Google’s latest attempt at solving messaging on Android is a user-hostile move.
Last month Google unveiled it’s newest messaging app, Chat, the latest in a seemingly endless list communication apps made by Google in the past decade. To say that Google has had a terrible history with messaging products would be understatement. While Gmail has become the de facto choice for consumers and business alike, none of Google’s various attempts at creating a messaging app ever reached the same levels of success. Between GChat, Hangouts, Hangouts Meet, Allo, Duo, Wave, Google Plus, and still more tools I haven’t bothered to list, Google’s attempts to create a non-email communication tool have fallen flat, one after another. So why, in a world where users already have access to SMS along with dozens of chatting apps does Google feel the need to continue competing in this extremely crowded market?
Simple: SMS is terrible. Extremely terrible. It’s character limited, lacks modern chat features like read receipts and typing indicators, can’t be easily synchronized between devices, and most importantly, isn’t encrypted. It can’t be used for real-time location sharing (or really anything that requires deep integration with the phone’s software), and is generally ill-suited for anything that isn’t strictly one-to-one text-only communication.
And yet for many of us, SMS is still the defacto method of communicating with our peers. Unlike the many centralized chatting apps on the market, SMS is decentralized, or at least sort of decentralized. As long as you know your recipient’s phone number you’ll be able to send them an SMS message, regardless of what carrier, device, operating system they’re using, and regardless of what country they’re in. For many people, SMS is one of the safest ways to get in touch with a friend and be sure that they’ll get the message — no account signup or friend list management needed.
The fact that SMS is so terrible is a real problem for Google. There are some top-tier Android devices available on the market. They’ve got premium features, stellar cameras, but perhaps most importantly, a premium price tag. And yet, they’ve still got a messaging experience of a late 2000s feature phone. And if you’re Google, you know this is unacceptable, especially because you’ve got to compete with the iPhone.
You see, Apple solved this problem years ago with iMessage — an in-house service that adds all the features you’d expect in a modern chat app. If you’re iPhone user messaging another iPhone user, you’ve been out of SMS hell since 2011.
Wait, but isn’t iMessage one of those centralized messaging services you mentioned earlier?
While iMessage certainly is a centralized app that lives within the Apple ecosystem, it doesn’t have many of the typical drawbacks associated with those kinds of services. iMessage is tied to your phone number, not some random username or account identifier. iMessages can be sent and received without an Apple ID (though you need one if you synchronize iMessages across devices without a phone number like a laptop or tablet). iMessage integrates seamlessly with SMS. Users don’t even have to be aware that they’re using iMessage — it’s baked directly into the default iOS messaging app. Best of all, iMessage features complete end-to-end encryption, making it one of the most secure options on the market, consistently earning high marks by privacy advocacy groups and watchdogs. The phone simply detects if the recipient is an iOS user, uses iMessage if possible, and falls back to SMS whenever it can’t. It’s a seamless process, and one that has worked well for Apple — many iPhone users cite iMessage as the primary reason that they’ll never switch to an Android phone.
Enter Google, who has tried several times to create competitive products that address usability issues of SMS and failed. Entering the messaging market is hard — the average smartphone owner uses no fewer than 3 different messaging apps, each in different contexts. You might use Slack or HipChat for work stuff, iMessage for close friends & family, Facebook Messanger / Instagram Direct depending on how your friend group is split, and WeChat to communicate with people in China. In stead of carving out its own niche, Google tried to build apps to replace the tools people were already using— a strategy that was doomed to fail. This, coupled inconsistent marketing left users confused as to which app to use when and for what.
After Google Allo seemed like it was going to be the latest in a series of messaging app duds, Google was left with a two distinct options: go full Apple and build an iMessage clone for Android phones, or attack the problem at most fundamental level and improve the SMS standard.
