Exclusive: Chat is Google’s next big fix for Android’s messaging mess

A high-end Android phone can cost more than a thousand dollars, and for that money, you'll get some incredible features. It will have a stellar screen, a high-flying camera, a large amount of storage and an absolutely atrocious text message experience.

It's a problem. In fact, it has always been a problem. Google spent almost a decade trying, and failing, to solve it with a list of poorly supported applications. While iPhone users have had the simplicity of iMessage built-in, Android users have had to fend for themselves.

Now, the company is doing something different. Instead of bringing a better application to the table, you are trying to change the rules of the text message game on a global scale. Google has been quietly controlling all the major cell phone providers on the planet to adopt technology to replace SMS. It will be called "Chat" and is based on a standard called "Universal Profile for Rich Communication Services". SMS is the default to which everyone should go, so the goal of Google is to make the default text message experience an Android phone as good as other modern messaging applications.

As part of that effort, Google says it is "pausing" work on its most recent entry in the message space, Allo. It is the kind of "pause" that involves transferring almost the entire project team and putting all its resources in another application, Android Messages.

Google will not build the iMessage clone that Android fans have requested, but it seems to have coaxed carriers to do it for them. To have some kind of victory in messaging, Google first had to admit defeat.







Illustration by William Joel & Garret Beard

What chat will be

Chat is not a new text messages application Instead, think of it more as a new set of features inside of the application already installed on most Android phones. "Chat" is the easy-to-use name for Rich Communication Services (RCS), the new standard that pretends to impersonate SMS, and will automatically turn on within Android messages, the default operating system application to send text messages.

When people start using chat, they will get many features that are standard in any other text message application, including reading receipts, typing indicators, full-resolution images and video, and group texts.

But remember, Chat is a service based on operator not a Google service. It's just "Chat", not "Google Chat". As a sign of its strategic importance to Google, the company has spearheaded the development of the new standard, so that the chat services of all operators will be interoperable. But, like SMS, the chat will not be encrypted end-to-end and will follow the same legal interception standards. In other words: it will not be as secure as iMessage or Signal.

The new chat services will be activated for most people in the near future, although the time will dictate each operator. Google is optimistic: many operators will change the switch this year, but there could be some laggards. Chat messages will be sent with your data plan in place of your SMS plan, so it is likely that you will only be charged for the (minimum) data that costs to send a message. Although, again, it will correspond to the operators.

If you are sending text messages to someone who does not have enabled Chat or is not an Android user, your messages will be SMS again: much more. in the same way that an iMessage does. Nobody outside of Apple knows when (or if) the iPhone supports Chat.

Instead of continuing to press Allo, or create another new chat application, Google will introduce new features in the default application of Android Messages, such as GIF Search and Google Assistant. Android messages will be the default on many (but not all) Android phones. Samsung phones will also support chat using the Samsung application. You can still download the Google application if you prefer to use it, although it seems unlikely that third-party developers can create full RCS-enabled applications.




Anil Sabharwal.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Restart again

Google has put a new executive in charge of the effort: Anil Sabharwal. He led the team that created the Google Photos applications, which are perhaps the most successful Google applications of recent years. They are also a great example of how Google rescued the ideas originally built into Google+ and turned them into a great set of cross-platform applications.

So, it makes perfect sense for CEO Sundar Pichai to have instructed Sabharwal to fix one of the oldest and most annoying problems on Google. Sabharwal has to find a way to make the default text message experience on Android not only good, but part of a dominant global network that can really compete with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and iMessage. And he has to do it without alienating any of the hundreds of powerful companies that have a share in the smartphone market.

"I'm entering this as a consumer product person," says Sabharwal. Six months ago, he took over the communications team and made an inventory of Google's offers and strategies. As a result of Google's "try everything" approach to messaging, the company currently has four main applications for competitive messaging: Hangouts, Allo, Duo and Android.

Let's review one by one. Hangouts is becoming a business application to compete with Slack, called "Hangout Talk," instead of being a consumer-centric app. That transition is taking a little longer and, at some point, Google will have to clarify its messages to consumers who still use Hangouts to send personal text messages. At this time, the company's guide is that "the consumer version of Hangouts will be updated to Hangouts chat … but our focus for Hangouts still rests on the communication and messaging of the company / team." I would not be surprised if it were a free version. It will be available to consumers some day, but, as with Allo, it might be time to look for alternatives.

And Duo, Google's new video chat application, is actually surprisingly successful; A quarter of Duo calls are to or from an iPhone. But it is mainly a video chat application, which leaves the messages of Allo and Android: two applications that, from a "consumer product" perspective, essentially do the same.

