Apple’s Pledge to Support RCS Messaging Could Finally Kill SMS

Apple’s Pledge to Support RCS Messaging Could Finally Kill SMS

Good news is coming to your group chat. Today, Apple said it will add support for the RCS messaging standard to the iPhone. The website 9to5Mac broke the news that Apple will release a software update some time next year that will bring support to iOS for the messaging standard, which is already widely used by Android phones.

RCS, or Rich Communications Standard, is a messaging service that’s a step up from the SMS and MMS messaging standards that smartphones have used since they first arrived. RCS can do more than SMS and MMS: It allows users to share higher-resolution photos and videos between their devices; it supports read receipts; and there’s more fun stuff, like the ability to easily drop emoji and GIFs into a conversation. It also adds extra layers of security that the older messaging standards lack.

Apple has famously shunned RCS in favor of its own iMessage platform, resulting in a layer of incompatibility that anyone with an Android phone—or any iPhone user who regularly texts people with Android phones—is painfully aware of. Videos shared between iOS and Android are crunchy and low-bandwidth, and Android users are often confounded by group chats, with missed messages, absent emoji, and other glitches.

For years, Apple has been relying on SMS and MMS to bridge the digital divide between these messaging platforms. It’s the last major holdout, as RCS is already supported by major players like Google, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. When Apple adds support for RCS, it won’t need that old bridge, and the move could signal the eventual death of SMS.

“It’s long been time for SMS to go away,” says Anshel Sag, principal analyst at the technology analyst firm Moor Insights and Strategy. “Now SMS can die, it can be sunset. So all the viruses and all the security flaws that are due to SMS can be eliminated.”

The move isn’t happening immediately; Apple told 9to5Mac that RCS support will come “in the later half of next year.” This timing suggests that support could arrive with the next version of iOS, which typically rolls out in September.

So it’s a ways out, but it’s certainly closer than Apple’s previous plan for the feature, which was apparently “never.” A year ago, it seemed Apple was not even considering supporting RCS on the iPhone. Apple CEO Tim Cook glibly joked that you could “buy your mom an iPhone” if you’re having trouble communicating with users on different devices. Since then, pressure has mounted on the company to implement RCS, and some compatibility has emerged between the platforms as they each have evolved.

Last year, Google launched a very public campaign to compel Apple to adopt RCS, which Apple mostly appeared to shrug off. While Google’s push may not have worked to sway Apple, Cupertino has likely been motivated to change its song by the European Union’s recent Digital Markets Act, a piece of legislation that calls for greater interoperability between messaging services.

“I think this was inevitable once the European Markets Act got implemented,” Sag says. “Once that law really got solidified, it was just a matter of Europeans going through their paces and actually implementing the rules and enforcing them.”

Exactly how broad Apple’s support of RCS will be is unclear. Apple has a tendency to follow the letter of the law, so to speak, while also kicking and screaming about it. When similar EU legislation pushed it into offering repair services, it was an expensive process that required users to lug around bulky equipment. Apple was also reluctant to change the iPhone’s charging ports to the widespread USB-C standard, only doing so this year once legislation forced its hand. Apple did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Apple also hasn’t said whether this change will bring an end to those pesky green chat bubbles. In iOS, chats between iPhone users appear in blue-shaded bubbles, but messages from Android users appear in green bubbles.

“I don’t know if the green bubble will go away or not, but I have a feeling that they will probably still try to differentiate in a visual manner,” Sag says.

Even with RCS, Apple can choose to continue to brand Android users as outsiders in your group chat. But hey, at least when they drop a video or a sticker, it won’t break the chat anymore.