SMS has had a logical successor for years. The GSM associated proposed its replacement, Rich Communication Services, in early 2012 — just a few months after iMessage hit the market. RCS was created to solve exactly this problem — it includes all the modern features missing in SMS without requiring the use of a proprietary, centralized platform like iMessage. The problem? Virtually no carriers supported it, and the few that did had radically different ideas about how the protocol should be implemented. The result was that RCS has had close to zero adoption since its inception with little hope for change. Google would have to either work with carriers to develop a new RCS standard, or else propose something else entirely and try to get every carrier in the world to adopt it.
So why not just build an iMessage clone and build it directly into Android?
Google has done a ton of work to unify the various releases of Android in recent years, and they’re more than capable of building a product as good as if not better than iMessage. Why re-invent the wheel if Apple has already figured out a solution that always works? Why, the carriers of course!
Carriers hate iMessage. Being totally controlled by Apple and fully encrypted, iMessage is a stone wall for carriers that undercuts portions of their business model. They can’t read your messages and use that data for analytics & services, a popular revenue stream. iMesssages usage is the same as any other data usage, preventing carriers from selective message billing (think texting plans). You can discontinue your cell service and still use iMessage, and the fact that you can iMessage over WiFi means the need to buy a roaming plan when you travel is greatly diminished.
Carriers have considerably more leverage over Google than they do over Apple. Google relies on carriers for the bulk of Android device sales all around the world, and making sure those relationships stay healthy is a key part of making sure Android devices are placed prominently on store shelves next to their Apple counterparts. Despite the fact Android users have been clamoring for Google to build an iMessage counterpart for years, doing so would mean seriously annoying an important part of the Android distribution network.
So let’s review the two options here: Google could choose to preserve their relationships with carriers and opt for expediency, or they could stand up to carriers and advocate for user experience and data privacy by forcing carriers to get their shit together or, even better, build the feature that Android users have been clearly asking for.
Guess which one they chose.
Google’s latest messaging product, Chat, seems to have a higher likelihood of success than any of the company’s previous efforts. Essentially, they’ve worked with carriers to all agree to implement RCS, and have refocused the engineering team behind Google Allo to expand and standardize the protocol. In 2015, Google acquired Jibe Mobile and began dabbling in RCS standardization for the first time. They began encouraging carriers and OEMs to implement Google Jibe, an standardized unified RCS profile developed after the acquisition. This new profile is now called just Chat (not Google Chat), and is Google’s next and possibly last attempt to solve the Android messaging problem.
On first blush, this might seem like a great idea. Google has all four major American carriers on board, as well as nearly every major Android OEM. As of this writing, Sprint already supports Chat on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. T-Mobile has suggested that support could come as early as summer 2018, though AT&T & Verizon haven’t specified a timeline, they should both be supporting Chat before too long. Every Android phone with 8.1+ will eventually support Chat directly in Android Messages, and just like iMessage, the phone will be able to detect if the recipient supports Chat, send a RCS message if possible, and fallback to SMS when needed.
Don’t be fooled though: this decision isn’t in the Android user’s best interest — quite the opposite in fact. Google has basically decided that they’ve spent too much time & energy in messaging products already, and would rather allow the carriers deal with this problem while preserving their corporate relationships rather than do whats best for the Android community. Chat isn’t end-to-end encrypted. It won’t work unless the recipients carrier says so. Carriers maintain the ability to bill selectively for chat usage. There is virtually no international roll-out planned.
SMS isn’t just bad because it’s an old standard, it’s bad because it’s controlled by carriers who are more interested in finding new ways to bill you rather than maintaining, expanding, and securing the platform. Google was capable of having this fight (their market cap comfortably exceeds the market cap of all four major US carriers combined), they’ve literally just chosen not too because there’s an easier option on the table.
By choosing not to stand up for users, Google has handed control of the future of messaging back to the people who ruined it in the first place.
Just like anything else, the smartphone industry has many players. Customers, carriers, manufactures, software developers, retailers, and software service providers all have different interests. Carriers have never been customer advocates. Apple’s customer advocacy isn’t charity — iMessage is designed to keep you buying a new iPhone every year or two despite price hikes and increasingly good competition — but at least it’s transparent. If Google is going to prioritize its relationship with carriers over the well being of its user base, I have to wonder: who’s advocating for the best interests of Android users?