Sprint launches Google's RCS offering for Android users

Image: Google

Sprint has partnered with Google to launch RCS (Rich Communications Services) messaging, marking what may prove to be an important win for a standardized platform that has thus far struggled to gain much traction.

RCS -- which was once dubbed joyn -- is a messaging standard that was developed as a way for mobile operators to better compete with services such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Apple's iMessage, which have eaten into carriers' SMS revenues around the world. RCS supports features such as group chat and high-resolution photo sharing that aren't available through SMS.

Google threw its weight behind RCS in February, when the GSMA announced the internet giant would create an RCS client for Android. Heavyweights such as América Móvil, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone backed the move, and nearly five dozen carriers and manufacturers have signed on, but Sprint was the only U.S. carrier to add its name to the list of supporting wireless operators.

“Today, we’re excited to announce the next step in this initiative with our first carrier launch supporting the new universal RCS profile,” Google RCS chief Amir Sarhangi wrote on Google’s blog. “Together with Sprint, we’re launching RCS messaging to their customers using Android devices, starting today. This will bring enhanced features including group chat, high-res photo sharing, read receipts and more to the standard SMS experience upgraded trough the Messenger app for Android devices, developed by Google.”

The offering is powered by Jibe, an RCS provider Google acquired last year.

T-Mobile in 2015 became the first major U.S. operator to offer RCS, rolling out its service under the brand Advanced Messaging. The service appears to have gained some traction, but it isn’t designed to be the kind of universal messaging platform Google hopes to achieve.

“Next year, all new Android devices from Sprint will come with Messenger for Android preloaded as the default SMS and RCS messaging experience,” Sarhangi wrote. “Subscribers currently using select LG and Nexus phones from Sprint will have the messaging experience upgraded automatically through an app update, and subscribers using other Android devices can download Messenger from the Play store.”

Sarhangi said Google plans to launch RCS with more partners “in the coming months,” but carriers clearly haven’t rushed to support the standard. Operators in many markets have already lost the messaging game to third-party apps and services, and U.S. carriers long ago began bundling SMS into their price plans, so they don’t have a huge incentive to invest in a new platform that will essentially be free to end users.

If RCS proves sufficiently compelling to lure customers to Sprint, Google may be able to entice other U.S. carriers to sign on. But users have a huge number of messaging platforms to choose from, and whether U.S. consumers will embrace RCS is far from clear.