File this one under the “about time” department:
T-Mobile’s new Advanced Messaging service is built on the Rich Communications Service (RCS) standard and adds near real-time chatting for one on one and group messages; typing indicators and read notifications; and the ability to send photos and videos up to 10MB in size. It doesn’t require the use of another app or for either party to sign up for another service. The carrier says that it built the service to work “across all devices, makers and operating systems, and wireless operators”, though for now, it is the only carrier in the US that supports RCS.
iMessage is not without its idiosyncrasies, but it’s definitely improved my messaging experience. It’s also, much more importantly, broken the stranglehold the carriers have on text messaging, which is pure profiteering. (The cost of sending text messages is negligible to the networks, even as you pay your $20 a month for unlimited text messages.) SMS is also, generally speaking, old and, if not broken, then at the very least out of touch with the way messaging is used these days.
T-Mobile says its approach is based on the Rich Communications Services standard, which was created by the GSM Association—the same body that develops cell standards. Adoption of the standard has been slow, especially in the U.S.—Sprint and AT&T were said to be working towards it back in 2013, and while Sprint eventually launched a Messaging Plus service based on RCS, it requires users download a separate app—precisely what T-Mobile says it’s aiming to avoid.
Because requiring a separate app just isn’t going to happen, especially if users have to go out and download it. The less tech savvy will get confused (I’ve seen this happen on Android phones, some of which have multiple messaging apps installed) and the more tech savvy will gravitate towards their preferred solutions. And therein lies the real challenge. Messaging is a heavily fragmented market, between text messaging, platform solutions like iMessage or BlackBerry Messaging, and third-party offerings like WhatsApp, GroupMe, Facebook Messaging, and what have you. And behind all of it, SMS remains the lowest common denominator.
I have to wonder if Apple would even consider adopting this standard; I think it would have to be much more widely implemented first. It would certainly alleviate some cross-platform communications issues—we’ve all probably encountered that situation where one non-iPhone-using friend turns an entire group conversation from iMessage-blue to SMS-green—but it’s a question of whether or not Apple really cares about your Android- and Windows Phone-using friends.
Short answer: It doesn’t—but it does care about your experience. So in the best case, if this standard does get adopted by major players like AT&T and Verizon—and that’s hardly a gimme, as neither of them have the same need to differentiate themselves that Sprint and T-Mobile do—Apple could potentially implement RCS in the same way that SMS is currently used: as a fallback. Which is to say that when iMessage is available, iOS uses that; otherwise, it uses RCS.
Regardless, I think we can all agree that the death of SMS has been a long time coming, and even if its demise is still a ways off, I imagine the mourning period will be short.
Update: Reader Richard writes in to point out that one of the major benefits of iMessage is its end-to-end encryption. SMS security varies depending on the network, though it can pretty much always be accessed by the carrier. It’s unclear from my research whether RCS, or T-Mobile’s implementation of it, will have any sort of encryption in place.