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.
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.
Google has put a new executive in charge of the effort: Anil Sabharwal. He led the team that created the Google Photos apps, which are perhaps the most successful Google apps of the past few years. They’re also a great example of how Google salvaged ideas originally built into Google+ and turned them into a great set of cross-platform apps.
So it makes perfect sense that CEO Sundar Pichai tasked Sabharwal with fixing one of the oldest and most vexing problems at Google. Sabharwal has to find a way to make the default texting experience on Android not just good, but part of a dominant global network that can actually compete with the likes of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and iMessage. And he needs to do it without alienating any of the hundreds of powerful companies that have a stake in the smartphone market.
“I’m coming into this as a consumer product person,” Sabharwal says. Six months ago, he took over the communications team and took inventory of Google’s offerings and strategies. As a result of Google’s “try everything” approach to messaging, the company currently has four major competing messaging apps: Hangouts, Allo, Duo, and Android Messages.
Let’s go through them one by one. Hangouts is becoming an enterprise app to compete with Slack, called “Hangouts Chat” instead of being a consumer focused app. That transition is taking awhile and at some point, Google will need to clear up its messaging for consumers that are still using Hangouts for personal texting. Right now, the company’s guidance is that “the consumer version of Hangouts will be upgraded to Hangouts Chat … but our focus for Hangouts still rests on enterprise/team communication and messaging.” I wouldn’t be surprised if a free version was made available to consumers someday, but, as with Allo, if might be time to start looking for alternatives.
And Duo, Google’s new-ish video chat app, is actually surprisingly successful; a quarter of Duo calls are to or from an iPhone. But it’s primarily a video chat app, which leaves Allo and Android Messages: two apps that, from a “consumer product” perspective, do essentially the same thing.
Android Messages has all the users. Even though Samsung phones don’t use Android Messages as the default SMS app, most of the other major manufacturers do (outside of China, anyway). That adds up to 100 million monthly active users, according to Sabharwal. “At the end of the day … the native SMS app is where users are,” he says. “They’re not interested in going to a different place to use SMS.”
People, even in 2018, tend to just use the default app. Though WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger each have over a billion installs, those users are still falling back to SMS when they have to. It’s the universal, default option; every phone supports it, and it always works. Sabharwal estimates that 8 trillion SMS-based messages are sent every year.