology called iMessage that does many of the same things. Unfortunately, while it works extremely well between iPhones, it doesn’t play nicely with Android contacts (who are relegated to an embarrassing green bubble and miss out on other key features.)

Google has tried various things to shame Apple into joining up to the industry standard, including creating a ‘Get the Message’ website, and encouraging people to tag Apple on pre-written tweets highlighting their support.

At the recent Google I/O developers conference, Sameer Samat had another go, receiving rapturous applause for this pointed sentence: “We hope every mobile operating system gets the message and adopts RCS, so we can all hang out in the group chat together no matter what device we’re using.”

But for now, at least, Apple has no interest in doing so. When asked directly about the lack of support in 2022, Tim Cook replied: “I don’t hear our users asking that we put a lot of energy in on that at this point.” When it was pointed out that the questioner couldn’t send his mother videos because she uses an Android device, Cook’s response was flippant but simple: “Buy your mom an iPhone.”

So don’t expect support any time soon, though it’s possible Apple’s hand will eventually be forced. Just as the EU was vital in getting Apple to adopt USB-C, it could force Apple to adopt RCS in the next few years.