This article has been rewritten after it was pointed out that the previous version had factual errors
Google is taking another shot at getting a foothold in the messaging space, this time though, the company’s solution is not another messaging client (remember Allo, Hangouts, Google Talk etc.), rather it’s an evolution of the traditional SMS called Rich Communication Services (RCS). The company’s newest effort to sort out messaging on Android is being called ‘Chat’. With the RCS protocol, the good old Android Messages app (standard SMS app on most Android phones) will get a slew of features that are standard on clients like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram and others. The previously vanilla SMS app will now have features like read receipts, live typing indicators, high-resolution images/videos, and group texts
Carrier-driven messaging service: not encrypted
However, Chat will be a carrier-driven service and the carrier’s laws will apply. Therefore telcos may charge for this as they do with SMSes, and critically messages will not be end to end encrypted. This means that all messaging data gets stored on a server that can be accessed by the telecom carrier and also law enforcement or the government if necessary. Services like WhatsApp and Signal offer end-to-end encryption, where even the platform creator cannot read the messages between individuals.
Google has partnered with 55 carriers, 11 manufacturers, and two operating system providers have all pledged to either adopt or switch over to the system. Among the big players, this includes Microsoft and Samsung. From India, Vodafone and Airtel have signed up for Chat along with manufacturers Lava and Intex.
The advantage which Google is trying to leverage here is that Android phones come pre-installed with the standard Android Messages app, giving it the power of the default. This also means that carriers who have ceded the messaging space to OTT platforms like WhatsApp will feel they have a chance of fighting back. The biggest issue with WhatsApp for carriers was that in a ‘net neutral’ environment there was no way for them to influence or control the service or even make money off it. Chat will allow carriers to set tariffs and offer tailored plans while giving users all the features they are used to seeing in polished messaging clients.
It must be noted that the RCS protocol, which Google does not control does not mandate encryption and follows the same legal intercept standards as SMSes.
Nikhil adds: This replacement of SMS with rich text reminds me of SMS 2.0, an Airtel run rich messaging service which was a product from Affle, and was launched almost a decade ago. Also note that given that regulators are pushing back against end to end encryption – especially against Whatsapp, this is a product which Google and carriers can take to governments; but it’s clearly not user-friendly, and doesn’t protect their privacy.
For years, Google has been trying to come up with texting services. The first one was Google Talk (also known as GChat) which began as a desktop app, and was integrated with mobile in 2006. Google also launched text and video messaging services along with its now-failed social media network Google+. These were later integrated with what is now known as Hangouts. Now, Hangouts is supposedly being changed from a consumer-centric app to a enterprise-centric one, to compete with the likes of Slack.
More recent ones are Allo and Duo. Allo is a text messaging service with features like audio calling, auto-complete texts, Google Assistant etc. Just days ago, Google said it was pausing investment in Allo, which means new updates are unlikely. Duo, which is a video-calling app, competes with FaceTime and Skype.
(With inputs from Nikhil Pahwa and Siladitya Ray)