Android messages has all users. Although Samsung phones do not use Android messages as the default SMS application, most other major manufacturers do (outside of China, anyway). That adds up to 100 million monthly active users, according to Sabharwal. "At the end of the day … the native SMS application is where the users are," he says. "They are not interested in going to a different place to use SMS."

People, even in 2018, tend to use the default application. Although WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger each have more than one billion installations, those users still resort to SMS when necessary. It is the default universal option; every phone supports it, and it always works. Sabharwal estimates that 8 billion SMS-based messages are sent every year.




Google Allo.

Allo, although it is a perfectly functional and functional messaging application, has never managed to build a large user base. Sabharwal looked at Allo and saw "a clearly large set of product features, a great set of capabilities". He looked at Android messages and saw "a product that has tremendous momentum".

So the move was obvious: change all that effort from Allo, which does not have a clear route to get more users, and put it to migrate the application's features to the default Android messages. "The first thing is to unite these things," says Sabharwal. "That's the first decision we've made."

Stated more directly: Google renounces having its own messaging application for consumers, a hand-to-hand competitor for Facebook Messenger. "There are many excellent products and messaging experiences that are available," says Sabharwal. "The mere fact that Google wants to be one of them is not a reason to invest or build products, fundamentally, we build products because we believe we can offer better and better user experiences."

Go back one step. It seems ridiculous that a company as big and powerful as Google simply surrenders to compete directly in the space of messages, but here we are. The question, then, is how the hell do we get here?






Allo applications that did not work

Google's plan this time is much more complicated than the simple launch of a new messaging application. To begin with, he has had to corral more than 50 operators and almost a dozen manufacturers to adopt a new standard. It had to guarantee that Chat would work the same everywhere and that it would have a decent feature set. Oh, and all those companies are fierce competitors who distrust each other and Google.

It's the closest thing to the most difficult and winding road I can imagine to fix the clutter of messages on Android. It is also probably one of the only roads that Google had to try.

The most famous dead-end of Google messaging was Hangouts. Launched almost exactly five years ago, it was Google's most ambitious attempt to compete with iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. It had a huge and eye-catching launch commensurate with its reach, and managed to merge several disparate applications from Google into a single unified system.

Hangouts were undone by Google's often schizophrenic corporate priorities and, frankly, sometimes the institutional inability to run on consumer products. It started as a product deeply entangled in Google+, Google's failed social network. Getting Hangouts out of that fiasco took years.

Hangouts also became an integration point for other services, such as SMS, a live video streaming service, Google Voice and Project Fi. That sounds good in theory, but in practice, it meant that the overall purpose of the application was still changing. At one time, it was an integrated chat and SMS application, and the next, it was not. All the time, the thing started to feel slow and heavy on the phones, and too basic on the desks.

Instead of turning Hangouts down (honestly, you're too enmeshed in Google's own internal work culture to do so), Google pivoted it. Hangouts is now a business chat application designed to compete with Slack.

The next path that Google took was more obvious: launch a new text message application for mobile devices and convince people to use it. That application was Allo, which was launched two years ago.

Allo is an "excellent" application, with all the features you would expect along with the integration with the Google Assistant, which was launched together with Allo. "The strategy behind Allo was to really build a great messaging product for consumers from scratch," says Sabharwal.

But in 2016 (not to mention 2018), simply making a good messaging application was not enough – Not when you have to compete with established giants. Allo also probably suffered from the fatigue of the Google message application. People were worried that it would not be supported in the long term. (It turns out that they were right.)

If you are going to launch a messaging application, you need a good strategy to achieve growth. iMessage worked because it was integrated directly into the iPhone. WhatsApp worked because it was linked to phone numbers and allowed users to avoid paying fees by SMS. (And it had the benefit of being the first popular app that took advantage of push notifications.) Facebook Messenger worked because it was created on Facebook.

Allo did not have that strategy to acquire users. The closest Google came to was a scheme that used Google's own Android services. When I sent an Allo message to someone who did not have the application installed, I received an insert notification from Google instead of an SMS. The notification encouraged them to install the application (although they could respond directly without it).

Two years later, less than 50 million Android users have installed Allo. Considering that WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger register more than a billion installations, those numbers are simply not good enough. As Sabharwal wisely says, "the product as a whole has not reached the level of traction we expected."

That means that Google had to admit that the Allo experiment did not work. As a result, Sabharwal says Google is "stopping the investment" in Allo. That does not mean that it is closing; Sabharwal says Google "continues to support the product." But if you are an Allo user, it's definitely time to start looking elsewhere. I suppose it's a dead application walking (or, if you want, text messages).

There is another option that I and many others have always hoped that Google has the courage to try: simply copy iMessage, but for Android.

