It’s time for another chapter in the saga of Google’s messaging mess. This latest news comes from The Verge, which reports that Google will be abandoning its most recent messaging app failure, Google Allo, in favor of a renewed push for the carrier-controlled RCS (Rich Communication Services) protocol.
Google Allo was Google’s attempt at a WhatsApp clone, and it launched just a year-and-a-half ago with a laundry list of deficiencies. It used a phone-centric login system and didn’t support using a Google account. It only worked on one device at a time and didn’t have an interface for desktop or laptop computers. Distribution wasn’t great either, as Allo wasn’t one of the mandatory Google apps included in every Android phone. None of this really mattered since Allo didn’t support sending SMS messages, so there was no one to talk to anyway. Google’s other chat service, Google Hangouts, was better in nearly every way.
With such a half-baked launch, the real unknown for Google Allo was what kind of resources Google would throw at it. Like Android, which also entered a market late in the game, Allo needed a massive amount of resources to catch up to the competition. Instead, we were treated to an absolutely glacial development pace that mostly focused on new sticker packs. It took a full year before Allo addressed one of its biggest flaws—not working on a desktop—and even then, login was handled by a janky QR code pairing system that only worked on one extra device at a time. Google users expect a Google account-based login that works on all devices all the time, just like Hangouts.
At least we won’t have to worry about Allo anymore. The Verge report says Google is “pausing” Allo development and “transferring almost the entire team off the project and putting all its resources into another app.” Allo will continue to work for the foreseeable future, but new features won’t be arriving any time soon.
Rich (and fragmented) Communication Services
What everyone wants from Google is an iMessage clone: an over-the-top messaging service that would run on all devices and platforms, with login handed by a Google account. Essentially, people want an updated version of Google Hangouts, a piece of software Google abandoned and removed features from in order to promote Google Allo. The Verge report says that Google “won’t build the iMessage clone that Android fans have clamored for” and will instead try to get the carriers to cooperate on RCS.
RCS, or Rich Communication Services, has been around as a GSMA (the worldwide mobile network trade body) project for about ten years now. RCS replaces SMS and MMS with a service that works more like an instant messaging app. RCS adds IM features to carrier messaging that most users take for granted, like user presence, typing status, read receipts, and location sharing. It sends messages over your data connection and increases the size caps on photos and video sharing.
The current problem with RCS versus an over-the-top IM service is that users on different carriers are usually not able to talk to each other with RCS features enabled. The cell carriers fear being turned into “dumb pipes” and generally prefer proprietary services that give them customer lock-in. Naturally, they have resisted building an interoperable RCS system. Currently, the RCS landscape is fragmented, with RCS flavors like AT&T Advanced Messaging, Verizon Message+, T-Mobile Advanced Messaging, and Sprint Enhanced Messaging.
Google got involved with RCS in 2015 when it acquired Jibe Mobile, a company that provides back-end RCS services to carriers. At the end of 2016, the GSMA published the “Universal Profile” spec, which was an agreed upon standard that would let the various carrier RCS implementations talk to each other. Google then started pushing carriers to adopt “Google Jibe” as an end-to-end RCS service, where Google could provide the RCS network, the cloud infrastructure, and the end-user clients. Android’s default SMS app, Android Messages, was made to support this new standard.
RCS-powered “Chat”: Carrier-dependent messaging
As part of this renewed RCS push, The Verge reports that Google is putting more resources (including the Allo team) into Android Messages, and RCS messages will get the new industry label of “Chat.” Not “Google Chat,” because this is RCS, which is a carrier-controlled standard. RCS messages will just be called “Chat.”
Being carrier-controlled comes with a number of downsides. First, Chat will need your individual carrier to support Universal Profile to work. Over 55 carriers—including the big four in the US—have “committed” to eventually support RCS, but no timeframe is included in that commitment. In the US, only Sprint has Universal Profile up and running right now. T-Mobile has promised a “Q2 2018” rollout, while Verizon and AT&T have so far declined to give a time frame. (This worldwide Universal Profile tracker is a great resource.) There’s also no one single client for RCS. Google’s RCS client is Android Messages, while Samsung phones come with a Samsung RCS app. Also, no one knows if Apple will support RCS on the iPhone.
Another big downside of carrier control is no end-to-end encryption. The Verge notes that Google’s RCS service will follow the same legal intercept standards as SMS. Nearly all of Google’s competition—like iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Signal, and Telegram—supports end-to-end encryption.
Google’s revamped Android Messages app will include old Allo features, like integration with the Google Assistant, GIF search, and smart replies. Android Messages is already an SMS app, so if your friends aren’t on an RCS carrier, you’ll still be able to send them a regular SMS message. SMS support will be a big improvement over Allo.
Messages will also get a desktop client, but it unfortunately sounds a lot like Allo’s awful Web client. The Verge got to try an Android Messages Web client that, like Allo, paired to your phone through a QR code instead of a Google account. These QR-code powered systems typically mean you’ll only allowed be logged into one device at a time, and if your phone dies, you can’t text anyone. The “desktop client” is also only a webpage, so it won’t run in the background the way Hangouts and other IM apps can.
Carriers versus consumers
Various Google execs have been asked numerous times why Google doesn’t just build an iMessage clone, and the answer that came back was always something along the lines of “We don’t want to jeopardize our relationship with carriers.” Carriers famously dislike many of the consumer-centric choices Apple makes with the iPhone, and building a quality, non-SMS messaging solution was one of those choices. For Google, keeping carriers happy so they run Android and Google services on nearly every non-Apple device is far more important than rocking the boat with a competitive messaging app. The plan this year, apparently, is to try to strike a happy medium with the carriers.
Like Google Allo, Chat will start far, far behind the competition at launch and will need to move quickly to catch up. If it catches up—if that’s even possible—it needs to surpass the entrenched messaging services and be so much better that users are willing to switch. It seems like it will be especially tough to accomplish this while being hamstrung by the world’s cellular carriers. Just making RCS actually work across carriers is a huge challenge, and it would only result in a very basic messaging system that can be matched by every other chat app in existence. Plus, the lack of end-to-end encryption already makes Google’s Chat plans inferior to other services in many people’s eyes.
With all these challenges ahead of it, can Google turn RCS into something worth using? If Google’s history with past messaging apps is any indication, the answer is “no.”