Can RCS Replace SMS Without Apple?

Yes, but who cares?

Key Takeaways

  • RCS is a modern replacement for SMS.
  • All major US carriers will support RCS by next year. 
  • Apple does not, and may never, support RCS.
A couple using smartphones outdoors on a busy street.

Shawn Fields / Unsplash

Next year, RCS (rich communication services) will finally replace SMS (short message service) on all phones in the US—as long as they run Android. 

Verizon will switch to the RCS messaging platform next year, joining T-Mobile and AT&T. All three carriers will use Android Messages, which supports RCS, as their default chat app. However, Apple already has an SMS alternative—iMessage. So, what exactly is RCS, why is it better than SMS, and will Apple ever adopt it?

"RCS will be a suitable modern chat system, provided that all carriers and handsets support it. Without 80%-plus market penetration, I can’t see it taking off," Matthew Larner, managing director at business-communications platform ClickSend, told Lifewire via email.

RCS vs SMS

RCS, or Rich Communication Services, is meant to replace SMS as a default, universally compatible messaging protocol. Samsung phones already have it built-in, and any Android phone can use RCS via Google’s Android Messages app.

RCS has several advantages over SMS. It gives read/delivery receipts, typing indicators, and can send rich content like images and video, and even support voice chat. RCS is also sent over the internet via Wi-Fi or cellular data. This could be an advantage or a disadvantage—SMS is sent over the telephone network, so it still has much better coverage.

"Business communication will be what brings it over the line—if Android users are able to interactively communicate with businesses via RCS, Apple users will be left out."

The four major US carriers initially pledged to create their own apps, but in the end, they’ve adopted Google’s Messages app.

The best thing about SMS is that it’s universally supported, like email. You can send an SMS to anyone. It doesn’t matter what carrier or phone brand they are using. Compare that to iMessage, which is Apple-only, or WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram, which require a sign-up and are not interoperable. 

But there’s one significant downside to RCS as it is implemented today: Like SMS, it is unencrypted. End-to-end encryption is coming, but it is not universal. This means that it is open to interception. Still, SMS is insecure, so RCS is no worse. 

Apple and RCS

Now that Verizon is on board, RCS will work with pretty much all Android phones in the US. That only leaves Apple.

"Apple iMessage ensures all your messages are traveling on its servers, whereas, with RCS, the messages will be traveling through Google’s servers, carrier’s servers, or third-party companies," Katherine Brown, founder of remote monitoring company Spyic, told Lifewire via email. "Having that in mind, Apple doesn’t want anything to do with RCS’s challenges."

Someone messaging on a smartphone at dusk outside.

Becca Tapert / Unsplash

Apple’s iMessage also has considerable lock-in. It’s effectively an Apple-only social network, one that is ever more deeply integrated into iOS and macOS. It also supports SMS, but these messages come in green bubbles, not blue, like your iMessage contacts. And some people still pay to send SMS messages, so there’s a cost involved with using them.

It’s possible a third-party app could add RCS support to the iPhone, but what’s the point of that? It would only be useful for contacting strangers and for receiving spam—all the user’s contacts would either already be in iMessage or on another service like WhatsApp. 

To add full RCS support to the iPhone, Apple would have to build it into the iMessage app, just like SMS, and that would mean supporting a service that is essentially controlled by its arch-rival, Google. 

Apple would have to be forced into this. 

"Business communication will be what brings it over the line—if Android users are able to interactively communicate with businesses via RCS, Apple users will be left out," says Larner. "Considering that iPhones account for around 45% of all smartphones in the US, that’s a big problem."

"Apple doesn’t want anything to do with RCS’s challenges."

So far, we’ve talked about the US, whereas iMessage is worldwide. RCS adoption is growing there, too, but it needs to be the default everywhere to force Apple’s hand. 

Do We Even Need An SMS Replacement?

The other question is, do we need a replacement for SMS? It’s unencrypted, insecure, and simjacking makes SMS a terrible way to send two-factor (2FA) login authentication codes. But so what? We have plenty of secure alternatives, like Signal and iMessage, and those 2FA codes shouldn’t be going over SMS anyway.

SMS is like email. It’s universally supported, it’s basic, and it’s fundamentally insecure. It might also prove just as hard to kill. Carriers could indeed switch off support for SMS, but that only works once most of the carriers in the world have switched to RCS.

Otherwise, what happens when you get a message from overseas? Or when you travel and you have no data connection, how can you send a message? It’s a complex situation, but it seems like SMS may be around for a while yet.

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