RCS on Android vs iOS: Is messaging finally equal?

RCS support is officially coming to iPhones this fall, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get the same experience on iOS that you will on Android.

RCS on Android vs iOS: Is messaging finally equal?

Key Takeaways

  • Apple is adding RCS support to the Messages app in iOS 18 to enhance group chats and send high-resolution videos.
  • RCS fixes limitations of SMS/MMS by supporting modern messaging features, similar to iMessage, but lacks end-to-end encryption.
  • Google Messages is a dominant RCS platform on Android

If you weren't looking for it, you might not have noticed that Apple officially announced a feature that could fix messaging between iPhones and Android phones at WWDC 2024, but it was there, buried in a presentation slide. As part of iOS 18, Apple is adding support for RCS, or Rich Communication Services, to the Messages app, finally bringing some sense of parity to group chats and messages between friends and family on Apple's platform and Google's.

Apple technically confirmed it would back RCS in 2023, after years of Google and anyone who knew better begging the company not to rely on decades-old, insecure SMS and MMS messaging protocols, but a mention on the WWDC stage makes it even more real. iPhone owners have enjoyed the benefits of free iMessage service for years but have been stuck with using SMS and MMS when messaging anyone who doesn't have an iPhone. RCS should bake some of iMessage's best features, like the ability to send high-resolution videos or typing indicators in my default, without needing to sign up for an extra service.

That doesn't mean that iOS users will get exactly the same experience as Android users. The path to widespread RCS support has not been linear, and the way it's implemented on Google's messaging app isn't necessarily the same as Apple will implement on iPhones. Here's what we know so far about the difference between RCS on Android and iOS.

RCS on Android vs iOS: Is messaging finally equal?

What is RCS?

Like MMS but better

RCS on Android vs iOS: Is messaging finally equal?

Before RCS, phones primarily used SMS to send text messages, and MMS to send multimedia messages with photos and videos. The problem with both protocols is that they're easy to intercept because they're typically stored on your carrier's servers, making them less secure than other chat options, and they're inherently limited in the length of texts they're able to transmit or media files they're able to send. That's why photos sent over MMS tend to be so compressed. iMessage supporting high-resolution multimedia messaging from the get-go makes the fact that iPhones default to SMS and MMS when talking to anyone else more confounding. It actively makes messages worse.

The RCS Universal Profile (the part of the protocol enabled on devices) fixes all of this by being designed to support all the modern messaging features people expect. That includes:

  • Typing indicators
  • Read receipts
  • GIFs
  • High-resolution videos
  • High-resolution photos
  • File transfers
  • Audio messaging
  • Group chats

Sending RCS messages to another phone that supports RCS feels similar to iMessage, but is available on Android phones, the most popular smartphone operating system in the world. The main missing ingredient in the current version of the RCS Universal Profile is end-to-end encryption (E2EE), which would make messages sent only viewable by the sender and the recipient, on their chosen devices, and no one else. Luckily, Universal Profile can be extended, as Reddit users have confirmed, which is how Google has added additional features on top of RCS. The lack of E2EE is one of Apple's justifications for not supporting RCS up until this point, and one of the things it claimed it wanted to add to the protocol when it agreed to support it.

How does RCS work on Android phones?

Google Messages dominates in the West

RCS on Android vs iOS: Is messaging finally equal?

Google Messages is the way that people who own Android phones can send RCS messages on a majority of phones in the United States. Some carriers offer their own chat apps — iPhone owners have technically been able to send RCS messages via the +Message app in Japan — and have attempted to run their own servers to host and distribute messages, but most now use Google's Jibe service (a mobile infrastructure company Google acquired in 2015) and Google's app to support RCS on their networks. With major carriers like Samsung now shipping phones with Google Messages pre-installed, it feels like Google's app could become the default in the same way that Messages app is on the iPhone.

Google's messaging app supports all the basic features of the RCS Universal Profile on top of several other features that it's added on top, like emoji reactions, which closely mimic Apple's "Tapbacks" in iOS, and more importantly, E2EE. The Universal Profile's ability to be extended, and disable or enable features depending on what an app and provider support mean Google was able to add in the Signal Protocol to encrypt messages. Google's attempt to encourage more smartphone makers and carriers using its app by default is mainly about getting everyone using the E2EE version of RCS it's offering.

RCS on Android vs iOS: Is messaging finally equal?

RCS can be enabled by default or the first time you open your phone's messaging app you could be asked to enable it, but either way, once you do, you'll send RCS messages, and be able to enjoy the benefits of all those extra features. Google Messages and other RCS messaging apps still default to SMS and MMS if whoever you're messaging doesn't support RCS, but the goal is to get all messages to be RCS messages, and ideally encrypted RCS messages if you're using Google's app.

How will RCS work on iPhones?

Apple wants encryption by default

RCS on Android vs iOS: Is messaging finally equal?

Apple doesn't necessarily disagree with Google's stance on E2EE. When the company first revealed it was going to support RCS, making sure end-to-end encryption made it into Universal Profile was the company's goal, according to TechRadar. Now that iOS 18 has been announced and is generally expected to be released later this year, the real question is how Apple will actually implement RCS on the iPhone.

"End-to-end encryption is seemingly not part of RCS on iOS 18, however, and it's not clear if that will be enabled when the software update is available later this year."

RCS support wasn't announced as part of the recently released iOS 18 developer beta, but some crafty users have figured out a way to enable it, seemingly confirming at least a few of the RCS features that iPhones will support later this year. In general, Apple appears to be trying to maintain the appearance of its old SMS and MMS messages, including the use of green bubbles. Support for RCS features like typing indicators, group chats, and file transfers has been confirmed by users running iOS 18.

RCS on Android vs iOS: Is messaging finally equal?

End-to-end encryption is seemingly not part of RCS on iOS 18, however, and it's not clear if that will be enabled when the software update is available later this year. Thanks to Google, we do at least know Apple will have to use RCS Universal Profile 2.4 to still offer its messaging services in China. Maybe iOS 18 ships with an older version of RCS, and gets updated to a new version with E2EE down the road, or maybe Apple's commitment to E2EE is all talk, but it'll take until iOS 18 releases to get a better sense of what Apple has planned.


Q: Who ultimately decides what goes into new versions of RCS?

The RCS protocol is maintained and updated by the GSMA or Global System for Mobile Communications Association. It primarily represents the interests of mobile network operators like T-Mobile or AT&T, but includes smartphone manufacturers like Google and Apple as well. The GSMA determines which features must be included in new versions of RCS (and other common protocols and standards, like 5G). If Apple and Google want end-to-end encryption to be part of the protocol by default, they will have to convince a majority of other members to include it in the next version of RCS Universal Profile or find some kind of alternative solution.

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