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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Next year, texting between iPhones and Android devices won’t feel so 2002

Grainy photos. No support for WiFi. Lingering doubts that someone actually saw your message.

Even in 2023, sending a text message from an iPhone to an Android device — and vice versa — feels bare-bones at best. But in a surprising change, Apple has agreed that should change in 2024.

On Thursday, Apple confirmed that it would build support for the Rich Communication Services messaging standard — otherwise known as “RCS” — into future software releases. That support will arrive “later next year,” a time frame that suggests it will be folded into an upcoming version of the company’s iOS, typically released in September.

When that finally happens, iPhone owners and Android users will be able to share media like photos and videos in messages at high quality. They’ll see read receipts and typing indicators as their conversations unfold, too, and Apple says users will be able to share their locations inside text threads.

That’s a welcome change for consumers on both sides of the iOS/Android divide, but Apple’s concession may also be meant to appeal to another audience: lawmakers in Europe. For months, the European Commission has been trying to determine whether Apple’s iMessage was big enough a platform to be regulated by the EU’s Digital Markets Act — a move that could force Apple to make iMessage compatible with rival messaging services.

No matter the reason for its about-face, Apple is late to the party. Nearly every reasonably popular messaging service out there had those features for years. (Of course, that includes iMessage.) So, why the delay?

The reason these features haven’t been available for iPhone users texting friends with Android phones — and vice versa — is that they’re just not possible under the decades-old technical standards that make SMS (a.k.a regular text messages) and MMS (or, multimedia messages) possible.

For years, Apple chose to flesh out its iMessage service with new features while relying on those aging formats to ferry text messages and pictures to and from non-iPhones. While that was happening, wireless carriers, device makers and even Google itself bought into the RCS standard, and have fleshed out the infrastructure to make it work.

Now, by embracing RCS, Apple is also embracing a more uniform kind of messaging experience — one that should feel pretty similar no matter what kind of phone you’re using.

“We believe the RCS Universal Profile will offer a better interoperability experience when compared to SMS or MMS,” the company said in a statement.

But none of this means Apple will roll out RCS support the same way some rivals have. Google technically stepped beyond the bounds of the technical standard to include end-to-end encryption for RCS messages — which means they’re indecipherable to the companies and networks they move through on their way from one phone to another — sent through its Google Messages app.

Apple says that’s not something the company plans to do by itself; instead, it wants to make the RCS standard itself more secure, a process that likely won’t happen immediately.

Apple’s announcement is also unlikely to herald the end of green-bubble-blue-bubble tension. iMessage isn’t going anywhere, and the company says messages shared between Android devices and iPhones will continue to be color-coded the way they are now.

RCS messaging “will work alongside iMessage, which will continue to be the best and most secure messaging experience for Apple users,” said the company’s statement.

Short of buying an iPhone the way Tim Cook suggested to someone advocating for RCS at a conference, Android users weary of the green bubble stigma must turn to outside players working to bring iMessage to Android — or wait to see if Europe forces Apple to open the platform to everyone.

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