A top-tier Android phone can cost upwards of a thousand dollars, and for that money, you’ll get some amazing features. It will have a stellar screen, top-flight camera, gobs of storage, and an absolutely atrocious texting experience.
It’s a problem. In fact, it’s always been a problem. Google has spent nearly a decade trying — and failing — to fix it with an ever-rotating cast of poorly supported apps. While iPhone users have had the simplicity of iMessage built in, Android users have been left to fend for themselves.
Now, the company is doing something different. Instead of bringing a better app to the table, it’s trying to change the rules of the texting game, on a global scale. Google has been quietly corralling every major cellphone carrier on the planet into adopting technology to replace SMS. It’s going to be called “Chat,” and it’s based on a standard called the “Universal Profile for Rich Communication Services.” SMS is the default that everybody has to fall back to, and so Google’s goal is to make that default texting experience on an Android phone as good as other modern messaging apps.
As part of that effort, Google says it’s “pausing” work on its most recent entry into the messaging space, Allo. It’s the sort of “pause” that involves transferring almost the entire team off the project and putting all its resources into another app, Android Messages.
Google won’t build the iMessage clone that Android fans have clamored for, but it seems to have cajoled the carriers into doing it for them. In order to have some kind of victory in messaging, Google first had to admit defeat.
What chat will be
Chat is not a new texting app. Instead, think of it more like a new set of features inside the app already installed on most Android phones. “Chat” is the consumer-friendly name for Rich Communication Services (RCS), the new standard that’s meant to supplant SMS, and it will automatically be turned on inside Android Messages, the OS’s default app for texting.
When people begin using Chat, they’ll get many features that are standard in any other texting app, including read receipts, typing indicators, full-resolution images and video, and group texts.
But remember, Chat is a carrier-based service, not a Google service. It’s just “Chat,” not “Google Chat.” In a sign of its strategic importance to Google, the company has spearheaded development on the new standard, so that every carrier’s Chat services will be interoperable. But, like SMS, Chat won’t be end-to-end encrypted, and it will follow the same legal intercept standards. In other words: it won’t be as secure as iMessage or Signal.
The new Chat services will be turned on for most people in the near future, though timing will be dictated by each carrier. Google is optimistic many carriers will flip the switch this year, but there could be some stragglers. Chat messages will be sent with your data plan instead of your SMS plan, so you’ll likely only be charged for whatever (minimal) data it costs to send a message. Though, again, it will be up to the carriers.
If you are texting somebody who doesn’t have Chat enabled or is not an Android user, your messages will revert back to SMS — much in the same way that an iMessage does. Nobody outside of Apple knows when (or if) the iPhone will support Chat.
Instead of continuing to push Allo — or creating yet another new chat app — Google is instead going to introduce new features into the default Android Messages app, like GIF search and Google Assistant. Android Messages will be the default on many (but not all) Android phones. Samsung phones will also support Chat using Samsung’s app. You will still be able to download Google’s app if you’d prefer to use it, though it seems unlikely that third-party developers will be able to create full RCS-enabled apps.
After talking about all that, Sabharwal finally lets me take a look at a presentation showing an upcoming version of Android Messages. It has all the features he’s hoping to deliver. The messages delivered over Chat happened to be blue. But that was just happenstance: one of the features of Android Messages is that you can pick a custom color for your chat messages, depending on whom you’re speaking with. This is Android, after all, and Android is all about customization.
Customization is messy. Android is messy. So it makes sense that the ultimate fix for Android messaging wasn’t to eliminate messiness, but to embrace it.