What is RCS and why is Apple introducing it?

The surprise move will bring key messaging features and interoperability to users

Apple's iPhone 15 Pro. The new move will bring features seen in the iMessage app to users of iPhones and Android devices. Reuters
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Apple is planning to introduce Rich Communications Services (RCS) on its native messaging application from next year in a surprise move that will support texting with rival Google's Android operating system.

The major update, first reported by 9to5Mac, will bring features seen in the iMessage app to users of iPhones and Android devices, boosting interoperability between the two systems.

What is RCS?

The RCS universal profile is the new standard of mobile messaging that adds several modern functionalities that short and multimedia messaging services cannot provide, the GSM Association says.

These features include those seen in popular messaging apps, including read receipts, high-quality images and videos, location-sharing and emoji reactions within text threads.

"Later next year, we will be adding support for RCS Universal Profile, the standard as currently published by the GSM Association," an Apple statement read.

"We believe RCS Universal Profile will offer a better interoperability experience when compared to SMS or MMS. This will work alongside iMessage, which will continue to be the best and most secure messaging experience for Apple users."

However, iMessage will remain exclusive to Apple devices. RCS will merely be an addition to, and will eventually supersede, SMS and MMS.

Apple also said it will work with the GSMA to make RCS more secure.

Apple may be intending to release its RCS service alongside iOS 18, the next major version of its iPhone operating system that is traditionally launched alongside its new flagship devices in September, though this is unconfirmed.

How has Google reacted?

Google welcomed Apple's decision, saying it will "look forward to working with them to implement this on iOS in a way that works well for everyone".

"Everyone deserves to communicate with each other in ways that are modern and secure, no matter what phone they have," it said in a statement first reported by Apple Insider.

"That's why we have worked closely with the mobile industry to accelerate the adoption of RCS and we're happy to see Apple take their first step today by coming on board to embrace RCS.

"We welcome Apple's participation in our ongoing work with GSMA to evolve RCS and make messaging more equitable and secure."

Why has RCS become a big deal?

The use of RCS has long been a point of difference between the two biggest developers of mobile operating systems.

Google, whose Android controls more than 70 per cent of the global mobile OS market, has for years encouraged Apple to adopt the standard for users to access the several modern features that cannot be used with SMS and MMS.

Samsung Electronics, the world's biggest mobile phone manufacturer, last month joined calls for Apple to adopt RCS with a campaign aimed at scrutinising the bubble text colours on iMessage.

Currently, iMessage has two bubble colours: blue indicates that texts are sent using iMessage, meaning it comes with the full functionalities of the app that are shared between its users, while green represents those sent to Android users, which come with very limited features.

Why has Apple refused to adopt RCS until now?

Apple, which is highly protective of its proprietary tech, has argued it doesn't see the need for RCS. It has, instead, constantly updated iMessage to improve user experience and continues to promote that its messaging technology is far more secure than others.

Chief executive Tim Cook, during the Vox Code Conference last year, said the California-based company did not see its "users asking us to put a lot of energy into that", and instead wanted users to "convert" to an iPhone.

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While Apple has stepped up iMessage, integrating more features seen in other messaging apps, those perks are still limited to its users.

Why the sudden change?

Apple's adoption of RCS comes after it pulled the plug on its Lightning connectivity technology and switched to USB-C on the new iPhone 15 series, complying with authorities, most notably from Europe.

The EU Digital Markets Act, in particular, has resulted in regulators investigating whether iMessage falls under being a "core platform service".

Using RCS will be an opportunity for Apple to tap into the reach enjoyed by the likes of WhatsApp, the service owned by Facebook parent Meta Platforms, that is the world's biggest messaging app with a user base of more than two billion thanks to interoperability between mobile, and even desktop, platforms.

Updated: November 17, 2023, 10:16 AM