RIP Text Messaging — So Long and Good Riddance

The lowly text message is ready to evolve

I admit this comes across as pompous, maybe a little arrogant. I’m writing this from the balcony of my Cancun hotel, during a thunderstorm. I’m here for a wedding, and the rain and clouds that mercilessly descended on our beach activities have temporarily mandated that we seek refuge in our rooms. We are to meet at the hotel lobby bar later to regroup — the hotel lobby bar being the chosen meeting spot because, as they say, it is “legit”.

I digress.

Across from my balcony is another building, which I assume is of the resort-kind. It’s much smaller, but looks lush. Every room has a glass-walled patio and there are palm trees on the roof surrounding what I imagine is a pool area. It looks clean, modern by today’s standards. Our building is a little older, much larger. Multiple pools are surrounded by multiple bars and restaurants, the guest rooms arching in two large U-shapes around the lobby area, containing the “legit” bar. The amenities are comfortable, I’m not wanting for anything, and my stay has been enjoyable. But now, overlooking this smaller, efficient looking building, I wonder if I would have had to stop to re-enter my WiFi credentials every 10 minutes like I have here. I wonder if the food, if not free and plentiful, is of higher quality. And I wonder if the mosquitoes on that side of the fence are maybe a little nicer.

All of this to segue into a post on text messages.

Text messaging is important. The Short Messaging Service protocol and it’s sister, the Multimedia Messaging Service, have been around since the days when the name “Nokia” actually meant something. Text and picture messaging have single-handedly led to the near-extinction of the phone call. Parents text kids, account managers text clients, co-workers text each other — I even schedule my haircuts via text message. The SMS/MMS protocol is as ubiquitous as it gets. It’s as venerable as my hotel; maybe showing a little age, but it’s more than enough to get the job done.

Enter, then, the building across the street.

First, a history lesson: after email became established, a newer, faster, near-instant mode of communication came about: the instant message. Over time, the number of services that leveraged the internet for this type of informal, conversational messaging grew to include major players like Hangouts (nee Google Talk), Facebook Messenger, Skype, ICQ and others. As smartphone adoption grew, these platforms had to evolve in order to battle it out in the mobile messaging space (with some doing it better than others, but that’s a different post).

In America, we’ve long been used to carriers shifting away from charging us per message sent and received to gigabyte sent and received. Instead of having unlimited data (older, slower EDGE and 3G speeds, mind you) and paying for an allotment of text and picture messages, modern smartphone plans flip the script: we now have tiers of high-speed 4G data to choose from and unlimited text and picture messaging. In Europe, most carriers decided to charge for both. Customers on plans like these get burned on both ends — they pay for a limited amount of both data and messaging. Europeans wishing to skirt the limitations of metered text messaging plans found a solution in using plentiful WiFi hotspots to send instant messages instead. India, whose cellular data network is still a work-in-progress, is home to another hundreds of millions using data to send messages in lieu of texting.

Aside from these factors, the single biggest nail in the coffin of the text message is Apple’s iMessage. It’s hard to believe that iMessage has been around since iOS 5, which was released in October of 2011. Since then, iMessage has been a powerhouse competitor to both SMS/MMS messaging and internet instant messaging services. The fact that iMessage is the one and only standard messaging service on iOS and the sheer number of iOS users in the US and Canada mean that a vast majority of messages sent and received go through Apple’s servers. iMessage is the most often cited reason why people decide to switch to or stay with an iOS device.

What’s the difference between all of these internet instant message apps and a text message? For one, they aren’t limited to 160 characters. They don’t compress images down to the lowest resolutions possible. They allow for delivered and read receipts, typing indicators, and rich text formatting. You can send larger-resolution photos and videos, engage in better group messaging, send locations and files. Perhaps the biggest advantage is end-to-end encryption, which makes messages sent through the chosen platform as secure as possible. These are significant steps up in quality and ability from a normal text or picture message.

The neighbors have moved in, and their modern buildings and rooftop oasis is looking mighty tempting. What’s a text message to do?

Enter RCS, or Rich Communication Services. RCS is the product of a company called Jibe, which was aquired by Google in 2015, created to bring text messaging into the modern messaging era. RCS messages can do almost all of the things that an instant message can — the larger format picture/video resolutions, the typing indicators, the read receipts — but in a protocol that replaces the standard SMS/MMS protocols. Essentially this means that everyone has access to the same protocol with the same abilities without having to commit to a single platform like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. RCS is meant to be built into standard text messaging apps that you would find on any modern smartphone, which means no separate apps to download, no services to sign into. The promise of One Messaging App to Rule Them All may become reality.

Well, not quite. Google hopes that it’s version of RCS becomes the standard, but as of now, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T all have their own versions of RCS that are incompatible with each other. Additionally, Apple, after investing heavily in their iMessage platform with iOS 10, is unlikely to adopt a standard that doesn’t lock you into their ecosystem.

RCS standards will be finalized later in 2017, and Sprint has already announced plans to support Google’s version when that time comes. It remains to be seen if Google can get traction with their RCS standard, though partnering with Sprint is unlikely to push the needle much. The hope is that eventually, the carrier efforts will yield to Google’s RCS standard, and that may be in the carriers’ best long-term interest. With Google doing the heavy lifting of coding, testing, and standardizing the RCS protocol, carriers save development costs. It’s probably much cheaper for them to simply take something that already exists and implement it. And besides, touting a proprietary messaging standard as a competitive advantage when dozens of competitors already exist sounds ridiculous and… well, a lot like something US carriers would do.

Change, as the saying goes, is inevitable. Through competing standards and sluggish development cycles, the lowly text message averts death once again. But there’s no denying SMS/MMS protocols are old, slow, and lacking features that we’re all becoming more used to having. RCS is the future and like newer, more modern Cancun resorts, RCS messaging has set up shop next door with the intention of killing competition with luxury amenities and more features.

And its owners are looking to expand.

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