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.

iPhone Interactive Widgets Hide In Plain Sight

Redesigned Widgets came to iOS 14, but for all their benefits, they still lack perhaps the best part about a widget – interactive functionality. Currently, Widgets provide glanceable information, which is nice, but it would be better if a few basic functions were available directly on a Widget. Such utility is already proven as interactive “widgets” do, in fact, exist currently on iPhone.

The best example for an interactive widget would be the Music app using playback buttons. Coincidentally, the app already has 3 different sizes of interactive ”widgets” in iOS; they’re just not part of the widget library. All three “widgets” have basic playback buttons and are, actually, Controls.

The first example is the Now Playing Control ”widget” in Control Center. While using the Music app, it features an interactive play/pause button and forward and backward buttons, which change to seconds-skip buttons when using the Podcasts app. A fourth button reveals an audio output button.

The small Now Playing Control in Control Center on iOS resembles a 2×2 widget.
The Batteries and Music Widget bear striking resemblance to the Radios and Now Playing Controls.

The small Now Playing Control next to the Radios Control resembles a 2×2 Widget, which is clearly evident when compared with the 2×2 Music Widget next to the Batteries Widget.

The 2×2 Music Widget can obviously incorporate playback controls. Of course with a bigger widget, more controls could be utilized. A simple example of this is, again, the Now Playing Control in Control Center. Tap and Hold the Control to reveal a larger 4×6 Control with interactive sliders and buttons.

The 4×6 Now Playing Control looks very nice – love those interactive buttons.

A good example of an interactive 4×4 Music Widget is the 4×4 Now Playing Control found on the Notification Panel.

The 4×4 Now Playing Control in the Notification Panel has tappable buttons – very useful!

These interactive controls easily demonstrate how Apple could implement useful buttons on the next versions of Widgets, and I hope they do. Not only is adding controls to widgets feasible, their current implementation suggests that Apple may intend to eventually tailor these features for future Widget iterations.

Bringing controls to Widgets, on both iPhone and iPad, will make Apple’s future mobile devices more functional and more friendly. I encourage Apple to make it happen.

About Apple’s California Streaming

This week was the ”Superbowl for nerds.” Apple held its annual September event where it showcased the newest iPhones to debut in Autumn. This year sees iPhones 13, which are incrementally better than last year’s iPhones 12. With them, Apple is releasing updated iPads and the latest Apple Watch iteration.

I viewed Apple’s live video announcement — California Streaming — a fast-paced deluge of features packed into a superlative-laden presentation. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m more or less an Apple Fanboy, but it felt a bit like drinking kool-aid with too much sugar. With that small gripe out of the way, here are my personal thoughts as a mobile-computer consumer.


iPad mini

Apple_iPad-mini_ipados-homescreen_09142021

Going from 7.9” to 8.3”, the mini has more screen, yet it remains mini! That’s a solid win in my book. I think most people want as much display as they can comfortably fit in a pocket or hold in one hand. Apple does this via removing bezels and extending the display to the edges of the device. Samsung’s approach is to fold the screen in half! I think I prefer Apple’s method: it’s simpler, more elegant, more affordable, and less likely to break.

The iPad mini basically got all of the iPad Air’s features, but it also got a $100 price hike over the previous mini, which is a bummer. I was thinking about buying my wife her own iPad mini for Christmas, but now it’s more out of reach. Then again, it comes in my wife’s favorite color: purple.

iPad

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I love the iPad! As I type this blog post, I’m enjoying my 8th gen iPad, which I bought in the Summer. I had figured the 9th gen iPad would not get a significant upgrade, and that’s basically what happened. This newest iPad got 3 updates: a wider front camera that follows people to keep them in frame (Center Stage), the A13 chip to replace the great A12, and a True Tone display that, in my experience, is nice but not a big deal.

The one other update that is worth shouting about is that Apple finally bumped the entry priced $329 iPad from a paltry 32GB of storage to 64GB! For that low price, often on sale for $300, I think anyone can now enjoy a viable and enviable Apple tablet. In addition, the $429 iPad now packs a generous 256GB of storage — nice!

iPhone 13/mini/Pro/Pro Max

Apple_iPhone-13-Pro_Colors_09142021
Apple_iphone13_design_09142021

There’s isn’t much for me to say here except that, like most people, the latest iPhones’ camera improvements are more than welcome. I especially am excited about the iPhone 13 Pros getting a Macro photography capability, preferring both the ultra-wide and macro features over the zoom/telephoto features. In addition, the newest iPhones 13 get better performance (not that they were lacking) and longer lasting battery life — what good is all that CPU power if the phone has no battery power at all?

