The idiosyncratic medium of text messaging has made great strides in iOS and Android, between Apple’s iMessage service and Google’s newer “RCS.” But text chats between those two platforms remain as technologically advanced as Nokia flip phones. They still lack coding to thwart snoops and interactive features to spice up the chatter.
At its I/O conference last month, Google invited Apple to remedy that by supporting its effort to secure and improve texting: the Rich Communications Services (RCS) standard its Messaging app uses.
Among the 500 million Android users who use RCS, Sameer Samat, vice president of Android product management, said in that May 11 keynote, “We hope every mobile OS gets the message and upgrades to RCS.”
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Samat didn’t have to say “Apple”. While Google has lined up US smartphone vendors and wireless carriers to ship its Messages app after a shaky 2019 RCS rollout here, Apple hasn’t added RCS to the iMessage service it launched in 2011 and remains exclusive to other Apple devices.
And at Monday’s WWDC conference, Apple ignored Google’s plea, instead announcing new iOS messaging features as options to retrieve or edit recently sent messages.
Both iMessage and RCS encrypt messages in transit (requiring a data connection), but where RCS can encrypt individual chats end-to-end (encrypting them everywhere except the actual phones), iMessage does for both individual chats and group chats. . Both also support features such as type designations and “tapback” emoji.
But neither one works with the other. An SMS from an Android user to an iPhone user and vice versa is sent “publicly” and arrives in a blue bubble on an iPhone and in a light gray bubble on Android devices.
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Evan Greer, director of the technology policy group Fight For the Future, blamed Apple in an email: “It’s outrageous that Apple continues to endanger people by refusing to make iMessage encrypted and compatible with RCS messages.”
Apple declined to speak officially about this privacy gap or how it’s dealing with it, calling privacy “a fundamental human right.” But the company’s leadership seems to object most to RCS failing to provide full end-to-end encryption along with misuse of RCS-verified business messaging in markets like India.
Those justified criticisms contradict Apple’s acceptance of other pitfalls that fall out of the grace of communication. For example, the Mail app encrypts messages in transit, but not end to end, and iPhones still lack the call screening tools Google provided four years ago to block robocalls.
Apple notes how other messaging apps let you use your phone number in encrypted chats. But the leading US option, Facebook’s WhatsApp, has other privacy implications.
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Not only is it owned by that oft-distrusted social network, it also requires access to your phone’s contacts for basic functionality. Unlike an ancient payphone — or the end-to-end encrypted Signal app, a lesser-used phone messaging option — WhatsApp doesn’t let you pick random numbers.
Meanwhile, Google could have a stronger case for RCS if it added it to its own Google Voice service, which already runs on iPhones.
While Apple and Google struggle to get their messages together, their customers are stuck with one of the least personal ways to communicate. And expecting us all to solve this problem by choosing a single phone platform will not only never happen, it should never be our job.
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