Google takes on Facebook messaging: New Android push aims at richer SMS

Google is teaming up with 15 mobile operators to speed up the adoption of a richer version of SMS that will offer chat apps more competition.

Google is developing an Android client with Android handset makers that supports RCS, SMS, and MMS.

Image: ZDNet

Google and a group of the world's largest telecoms providers are teaming up on an Android initiative to accelerate Rich Communications Services (RCS) adoption.

The joint effort is aimed at modernizing carrier messaging, just as Facebook's WhatsApp pushes past one billion users and its Messenger app inches towards the same milestone.

At the beginning of 2015, then with 700 million users, WhatsApp reported sending 30 billion messages a day, or about 10 billion more messages per day than global SMS.

RCS has been kicking around since 2007 but hasn't been widely adopted by carriers. Now, over a dozen carriers have agreed to standardize their implementation of RCS on a specification from mobile operator association GSMA.

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Google for its part is developing an Android client with Android handset makers that supports RCS, SMS, and MMS.

RCS promises a number of advantages over SMS and MMS, including group chat, high-res photo-sharing, and read receipts. These are all features that are standard to the experience on Hangouts, WhatsApp, Messenger, and so forth, but are unavailable for the world's four billion SMS users.

The tie-up between Google and mobile operators should help accelerate adoption of RCS by providing a consistent set-up for the more than one billion Android users worldwide.

"This is an incredibly positive development for the industry," GSMA CTO Alex Sinclair said. "Google's contributions will provide operators a new opportunity for a rich, consistent implementation across Android devices and offer a real step-change in messaging experiences for consumers worldwide."

Participating carriers include América Móvil, Bharti Airtel, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Globe Telecom, KPN, Millicom, MTN, Orange, PLAY, Smart Communications, Sprint, Telenor Group, TeliaSonera, Telstra, TIM, Turkcell, VimpelCom, and Vodafone.

Google signalled its commitment to RCS last year with the acquisition of Jibe Mobile, which offered a cloud platform for operators to launch RCS services and interconnect operators' RCS networks.

At the time Google reported that carriers were looking to the Android ecosystem to deliver a more consistent deployment of RCS.

Operators will be able to deploy RCS on their own infrastructure or use Google's Jibe platform.

While RCS brings modern features to carrier messaging, end-to-end encryption provided by WhatsApp is not one of them.

As some privacy-conscious observers have noted, the encryption scheme described in GSMA's specification for RCS has provisions for government interception. However, for regulated carriers this isn't an unusual requirement.

Read more about RCS

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