Unlocking the Future of Messaging: A Comprehensive Guide to RCS, Why Apple is Adopting It, and How It Enhances Your Texting Experience

David Nield

If you’ve been keeping up with all the news out of WWDC 2024 this week, you’ll know that Apple is bringing the RCS (Rich Communication Services) messaging standard to iPhones later this year with iOS 18. That’s a win for Google, which has long backed RCS on Android. But what actually is RCS? And why does supporting it matter?

The short version: It’s an upgrade on the standard SMS/MMS texting standards that smartphones have been using from the start. It brings better support for all the cool features we’re used to in our messaging apps, like read receipts and images, and it adds some extra security layers too.

Yes, it’s a lot like using iMessage from Apple, or using WhatsApp—though it’s not quite that simple. There’s no RCS app you can install, but you can find apps that support the RCS standard, as we’ll explain.

RCS is coming to iOS this year.

So the long version: Rich Communication Services is a fundamental standard rather than an app like WhatsApp, Signal, or Telegram. It requires carrier support to work, which is why adoption was slow in the beginning, though RCS now works across most countries and is supported by AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile.

SMS (Short Message Service) and MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) weren’t really built for the modern way that we communicate through our phones, and RCS tries to fix that. It adds or improves support for sharing large-resolution images and video, group chatting, read receipts, video calls, and messages that actually go beyond 160 characters.

When RCS is supported in your phone’s default texting app, you can add reactions to messages, see when someone else is typing, and drop extra elements like GIFs, stickers, and your current location into conversations—all features you may well be used to and accept as standard in other apps.

There are changes and upgrades behind the scenes as well. Whereas SMS/MMS requires a data connection to your cellular network, RCS works over cell networks as well as Wi-Fi. If you don’t have a cell signal for whatever reason but you can find a wireless network, your message can still go through.

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RCS settings on a Pixel phone.

The standard also brings end-to-end encryption with it. It means that no one else—not even Google or your carrier—can see the conversation that’s taking place, because only the devices involved in the conversation have the keys necessary to decrypt it. End-to-end encryption is a security feature you should look for in any app that handles sensitive information, including communications.

It’s a clear upgrade, which is why Google Messages and Samsung Messages now support it—the messaging apps you’ll find on Pixel phones and Galaxy phones, respectively. In November 2023, Apple finally relented and agreed to support RCS on the iPhone in 2024, though this course correction perhaps had more to do with concerns about antitrust procedures than any newfound sense of camaraderie with Google.

Now we know that iPhone RCS support is going to arrive in September with iOS 18. This means all of those features we’ve mentioned—from read receipts to message reactions—will work inside the iOS Messages app. However, Android users are still going to show up as green bubbles, as the RCS standard isn’t going to be fully integrated with the iMessage platform that Apple operates.

When you’re texting someone with RCS enabled, you’ll see “Text Message RCS” inside the text input box in Messages on iOS, indicating that the recipient can take advantage of all the modern messaging features that we’re now used to. There’s no need to turn RCS on or off—it’s automatically enabled if you’re chatting with a contact who has a device that supports RCS.

How RCS messages will look on an iPhone.

With iOS 18 still in its development stage, there might be changes to come for how RCS is handled on iPhones before the software is rolled out to all compatible devices later in the year. This version of iOS will work on any iPhone models launched in 2018 or later, so most Apple handsets currently in use will get the software and RCS.

It’s the same with Samsung Messages: RCS is simply enabled when available. It’s Google Messages for Android that gives you most control over RCS settings, and you can get to them from inside the app by tapping your profile picture (top right), then selecting Messages settings. Choose RCS chats and you’re able to turn features such as read receipts and typing indicators on or off.

With RCS soon to appear on iPhones and now extensively supported on Android devices, it’s going to become less and less likely that your phone will need to revert back to SMS—though it will do this if RCS isn’t available for whatever reason. Otherwise, the standard that has powered our text messages since 1992 will finally be able to enjoy a well-earned retirement.

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