What is RCS messaging? Here’s all you need to know about the successor to SMS

T-Mobile kicks off its RCS messaging rollout with the Galaxy S7

Google Pixel 2 XL vs. Pixel XL
Julian Chokkattu / Digital Trends

Let’s face it, text messages are an anachronistic pain in the rear. They don’t support read receipts, group messaging features, or the animated stickers your pals share on apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat. They depend on a cellular connection — if you’re roaming or you don’t have a signal, you can’t send or receive text messages — and they’re annoyingly limited to 160 characters in length. Despite all those limitations, and predictions of its demise, text messaging, also known as SMS (Short Message Service), remains incredibly popular.

Even with all of the faults, 97 percent of smartphone owners send text messages, making it the most widely used feature on smartphones. To make the service more valuable and competitive with messaging apps, smartphone manufacturers and carriers are teaming up with the cell phone industry’s governing bodies to develop a modern take on texting — Rich Communication Services (RCS), which combines the best of Facebook Messenger, iMessage, and WhatsApp into one platform. So what is RCS messaging, and how does it work? Here’s everything you need to know.

Text messaging: A brief history

android cyber police ransomware news nearly a billion phones could be hackable with single text message

The invention of text messaging predates the iPhone, BlackBerry, and the Palm Pilot. SMS was first proposed in 1982 for the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), a second-generation cell standard devised by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).

The idea, at least initially, was to transmit texts via the signaling systems that controlled telephone traffic. ETSI engineers developed a framework that was both small enough to fit into the existing signaling paths (128 bytes, later improved to 160 seven-bit characters) and modular enough to support carrier management features like real-time billing, message rerouting (i.e., routing messages to a recipient other than the one specified by the user), and message blocking.

After nearly a decade of tinkering, SMS deployed commercially in December 1992 — a milestone that Neil Papworth, an engineer, marked by texting “Merry Christmas” to Vodafone customer Richard Jarvis. In the years that followed, handset manufacturers including Nokia and carriers like Fleet Call (now Nextel) and BT Cellnet (now O2 UK) climbed aboard the messaging bandwagon, spurring adoption. And by 2010, nearly 20 years after the first text message, cell subscribers exchanged 6.1 trillion messages.

Despite the explosive growth of SMS, it didn’t evolve all that much from the systems of the early ’90s. Even as phone form factors changed and Apple’s iPhone popularized the modern-day touchscreen smartphone, SMS remained the same — right down to the 160-character limit imposed at its inception. RCS promises to change all that.

What is RCS?

what is rcs

Rich Communications Services (RCS) is the protocol that will replace SMS. The protocol got off to a very slow start: It was formed by a group of industry promoters in 2007 and brought under the wings of the GSM Association in 2008, but carrier participation and other factors kept it from gaining any real steam for nearly a decade.

In 2018, Google announced it had been working with every major cell phone carrier in the world to adopt the RCS protocol. The result is Chat, a protocol based on RCS Universal Profile that will supersede SMS.

“We like to call it the next evolution of SMS,” Andy Shirey, senior product manager at Open Market, told Digital Trends. “It’s richer messaging content with features like read receipts that are great to have.”

So what features should we expect to see on Chat? Well, it’s going to look a lot like iMessage and other messaging apps. It’s a more interactive protocol that allows you to start group chats, send video and audio messages, and send high-resolution images. You’ll also be able to receive read receipts and even see when someone is replying to your message in real time.

In addition to all of the features you’d expect on a messaging app, it looks like Chat will have some nice surprises in store. Google has been working with businesses to add helpful features to Chat to improve communication. For example, Chat will be able to send live updates about upcoming trips, boarding passes, and even allow you to select your seat from within the Android Messages app.

Instead of using a cellular connection, Chat will rely on your data connection. It’s also hardware agnostic, meaning it will work across multiple devices. And while Chat could work on iOS, Apple has yet to announce if its phones will support the protocol.

There is one crucial element missing from chat, however. While the original RCS protocol allowed the implementation of client-to-server encryption, Chat will not offer end-to-end encryption like iMessage or Signal. In short, it allows for the same legal intercept standards as its predecessor.

How will Chat work?

Let’s be clear, Chat is not another Android-based messaging app; it’s the user-friendly name for the RCS protocol. That said, Chat will initially only be available on two apps: Android Messages and Samsung Messages. While this may seem a bit limiting, the majority of smartphone manufacturers ship their devices with Android’s default messaging app.

There’s a lot of moving pieces required to make Chat actually work. First, your carrier will need to support the protocol. You’ll also need to have a device and messaging app that supports Chat. Finally, your recipient will need to have Chat as well; if they do not, Chat messages revert to SMS.

what is rcs messaging messages

While it may be a number of months before we see the final Chat rollout, Google released a web version of Android Messages in June. In the near future, Android users will be able to pair their Messages app to the web service via a QR code, allowing the full chat experience from a computer.

Who supports Chat?

