RCS Messaging Misses The Point

News about Apple’s and Google’s messaging services simmers on the front burner. Two different views in particular stood out to me yesterday, one from long-time Apple writer John Gruber and one from Android writer JR Raphael. Both offer good points and are worth your time to read. They got me to suspect that the RCS text standard won’t succeed — which led to a related thought experiment — then another piece by Ron Amadeo at Ars Technica confirmed my suspicion.

There are pros and cons to the blue messaging/green texting situation. In a recent post, I pointed out one real downside I see in practice on my iPhone, that an SMS text message (green) ungroups an iMessage group chat (blue). It’s not that big of a deal to me, but there are other downsides to SMS that hurt Apple’s Messages. One worth mentioning is that end-to-end encryption, a crucial strength of iMessage, gets undone with SMS texting. 

In JR Raphael’s piece, he promotes a solution that may be merely a stopgap: that Apple should adopt the RCS messaging standard as a replacement to SMS. This seems like a good approach, one that I thought couldn’t hurt and would probably be for the better. One benefit to gain: RCS supports typing indicators like iMessage. That said, I later realized that the solution, or replacement, to SMS (or any form of texting) has already been implemented across most of the world.

Gruber’s article mentions it where he paraphrases Ben Thompson:

“Pre-iMessage, the U.S. was an outlier for SMS, because U.S. carriers made SMS text messages free, or included so many SMS monthly text messages in their plans that they were effectively free. Whereas elsewhere around the world, SMS text messages always cost at least 10 cents a pop — often more — to send, which was a big motivation to find alternative messaging services.”

John Gruber – Daring Fireball

The last bit, “alternative messaging services,” is noteworthy.

RCS Is Not The SMS Alternative You’re Looking For

Before iMessage arrived, SMS was not a viable option for many people outside of America due to its high cost and how carriers handled texting. So when smartphones became popular, with their computer-like capabilities and persistent data connections, most of the world abandoned old-school SMS — and they didn’t turn to RCS or any other new texting standard. Instead, they found alternative messaging services with better features. As Gruber points out, Apple also sought an alternative messaging service to SMS. They found it: iMessage.

This makes me wonder, does Google’s push for RCS miss the point? Do we really need another alternative messaging service to SMS? Since we have smart-phones, why shouldn’t America embrace web-based messaging — such as Line or Telegram or Apple’s iMessage — like the rest of the world? I think many Americans have, in fact, adopted rich messaging solutions, so there really isn’t a need for a new standard replacement for SMS texting.

A problem I see, though, is that different apps and services for rich messaging create communication siloes. For example, one person I know uses WhatsApp, another one uses Facebook Messenger, yet another I chat with is on Discord. To talk with them, I must use different apps, which is not ideal. Many others I know enjoy Apple Messages simply because they have iPhones, so it’s easy to chat with them, whether I’m on my iPhone, iPad, or Mac. As good as iMessage is, though, it’s proprietary, yet another silo.

Maybe the RCS standard would solve the silo issue. Imagine if everyone you knew actually used the same exact messaging system all the time; wouldn’t that be convenient? That said, I think it’s too late to launch another messaging service. Despite the chat app silo situation we have today, people are already set in their preferred messaging services. Everyone seems to manage communication as things are now, and I doubt most people would welcome a change to something else, even if it’s better. RCS, though, doesn’t appear to be better at all. Ron Amadeo of Ars Technica is clear when he decries RCS:

“[RCS] is a 14-year-old carrier standard, though, so it lacks many of the features you would want from a modern messaging service, like end-to-end encryption and support for non-phone devices.”

“…it’s a poor standard to build a messaging platform on because it is dependent on a carrier phone bill. It’s anti-Internet and can’t natively work on webpages, PCs, smartwatches, and tablets…”

Ron Amadeo – Ars Technica

Thought Experiment

What if Apple decided to no longer support any fallback system outside of iMessage? It’s perfectly within their prerogative to drop SMS if they wish. Of course, Apple would need to consider how such a move would affect their overall strategy. It’s not hard to imagine, though, how Apple could think that simplifying their Messages app by dropping SMS and ignoring RCS could be a good idea in the long term. Just let outdated SMS die like the texting plans Americans once paid for.

If Apple drops SMS and dismisses RCS, then how would I text my dad on his Android phone? I wouldn’t. Then how would we communicate? Instead of old-school texting, we’d use one of the many ubiquitous web-based apps already established. In our case, that’d likely be Facebook Messenger. While that wouldn’t be my first choice — because Facebook Meta — I’d still communicate with my dad and enjoy modern messaging features as well.

Should Apple replace SMS with RCS, or should RCS exist at all? What do you think?

Don’t Burst Your Bubble Color

Recent news about division stemming from Apple’s iMessage app caught my attention this week. There’s a general notion that Apple discriminates against Google, or that iPhone discriminates against Android; I’ve got some thoughts on that. This is about the long-standing difference between iMessage texts, which are blue, and standard SMS/MMS texts, which are green. 

