AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have finally agreed to replace SMS with a new RCS standard

Image result for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have finally agreed to replace SMS with a new RCS standardAll four major US carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint — have each issued the same joint press release announcing the formation of “a joint venture” called the “Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative” (CCMI). It’s designed to ensure that the carriers move forward together to replace SMS with a next-generation messaging standard — including a promise to launch a new texting app for Android phones that supports the standard by next year.

The Verge spoke with Doug Garland, general manager for the CCMI, to find out more about what this all means. RCS, if you don’t know, is wickedly complicated on the backend from both a technical and (more importantly) a political perspective. But the CCMI’s goal is to make all that go away for US consumers. Whether or not it can actually pull that off is more complicated.

First and foremost, CCMI intends to ship a new Android app next year that will likely be the new default messaging app for Android phones sold by those carriers. It will support all the usual RCS features like typing indicators, higher-resolution attachments, and better group chat. It should also be compatible with the global “Universal Profile” standard for RCS that has been adopted by other carriers around the world.

Garland says the CCMI will also work with other companies interested in RCS to make sure their clients are interoperable as well — notably Samsung and Google. That should mean that people who prefer Android Messages will be able to use that instead, but it sounds like there may be technical details to work out to make that happen.

Google is a fascinating and perhaps telling omission from the press release. Up until this point, the primary advocate for RCS has been Google, which bet on it as the only platform-level messaging service for Android. It was a bet that carriers haven’t backed until now. Verizon isn’t supporting RCS on the Pixel 4 after doing so on the Pixel 3, for example. Google recently stopped waiting for carriers in the UK and France and rolled out RCS support for Android phones using its own servers.

Google was unable to immediately provide comment on the CCMI. That in and of itself is telling — as is the fact that the word “Google” appears precisely zero times in the carriers’ press release. Garland says the company continues to be an ecosystem partner and that this release was focused on the carriers.

However, several hours after the CCMI’s press release went out, Google did provide a statement from Sanaz Ahari, a product director at Google:

We remain committed to working with the Android ecosystem to further enhance the messaging experience on Android with RCS. It’s great to see U.S. carriers getting behind RCS in a meaningful way and we look forward to continuing to work with them to bring modern messaging to everyone on Android.

If you’re not familiar with all the ins and outs of RCS, let’s quickly catch up. There are four critical problems with RCS:

  1. Not enough carriers have adopted it
  2. Those that have adopted it sometimes did so without adhering to the international standard for interoperability called the “Universal Profile”
  3. It is not end-to-end encrypted, so it’s easy for governments to demand the contents of text messages sent using it
  4. Apple has had precisely zero to say about it, which everybody has interpreted as code for “lol we have iMessage good luck with that RCS thing bye!”

The CCMI neatly fixes both the first and the second problem. Garland says the carriers believe there are some implementation issues with the Universal Profile that the CCMI can address more elegantly, but it will follow the standard to ensure interoperability.

As for encryption, Garland wouldn’t commit. He emphasizes that the CCMI intends to make sure that the chats are “private” and that the app it’s making is “an experience [customers] can trust.”

Finally: Apple. There’s still no word directly from the company in response to our request for comment. Garland can only say that “we would certainly be interested in having Apple” support RCS.

In their press releases, all of the carriers point out that RCS offers them business opportunities — that’s something that we’ve been hearing about for a while. Chatting with a business is much more convenient than calling, but doing so over SMS would be a nightmare. CCMI intends to offer a one-stop shop to let businesses offer services and support to consumers over text — and surely will charge those businesses for the opportunity.

The idea is you could chat with a business is also the key to understanding why the CCMI exists in the first place. That was actually my first question to Garland. If the the Universal Profile already exists, why create a whole new industry group to implement it? Garland pointed first to the CCMI’s ability to provide services to businesses that want to chat directly with consumers.

It’s a lucrative opportunity, since asking lots of companies to set up services separately with every carrier (or, ahem, Google) is likely one of the things holding business adoption of RCS back.

It’s also a risky opportunity, as the last notable time all four carriers got together in a joint venture was to create a payments system (originally called ISIS) that flopped. More recently, the carriers have all partnered on a system-level mobile authentication project that lets you use your phone as a password, called ZenKey, but we have to see how well that pans out as it only just launched earlier this month.

There is some small reason for optimism, however: the stakes for getting messaging right are much higher for the carriers. Literally their core business is helping people communicate, after all.

There’s reason for optimism but there’s also reason to be worried. Carrier-made apps are notorious for being terrible, filled with ads and upsells. The CCMI says that “more details will be announced a later date.” We’ll be watching to see what the app situation will be, when exactly in 2020 it will launch, and whether Google (or even Apple) will have anything to say about it.

Update October 24th, 9:04PM ET: Clarified that CCMI will follow the Universal Profile standard, and that the four carriers have more recently worked on a joint venture called ZenKey for mobile authentication.

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