Although Google will not say it, I think that path is fundamentally too dangerous for the company. One might think that Google has more than enough leverage to simply create something that carriers would have to accept, like it or not. What are Verizon, Deutsche Telecom and everything else going to do? Change to Tizen in protest? Please.

But the truth is that these operators have points of influence on Google that go beyond choosing to sell phones with Android. Android is, after all, open source. And although Google can (and does) dictate some requirements to include Google services, it can not dictate them to everyone. An operator could set Bing as the default search, for example, or configure its own RCS client as the default text message application.

Maybe Google could have come out with a patented messaging protocol in 2011 when iMessage was launched. But in 2018, operators do not like iMessage, and they will not kindly accept a similar service that acts as the default, especially on Android, the dominant operating system worldwide. Although it seems that they will not charge exorbitant prices by SMS to consumers, RCS is still preferable to operators, as it will give them the opportunity to sell RCS services to companies. The GSMA estimates that there will be a market of $ 74 billion by the year 2021.

In summary, Google tried to get close to everything. There were only two ways left: one that caused all of its trading partners to become frightened and one that gave them the keys to a new and bright messaging platform they could call their own.

Sabharwal does not paint the decision to associate with operators in those terms, of course. Instead, it points out Google's inclination to keep Android not only open, but neutral. Instead of the nuclear option, Google wants to keep the platform at least nominally neutral. "We believe there is a fundamentally better experience we can offer users," says Sabharwal. He continues:

We can not do it without these [carrier and OEM] partners. We do not believe in adopting the approach that Apple has. We are fundamentally an open ecosystem. We believe in working with partners. We believe in working with our OEMs to be able to offer a great experience.




Preview of the Android Messages web client.
Image: Google

The launch

SMS is horrible. It started as a kind of trick about pre-existing cellular systems, and never really developed much. The complement of the multimedia messaging service appeared later and was equally bad. These services are not just outdated; They are expensive. "Nobody says, 'Hey, buddy, put me on MMS,'" jokes Sabharwal. They say "send text message". And again, the experience of sending text messages by default in Android is bad. This is a problem that must be solved.

Since 2007, the solution was always assumed to be RCS, but RCS has not been established for completely predictable reasons. Different operators developed incompatible versions of the "standard", each trying to gain an advantage. Meanwhile, they were interrupted by technology companies that simply manufactured vertically integrated messaging products that depended on data connections. Talk to almost any analyst in the technological space, and you'll see that they disdain that RCS works. Here is Dean Bubley from Disruptive Analysis last year at RCS:

So ignore it. There are no customers, there are no use cases and there is no income associated with "advanced messaging". It's the same nonsense RCS technique that I've been correctly predicting will fail over the last decade. He is still dead, he keeps staggering and trying to eat his brain. He managed to bite Google and Samsung, and they will probably try to infect him too.

And still, Google has spent the last few years trying to achieve a consensus on something called the "Universal Profile", a standardized way to make RCS work through operators. The tone of Google for operators is simple: SMS will be replaced in one way or another. You can be part of the replacement or continue to see how Apple and Facebook escape with text messages.

Google has also been lining up businesses that want to replace SMS to communicate with customers. Instead of a text message with a short link, you can have your boarding pass or Subway sandwich order or whatever appears in your text message application. At this time, the best options for companies that want rich message opportunities for customers are iMessage and Facebook, none of which is as universal as SMS.

Carriers have slowly been boarding. Two large holdouts, AT & T and Verizon, discreetly agreed to support the standard in recent months. Considering how difficult the story has been here, I am somewhat impressed that Google has got everyone to call this function "Chat" instead of "AT & T super premium advanced message plus" or whatever. At the time of writing, 55 carriers, 11 OEMs and two operating system vendors have committed to adopt or change the system.




Preview of group chat of Android messages.
Image: Google

The two operating system providers that have registered in the universal profile: Google and, interestingly, Microsoft. That does not necessarily mean you can expect a native Chat app in Windows 10, but it does mean it's possible. Microsoft's statement on RCS is, at best, irrelevant: "The RCS Universal Profile support for functions such as dialer and messaging or other applications is considered device-by-device, where there is demand for those features."

Unfortunately, we're not likely to have a great time when Chat "just works". I pressed Sabharwal several times on this issue: when carriers will change users? "I do not have a crystal ball," he says. "I do not know exactly how long it will be, but we really feel that we are on the cusp of that now." Later, he gives in and says: "Look, I can speculate, I think it's what"

"By the end of this year, we will find ourselves in a great state, and by the middle of next year, we will be in a place where a large percentage of users [will have] this experience. " However, he warns that "it will be different from one country to another" and from one region to another. It is likely that Europe and Latin America will enable it before American carriers. Still, he emphasizes, "This is not a three to five year play, our goal is to bring this level of quality messages to our Android users in the coming years."