Here’s one of a few articles (this one’s from The Verge) written lately on the subject:

Google says Apple ‘should not benefit from bullying’ created by iMessage lock-in

“Blue bubble envy is real”

James Vincent – The Verge

I talked about this topic before, here and here. Now I’ve got more to say.

While it would be nice if everyone used the same standard or system of communication, such an ideal, for various reasons, simply doesn’t exist. In practical daily living, there’s really just one downside to the blue versus green texting dichotomy that affects me: group texts.

In a group chat, there is typically one chat or group of people texting unless one of the texts is SMS rather than iMessage. In that case, it causes multiple separated chats to appear in a list despite them belonging to the same group text. In effect, it ungroups the group chat. Not cool. At best, this is a minor inconvenience, and at worst, it can cause mild confusion. Such confusion hinders communication in a medium where context is typically lacking and thus limited in the first place.

That said, the blue/green texting dichotomy isn’t that big of a deal. While it creates a difference, it doesn’t necessarily cause division.

Of course, it’s generally good to remove or reduce barriers to communication. But it’s also good to remember that reality isn’t always optimized to match what’s ideal. So it’s normal for people to adapt to things — make them work — when those things don’t necessarily adapt to people. And when feasible, people strive to make reality as ideal as possible. In this case, it’d be cool if somehow Apple and Google or others managed to unify on a texting standard.

There’s another related problem, though, that is unlikely to be solved even if Apple and Google miraculously settle on an agreed texting paradigm.

While friends and family text my phone number to stay in touch, they’re not consistent. Sometimes they message me through another service like Facebook Messenger instead — that doesn’t get a bubble in iMessage at all. Besides text messaging, people chat through Signal, WhatsApp, and others. Everyone uses different platforms and services to communicate — at least we speak the same language. These separate ways to chat are not ideal, but we deal with it, and we don’t have to divide over it. That said, if such chatting can be simplified or unified, I think life might be a little more convenient.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence more than once when it comes to texting. I can’t ask everyone on Android to switch to iPhone any more than I could ask everyone on iPhone to switch to Android. If Apple does not adopt RCS into iMessage or doesn’t open iMessage up to Android, I think blue and green bubbles are here to stay. Would it help if Apple made them all the same color, say purple? I doubt it.

With different texting standards, texting just isn’t standardized. This is inconvenient, but it needs not be divisive — don’t let it burst your bubble no matter the color. Like agreeing to disagree, we can at least agree that differentiation (tech diversity) and competition are good things overall, though that isn’t the best consolation for broken group chats.

Settling My Setup

The past year has been a computer smorgasbord. Last summer, my main computer was a nice Chromebook, but it gave way to an iPad. It’s more computer-like than ever, and I enjoyed making it my primary device. That said, I hesitated to publish a post — in draft for months — about switching up my setup. Why? Because I wanted to be sure I was going to stick with the iPad and that it would work long-term for me. Things were going well until a Windows PC gaming laptop entered the mix and I slowly gravitated to it. Now I believe I’ve settled my setup with one of Apple’s best devices yet: the M1 MacBook Air.

Wait, what? Yeah, not the iPad. And not the PC.

The iPad was designed to be an excellent tablet, which it certainly is. Not long ago, Apple added features to make it more like a full computer, greatly improving its functionality. Those additions were native mouse/trackpad cursor support and desktop-class browsing. Combined, this meant that — at long last — one could hover a pointer over a web link or button to access a site’s features. It also allowed for better text manipulation; no longer would you be challenged to precisely select words with the fat tip of a fumbling finger. Despite these handy non-touch advances, using the iPad as my main computer was still lacking.

The iPad multitasking menu.

Though my productivity needs mostly center on simply typing words, I find iPad’s multitasking misses the mark; it’d be better labeled as bi-tasking or maybe tri-tasking. The Apple tablet’s Split View feature is nicer than ever, thanks to iPadOS 15’s new controls, and Slide Over — with multiple apps in a stack — is both slick and useful. At most, though, you can have a total of only two apps visible at a time, with a third iPhone-sized app somewhat in the mix. These innovative features are implemented fastidiously, but using iPad with a bluetooth-tethered mouse and keyboard, acting like a full-computer, begs the question: why not just use an actual laptop?

The clamshell form-factor of a notebook computer, like the MacBook, along with a traditional operating system is best for productivity. I say this as one who truly relied on an iPad (and a Chromebook…) as my main computer for a long time; I really wanted the iPad to work for me. I love the iPad with its simple software and superb hardware; it’s fantastic…as a tablet. However, given its shortcomings, I finally bought — dare I say it — a “real” computer (or let’s say a full computer).

iPad with attached keyboard looks like a laptop.

Switching away from the iPad as my daily device was an interesting process that required compromise. Had circumstances been different, I would likely still be relying on the iPad — it was good enough, or close enough to a full computer for most of my needs.