With new phones, I like that the previous few years’ iPhones, which are still excellent devices, now sport a lower price than ever. Those now “older” phones — still for sale as new — make some of the best tech from Apple available to more and more people. Upgrading my iPhone 8 Plus, for example, to last year’s iPhone 12 versus the 13 would save me $100, yet I’d still get a significant update.

Apple Watch 7

Apple_watch-series7_lineup-01_09142021

When it comes to the Apple Watch, I see two sides to it: the fitness side and the smart side. This year’s version 7 does not see much new for either side. Yet while some pundits have panned this year’s Watch as a minor update, I was quite excited for it. Sure, it’s not a huge step up, but it’s better nonetheless. What matters to me is that when I eventually upgrade my current 40mm Apple Watch SE, I’ll see an even bigger display boost when I opt for the now larger 45mm size. Otherwise, I think it performs like my current watch, but it’s vast screen will make using it easier and more enjoyable.

Another welcome change will be the always-on display that’s now much brighter; I presume it doesn’t degrade battery life. Most surprising of all, though, is the new on-screen keyboard! I’m skeptical that it will work well. I suspect the bigger watch size will be easier to tap the tiny letters on. Even without a keyboard, I find voice dictation totally reliable, but it will be nice to try the keyboard once I upgrade in the distant future.


Overall, this year sees Apple making incremental and iterative updates. The biggest changes come to the smallest iPad: the mini. While this might not be an exciting and “revolutionary” upgrade cycle, the progress Apple is making by pushing forward in smallish steps is nevertheless welcome and positive gain. Growth in life only sees spurts during adolescence. Generally, life grows by slow and steady consistency. Apple is a mature company, and all the hardware products announced this week are likewise mature.

The other side of Apple’s coin is more interesting to me this year: software. Next week, Apple will release the public versions of its latest operating systems. I’m eager to install the newest iOS and iPadOS software. Many of the features, like focus modes or multitasking buttons, will make current devices more capable or efficient. Shiny new hardware is fun and functional, but the integrated software is also key to giving nerds, geeks, and ”normal” people the tools they need to apply their talents.

Whether being productive and creative, organizing photo albums, or surfing the web, I’m glad to see Apple steadily improving both its devices and apps that make such tasks simple, elegant, and delightful. Here’s to another year of Apple gear.

A Periscope iPhone Camera

You’re likely happy with your current smartphone. Most phones today are beyond “good-enough.” A lot of folks upgrade just for a better camera; I’m inclined likewise. And one thing that would excite me for the next iPhone: a periscope camera lens. Why? Optical zooooom!


A huge optical zoom on iPhone would be a significant advancement, more than a small iteration or “spec bump.” It would enable the iPhone to capture photos that it just can’t now. Think about how nice it would be, especially if you like outdoor shots.

Sure, you can often “zoom in with your feet” to negate the need for a 2x lens. But the bigger the zoom, say 4x or 8x, then the less likely you’ll do the foot-zoom thing. Let’s say you want to capture an animal in the wild; you’re less likely to scare it off, and you may also be safer by using long telephoto reach.

Of course, a periscope lens should have optical stabilization. More zoom means potentially worse camera shake and blurry pictures. That wouldn’t work.

Most notable is that I’m talking about optical, not digital, zoom. The different glass lenses do the zoom work physically while you compose your shot. And from there, you can still crop-in for greater framing.

A periscope camera on iPhone is possible because: one, it already exists on other phones. Two, I’m sure Apple’s engineers have the skills to make it a reality. I think the only real barrier, a temporary one, would be the cost.

Due to the newness and expense, and Apple’s margins, I think the periscope camera will come in time. It’ll start on the highest-end iPhone Pro Max Super Duper. Then, after a few years, this great camera feature will trickle down to the more affordable iPhones.

To market the new big zoom, Apple could call it: iPhone Z.

The only other question I’d have is what zoom would Apple set for a periscope lens? 4x? 5x? 10x!?

It could all come into focus this year, in 2021!


What do you think? Reply below with your comment. Contact or Email me at the buttons above. Thanks for reading!