Google doesn’t need Apple to solve its messaging problem

Ethan Elshyeb
3 min readJan 25, 2022

The eternal ‘green bubble’ debate has been waging for years, but recently it’s hit another high (or low, depending on how you see it). Starting when Android’s platform lead fired off a mini-tweetstorm accusing Apple of using iMessage lock-in to bully teenagers, the backlash and turf-wars were fairly immediate. It is, after all, equally Google’s fault that the US is stuck in its current messaging hellscape. Their attempts at solving messaging are basically a trail of dead bodies at this point, each having been killed off seemingly regardless of whether adoption was good or nonexistent.

But the thing is — Google can still fix it, and it doesn’t need Apple.

See, Google’s latest solution is an open standard called RCS, and (surprise) it’s actually pretty great for those who have it. By virtue of integration into what is now nearly every Android user’s default messaging app, it achieves a level of adoption among Android users that not even Hangouts managed during its brief stint as an all-rounder with SMS support (thanks, at the time, mostly due to Samsung). Also unlike Hangouts is the fact that people seem to like it: Google Messenger’s 4.2 star rating isn’t quite stellar, but it sure beats the 3.6 stars Hangouts enjoyed during its peak.

So Android users are using, and liking, RCS. Great. In following, Google and others have repeatedly begged for Apple to also support RCS. Could this work? Sure. Technically, it’d probably be fairly easy for Apple to support it; in the UK and other countries it’s probably even in their business interest to do so. But Apple’s not exactly well known for their benevolence, and it’s easy to see how the iPhone’s utter dominance in the US would outweigh all other concerns. Simply put, I see it as unlikely that Apple moves to support RCS.

But here’s where it gets interesting. See, RCS is an “open platform”… but it’s also kind of not. Sure, in theory any manufacturer and/or carrier can implement their own app or server for it themselves. But in reality, they don’t. There’s exactly one RCS client app in wide use today — Google Messenger, using exactly one RCS encryption scheme: Google’s encryption scheme. On the server side, there’s exactly one major RCS service provider: Google Jibe. That means that despite its noble goal of being open — brain explosion: RCS is really just a Google messaging service.

And you know what Google can do with a Google messaging service? Well, they can make it into an iPhone app. Incredible, right?

Of course, this isn’t a perfect solution. Convincing iOS users to switch to Google’s latest messaging service is a tale as old as time, and it’s never been easy, much less with a string of four failures in the rear-view mirror. The business case for Google, too, is limited. RCS is a free service that costs Google money, and having user accounts linked to phone numbers rather than Google accounts reduces the analytics surface they so desperately value. And finally, a bait-and-switch of RCS from ‘open standard’ to ‘lol nevermind’ is likely to be both controversial and technically challenging.

However, I see these concerns as ultimately minor. With such near-universal adoption among Android users, the incentive for iOS users to download a proposed ‘Jibe by Google’ app already vastly outpaces what Allo ever had to offer. Google on the other hand would ultimately benefit from selling more Pixel phones. And while I’m a open-source advocate myself, the reality is that RCS isn’t nearly as open as it seems, with an extreme barrier to entry and ultimately, fairly definitive control by a single entity. Plus, wouldn’t you sacrifice a tiny shred of moral fiber in order to stop teenagers from getting bullied? (I kid, I kid.)

So Google, it’s time to stop desperately pleading with Apple for something that’ll never happen. Take your destiny into your own hands. Do it for you. And more importantly, do it for us.

(No pressure and all, but if you don’t, we’re likely doomed to this subpar existence forever.)