In the United States, Sprint now supports chat between compatible Android phones. T-Mobile has promised to do so in the second quarter of this year. When I asked for a comment, neither Verizon nor AT & T gave me a schedule for when they intend to change the switch to support the Chat.

The average period will be annoying. If your provider or your device does not support chat, you will get outdated MMS messages and text messages, and vice versa. Importantly, that means that iPhone users will not be part of this ecosystem.

But I have a hunch that Apple is pushing to support the chat, not only from Google, but also from operators and other companies. Sources familiar with RCS say that Google, along with multiple mobile operators, is discussing Apple's support of RCS. Apple declined to comment.






Carrier control

If you're still trying to understand the idea that Google will not have an independent consumer chat application, well, so am I. "The fundamental thesis behind the RCS protocol is a service of transportation, "says Sabharwal. That means that the operators will be the final arbiters of what Chat can and can not do, and if it will be successful. The good news is that Google seems to have taken all the cats to a box where their chat services will really be interoperable.

At this time, the expectation is that operators will not charge SMS-style rates for Chat messages. "The messages will work just like any other IP-based messaging protocol, so in that sense, it will be free and part of your data plan," says Sabharwal. That's probably true, but it's definitely out of Google's control. Any standard of communication that depends on the generosity of wireless service providers is inherently at risk of being fouled in many ways, including price.




The companies that support RCS Universal Profile as of April 2018.
Image: GSMA [19659074] The worst news is that operators do not like strong encryption and do not have a great history of rejecting lawsuits of government information.

"RCS continues to be an operator-owned service, so legal interception and other laws that allow operators to access data continue to be the case," admits Sabharwal. And although Google is not closing Allo, it is not working to create a chat service that is as secure as iMessage, Signal or even Telegram. "At this point, the answer is no, we will not have that option," says Sabharwal. Allo offers an "incognito" mode that does not support end-to-end encryption, but that's it.

For a company that has a reputation for rapaciously collecting user data and then converting that data into ads and services, it's surprising to hear that Google does not want a proprietary and operational chat application. Basically, it seems that Sabharwal does not think it necessary. And it may not have an alternative: the company has not been able to find a way to make a proprietary and operated chat application succeed in almost a decade.

"I do not want to say that they were ceding messages" [to the carriers]"says Sabharwal, whereas Google believes it can offer Google services within the Android Messages application, it will not control the transport of those messages, but it can improve the user experience by building the application itself.




Smart answer in the preview of Android messages.
Image: Google

So wait for a couple of things to happen on the front of the In the first place, Google will finally create a desktop web interface to send text messages, at least in the initial version, it will authorize it with a QR code, just as it does with WhatsApp, which makes it essentially an extension of its phone, like the WhatsApp client, so the only message history it will have is what's on your phone.

Secondly, it's expected that the Android Messages app will quickly acquire more With luck, your development will not stagnate like Hangouts did. It is worth watching, because some features can be developed in the application itself and others may require coordination of work with all operators in the chat standard.

Sabharwal can explain the nuances of RCS hubs, operator negotiations and Google own (optional) Jibe RCS cloud services. But more than anything else, he is eager to talk about the features he wants to bring to Android messages. Smart answers Google Assistant Integration with your other project, Google Photos. A clearer organization of messages. Better search More "expressiveness" (read: GIF and stickers).






At the end of the day, users worry about those characteristics. They worry about having "blue bubbles", those cultural indicators that you are having a conversation on a channel that is not limited to messages of 160 characters thrown into the void. Google's route to obtain those features for the more than 2 billion Android users around the world has been difficult, to say the least.

The launch of Chat could be equally difficult. Some operators will resist either stubbornness or inability. Some Android phones may also be left out, depending on their manufacturer. There are risks that internal struggles between all the companies that try to work together can collapse all the effort. And, especially in the USA. UU., Nobody really knows if Apple will bow to the pressure to support RCS or when it will. (Apple, as you surely know, is not one to submit to pressure.)

After talking about all that, Sabharwal finally lets me take a look at a presentation that shows an upcoming version of the Android Messages. It has all the features it expects to deliver. The messages delivered in Chat became blue. But that was just a coincidence: one of the characteristics of Android messages is that you can choose a custom color for your chat messages, depending on who you are talking to. This is Android, after all, and Android has to do with customization.

Personalization is messy. Android is complicated Therefore, it makes sense that the best solution for Android messages is not to eliminate clutter, but to embrace it.