Therein lies the rub, as some of my needs (and wants) could only be met with the recent PC gaming laptop my family bought. With it, I gained true multitasking and multi-windowing for superior productivity. I also gained access to PC games and a particular app for creativity: RPG Maker MZ. While the Windows laptop’s robust multitasking reminded me of what the iPad lacks, it didn’t play nice with my Apple paradise, which led to trying a handful of cross-platform apps and services. As a result, I cautiously embraced a multi-device setup: iPad plus Windows laptop as needed. The combo seemed to work, but it was less than ideal.

Preferring to use my own personal laptop, I shopped for a mid-range Windows machine. This was partly led also by my family’s need for yet another traditional computer since my wife and I have five (5) kids that we homeschool. As I shopped for “the perfect” Windows PC, I felt most were compromised in some way. Finally, after my budget increased, I snapped up the MacBook from Apple’s refurbished store — it’s like-new. I’ll share it with one of my sons for some of his school work, but otherwise I get to claim the MacBook as my personal device. It makes the most sense for me since I can compute comfortably from within Apple’s walled-garden.

MacBook Air with floating app windows.

I’ll probably have more to say about the MacBook itself in a future post, but in case I don’t, let me share my first impression here and now: I love it! So far, so good. It’s only been three days since I started using the M1 MacBook Air — it’s still kind of surprising. The last time I owned a Mac of any kind was about ten years ago. It was a late ’09 MacBook running OS X Mountain Lion on an Intel Core 2 Duo.

Overall, I think my setup is settled now, which is a relief. In just the past few days of acclimating to macOS, I already feel unrestricted, like anything I need to do is no problem. I’ve installed x86 or intel-based apps (Discord, RPG Maker MZ, and GIMP for example) and they’re all running normally through Rosetta without issues so far. Using a mouse or trackpad with the MacBook feels more natural than with the iPad. And macOS is a great experience. It’s simple, elegant, and refined like all of Apple’s products.

The iPad and the MacBook are both computers, no doubt. Each one provides a unique experience, a “think different” approach to computing. Whichever one’s “different” computing is the same as your needs or wants, that’s the one to use.

New Year, New Computer

Howdy, y’all, and happy new year! What’s new in ’22? For starters, I did a thing. It’s part of my recent computer workflow upheaval. I’m doing some switching even though I tried to avoid it, but it makes sense. I still love to use my iPad, though certain things work better on a full computer like our Windows 11 gaming laptop. One thing led to another and…I ordered a MacBook!

Hopefully, my new Mac will arrive tomorrow as scheduled for delivery; I’m eager to start using it. Like my family’s shared Windows laptop, the MacBook is a “full computer” with multi-windowing and multi-tasking beyond what the iPad can do. It’s keyboard is always attached and has a palm rest, unlike my tablet. On top of that, it’s an Apple device like my iPhone and iPad, so I can stay all-in with the Apple ecosystem (almost totally). For me, that’s a big win.

MacBook Air M1

Over the past month or so, I leaned towards using our Windows laptop more because it’s better at productivity and other things that my iPad simply can’t do. That said, the Win11 PC setup was not ideal to me because it’s shared among several family members and it caused me to try using cross-platform apps or services, breaking me out of my comfy Apple walled garden, you know, where it’s all magical unicorns and rainbows and such.

We needed another computer in my family for one of my sons to use in his digital photo class this upcoming Spring semester, and I wanted my own ”full PC.” I searched for the best Windows laptop deals and always found them compromised in at least one way: not enough memory, missing the right ports, battery life too short, etc. Nothing clicked; I was reluctant to pull the trigger on any Windows laptop since I wanted to ensure my large financial investment would pay off for years. Then my budget increased, allowing me to buy the newest M1 MacBook Air from Apple’s refurbished store.

As an ultrabook, I think the M1 MBA is the best deal for me, especially since it lets me firmly cement my feet in Apple’s platform foundation. My AirPods and Apple Watch and iPad and iPhone should work well with the MacBook. Most important, though, will be the multi-tasking and windowing, which most folks have relied on for decades, along with what’s acclaimed to be stellar battery life and performance in a small and lightweight package.

Apple M1 Chip

The MacBook will be my own while one of my teens gets to use it in a class. This also means all my kids can learn to use a Mac, a PC, or a Chromebook. Speaking of the latter, my current Chromebook is going to my wife, and her Chromebook will become another for the kids to share. It looks like our household of seven people will at least have one main computer for all to use and eventually a personal device for each (beyond a smartphone). Now if only we could get internet faster than DSL… (we hotspot to our 4G/LTE phones a lot; 5G is still practically non-existent).

Yeah, I’m excited. The last, and only, Mac I ever owned was a late ’09 MacBook, the polycarbonate white one with a Core 2 Duo CPU and 4GB RAM. I was running OS X Mountain Lion, and things have advanced a lot since then. The M1 MBA ships with macOS Monterey, and it allows iOS apps to work, among other tricks. I hope to stick with this computer for many years.

That’s one way to start a new year, switching to a new computer. At least it’s more fun than beginning a new fitness regimen. I’ll try to not get Cheetos dust on my magic keyboard.