Google Takes on iMessage with ‘Chat,’ Changing the SMS Game for Android

Google is taking on WhatsApp and others.

Flickr / ElectroSawHQ

Google is throwing in the towel in the best way possible. A new report Thursday revealed the Android developer is pausing development of “Allo,” the texting app released May 2016 that was meant to compete with iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger in the smartphone instant messaging space. Instead, Google is shiftings its efforts to support a universal standard that will make the long-dismissed text message of yesteryear into a communication powerhouse.

The Verge reports that Google’s new effort is called “Chat,” and it’s a consumer-friendly name for its implementation of a standard known as the “Universal Profile for Rich Communication Services.” The profile covers features like group chat, location sharing, file transfer, audio memos — the sort of things you expect from a modern messaging app, features missing from regular SMS. While RCS has been around since 2007, its implementation has been patchy at best, so the Universal Profile is a unified approach supported by 55 operators, 11 manufacturers and two operating system providers (Microsoft being the second) aimed at plugging the gaps.

This initiative will work through the regular Android messaging app. Google plans to release a web-based desktop interface for texting, before rapidly rolling out features to the chat app. The company aims to bring functionality to American users in the next couple of years, but like SMS and unlike WhatsApp, it comes down to carrier support.

Google’s new plan is also similar to SMS in that it’s not encrypted. While WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal have touted their encryption as a key selling point, the absence of default private chats hasn’t deterred over one billion people from using Facebook Messenger. RCS is also similar to the system in that it depends on carrier whims, but the current expectation is that it won’t require an extra charge, just like competing messaging services.

There’s unlikely to be a single launch moment, as it depends on carrier support. While Sprint already supports the standard, T-Mobile is set to launch support in the second quarter of this year. Even though they’ve pledged support, neither Verizon nor A&T have released timelines.

The big question mark is Apple. While the company is expected to launch iOS 12 at the Worldwide Developers’ Conference in June, it’s not pledged public support for RCS and continues to provide iMessage as an alternative.

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