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The Great Divide: iOS and Android Messaging

TLDR: Apple to support RCS in iOS 18, improving cross-platform messaging with Android. iMessage remains the primary platform for iPhone users. The change is likely driven by EU regulators. Exact implementation details are unclear, but features like read receipts and typing indicators are expected. Timeline: WWDC preview in June, release in fall.

History is marked by great divides: The House of York and the House of Lancaster, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and the blue bubbles and the green ones in text messages between iPhone and Android devices.

As an iPhone user, I’ve never given the blue-green divide much thought. When I text my iPhone-toting friends, everything shows up just fine – images look good, emoticons are faithfully rendered, and we can even send each other animated confetti and balloons on appropriate occasions.

This doesn’t happen with my text messages to Android phones.

The photos don’t look nearly as sharp, and forget about extra features working the way they’re supposed to.

Dueling Messaging Standards

What we have here are duelling messaging standards. Apple uses its own in-house iMessage platform, which is why the iPhone-to-iPhone experience is so seamless. Android devices are using RCS, or Rich Communication Services.

While RCS has meant a better experience than the old SMS/MMS platforms when Android users text each other, cross-platform messaging between default texting apps still leaves plenty to be desired.

Changes on the Horizon

Things should change somewhat later this year. Apple has already announced plans to bring RCS support to the iPhone at some point in 2024, and most expect that to be part of this year’s iOS 18 update.

With iOS 18 set to receive a preview at WWDC 2024 in June, we could get our first glance at what a Messages app with RCS support might look like. However, it’s unlikely to address all the issues Android and iPhone texters have run into over the years.

What is RCS?

RCS was developed as a messaging platform to replace the aging SMS and MMS standards, which had grown unable to support some of the more sophisticated features that texters were demanding. RCS went live on Android phones in 2019, promising an experience that was more like Apple’s iMessage platform.

That meant text and images were sent simultaneously over a data connection alongside extra features you probably now take for granted, like typing indicators and read receipts. Google added end-to-end encryption for beta users at the end of 2022 before rolling out to everyone in 2023.

Well, not everyone.

Apple steadfastly refused to join the RCS party, preferring its own iMessages approach, which brings us to where we are now – blue bubbles and green bubbles and subpar media quality, with very little cross-platform functionality.

Why Doesn’t Apple Support RCS?

You’d have to ask Apple that question. When CEO Tim Cook was asked at a tech event in 2022 why Apple didn’t add RCS support, he suggested that Apple’s customer base hadn’t requested the feature.

Pressed by a reporter who noted that he and his Android-using mother had a hard time texting photos to one another, Cook’s advice was to “buy your mom an iPhone.”

That may get closer to Apple’s real motivation for sticking to its own messaging platform. iMessage has proven very popular, and Apple likely sees it as a distinguishing feature for its iPhones.

That would certainly explain why the different colours for message bubbles – Apple wants to make it very clear what device can expect the better texting experience.

To that end, the blue and green bubbles of Apple’s messaging app have become something of a status symbol, according to some media reports. For example, a 2023 New York Times column noted that school-age kids are particularly sensitive to who’s a blue bubble and who’s been saddled with green.

Apple’s Change of Heart

In late 2023, Apple confirmed plans to add RCS support at some point in 2024. “We believe RCS Universal Profile will offer a better interoperability experience when compared to SMS or MMS,” Apple said in a statement. “This will work alongside iMessage, which will continue to be the best and most secure messaging experience for Apple users.”

That’s another way of saying that iMessage isn’t going to go anywhere. RCS support is being added alongside iMessage merely as a way of improving inter-platform texting.

Why the Change?

There’s no official word beyond Apple’s statement from last November. But if we were to read between the lines, we would paraphrase Sesame Street and conclude that this change is being brought to you by the letters “E” and “U” – as in the European Union regulators that have been pressuring Apple to comply with the Digital Markets Act.

Already, Apple has added USB-C to the iPhone 15 lineup ahead of an EU edict that required universal standards on phones. iOS 17.4 added the ability to access third-party app stores, at least in countries that are part of the EU, to comply with the Digital Markets Act.

That said, in February, the European Commission announced that it would not designate iMessage as a “core platform service,” a move that would have opened iMessage up to further regulations. That decision came just two months after Apple’s announcement about adding RCS support – more proof that in business as in comedy, timing is everything.

What Will Change?

That’s somewhat hard to say until we see the RCS implementation in action, but it’s widely believed that the texting experience between Android and iOS devices will be better, if not exactly seamless.

Features like read receipts, typing indicators, location sharing, and reactions will likely be supported; the animated reactions and live stickers that iMessage users enjoy likely won’t be.

According to TechRadar, Apple has no plans to support the proprietary extensions Google added to bring encryption to its flavour of RCS. Instead, Apple is apparently looking to work with the GSM Association, a mobile trade industry group, to bring encryption to the standard version of RCS.

When Will It Happen?

As noted at the start, Apple typically previews the year’s big software releases at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). At that event, it releases betas of the software so developers can see how the new features work and update their apps accordingly.

A few weeks after WWDC, Apple released public betas that let the rest of us try things out. (Or at least the rest of us who don’t mind installing potentially buggy beta software on our Apple devices.)

This year’s WWDC gets started on June 10, and iOS 18 will almost certainly be a focus of Apple’s opening keynote. We anticipate the public beta reaching would-be testers by the end of the month, with a full version of the update ready in the fall just before the release of the new iPhone 16 line.

One word of caution about the beta, besides the fact that it may contain show-stopping bugs: not every feature appears at once, as Apple updates its betas frequently throughout the summer. That means even after an iOS 18 beta lands, RCS support might not appear until later in the process.

What Can You Do in the Meantime?

If you’re an Android user, you can try out the Custom Bubbles feature that’s been added to Google Messenger. It lets you colour-code your chat bubbles, assigning blue to your cross-platform chats at long last.

Yes, this is purely a cosmetic change for your eyes only.

But at least it’s something.


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