For nearly a decade it was difficult to gain widespread support for the RCS protocol. While some carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile were onboard fairly early, many manufacturers were more reticent. Since RCS requires both a software and network update, many OEMs didn’t want to develop software to make their devices retroactively support the protocol.

Google, however, has been able to make progress with both carriers and OEMs. Currently, there are 55 carriers and nearly a dozen smartphone manufacturers that support Chat. Microsoft has also committed its support for the protocol.

In the United States, all of the major carriers have signaled their support for Chat. This means, for the most part, it should be fairly easy for mobile virtual network operators to support the protocol as well.

When will we see Chat?

what is rcs

When we will actually see Chat is the million-dollar question. Since Chat requires carrier support, it’s not going to be the type of smooth rollout we saw when iMessage was released in 2011. According to Engadget, we can expect to see a full Chat rollout over the next 12-18 months.

If you’re on Sprint, there’s a decent chance that Chat is already enabled if you’re using a supported device. But since both parties would need to have Sprint and a supported device, you’ll probably have few people to enjoy Chat with.

While T-Mobile was technically the first to provide RCS support, it didn’t actually support the GSMA Universal Profile. However, in late June the un-carrier began rolling out RCS Universal Profile 1.0 to the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. On its message boards, the carrier said it plans to bring the feature to many of its smartphones by the end of the year.

Although AT&T has agreed to the RCS standard, it has yet to provide a timeline for rollout. When we contacted AT&T for more information, a representative told Digital Trends that the carrier had “nothing additional to share on timing.”

Like AT&T, Verizon has signaled its support for Chat but has yet to announce when it will roll out the feature to its subscribers. We reached out to the carrier and will update when we receive a response.

Updated on July 3: T-Mobile begins rolling out RCS.


Updating to Apple’s iOS 12 will make your iPhone a whole lot smarter

iOS 12, the latest version of Apple’s iOS, is officially here. We took it for a spin to check out its new noteworthy features, and if it truly changes our smartphone habits for the better.
Social Media

Twitter squashes security bug leaking direct messages since 2017

The team at Twitter has discovered and corrected a security bug within one of their developer APIs that has been leaking sensitive information sent via direct messages to business accounts.

Google tells lawmakers it allows other apps access to your Gmail

Google admitted to lawmakers in a letter that its privacy policy allows third-party apps access to the email messages of its 1.4 billion Gmail users. Google says the apps need the consent of users before access is granted.

Handy iOS 12 tips and tricks to master Apple's latest update

Apple's iOS 12 mobile operating system introduces a ton of new features, with more options to help boost productivity. But updating to it can be overwhelming, so we're here to make it easier with some iOS 12 tips and tricks.

Huawei is not-so-subtly trolling Friday’s iPhone launch

Apple launches the iPhone XS range to the public on Friday, but Huawei is out in force to remind the public what they could be missing out on (Hint: It's the Mate 20 Pro) by choosing Apple's latest smartphone.

How to buy the iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR in the U.K.

The new iPhone range is here, and it consists of three models: The iPhone XS, the iPhone XS Max, and the iPhone XR. You can buy the iPhone XS and XS Max in the United Kingdom now, so here's our guide on where to buy one.

Audio company Bragi is suing OnePlus over the word 'dash'

Despite taking steps to change to "Warp Charge," OnePlus is being sued by audio company Bragi over the phone manufacturer's continued use of the word "dash" in the Dash Charging used in OnePlus phones.

Need a do-over? Here's how to factory reset an iPhone, from XS on down

Resetting an iPhone can alleviate all sorts of software woes, and wipe away personal data should you sell your device or give it to someone else. Here's how to factory reset an iPhone from within iOS or iTunes.

The best weather apps for Android will keep you dry no matter where you go

You may not be able to change the weather, but you can at least be prepared for it. Check out our guide to the best weather apps for Android, so you'll always know what to expect when you step out the front door.

Android 9.0 Pie is finally rolling out to the OnePlus 6

Android 9.0 Pie has been released. But is your phone getting Android 9.0 Pie, and if so, when? We've done the hard work and asked every device manufacturer to see when their devices would be getting the update.

Keep the iPhone XS display crack-free with these screen protectors

Apple might have proclaimed the iPhone XS's glass as being its most durable ever, but that's not going to stop you from wincing if you drop your phone. Stay protected with the best iPhone XS screen protectors.

Apple iPhone XS Max vs. Huawei P20 Pro: Clash of the titans

Anyone seeking a great new smartphone with plenty of money to spend has two amazing options, but which is better for you? We pit the Apple iPhone XS Max vs. Huawei P20 Pro in various categories to help you choose.
Product Review

Don't let the bigger iPhones woo you away: The XS is still a masterpiece

Apple’s next smartphone is here -- the iPhone XS. We think it’s the perfect size for an iPhone, and it manages to impress with astounding performance, and sizable camera improvements.
Product Review

With its epic screen, Apple's iPhone XS Max is a phone you can live inside

The iPhone XS Max is here. Should you get the massive 6.5-inch iPhone from Apple? Or should you pick the smaller iPhone XS? We’ve been putting the Max through its paces to find out in our review.