Apple Embraces RCS: The Devil Is in the Detail and the Reason Is the DMA

Over the past two years, a key topic in CCS Insight’s research has been the growing prospect of increased regulatory oversight and the potential for Europe to shape the legislative agenda for big tech. In October 2022, we predicted that the Digital Markets Act (DMA), although it is specific to Europe, would have global implications dictating how large platform companies operate. This is quickly coming to fruition — as we outlined in a recent blog post — with reaction to the European Commission’s designations on 6 September 2023 underlining the looming significance of the legislation.

The announcement on 16 November that Apple would embrace RCS (Rich Communication Services) should be viewed in exactly this context. There’s little doubt that pressure from the European Commission has led to an abrupt change of course. However, the devil is in the detail, and this will come down to implementation. Green and blue chat bubbles are unlikely to be a thing of the past.

To set the context, RCS is a messaging standard from the GSMA supported by a lot of network operators and major hardware and software brands, including Samsung and Google. Provided as part of the messaging system in Android, it’s designed to be a richer, Internet-based alternative to SMS that better competes with iMessage, WhatsApp, WeChat and other solutions. The industry has been pressing Apple to support RCS, with Google a particularly vocal proponent. Despite the pressure, and a lack of interoperability preventing media files like videos from being easily shared between Android and iOS, Apple has consistently stated that users aren’t asking for it.

Although the move is undoubtedly a change of tack from Apple, it’s not a significant shift toward RCS for iMessage. In a statement to the media Apple said, “we believe the RCS Universal Profile will offer a better interoperability experience when compared to SMS or MMS”.

There are several important points here. Apple is stating that RCS will provide a better interoperability experience than SMS or MMS. The company is very clear that it believes iMessage will remain the superior option. There’s also little to suggest that RCS will be integrated into iMessage. Apple has said that RCS will work alongside iMessage, with the latter offering the better and most secure user experience. Subsequently, the iconic blue message bubble that represents iMessage and green bubbles for everything else — SMS, MMS, RCS — are very likely to remain.

It’s important to emphasize that how this all works in practice remains to be seen. How it’s rolled out, what devices are supported and who manages the deployment are among the unanswered questions. Although Apple is now “supporting” RCS, we’ll probably see intense debate and disagreement across the industry about how it gets implemented. If RCS is offered as the poor cousin to iMessage, it may do little to foster an improved user experience and could still result in regulatory rather than just industry heat if iMessage is ruled to be a core platform service under the DMA.

This raises the question of why Apple has chosen to make this concession now and before the European Commission has completed its review of iMessage. The answer is in large part down to the looming implications of the DMA. As we examined back in September, the commission has opened four market investigations to further assess submissions from multiple companies that platform services don’t qualify as gateways.

One of these is iMessage. If it’s determined by the February 2024 deadline that iMessage is a core platform service, Apple would be forced to open up the service and interoperate with other messaging platforms. This designation would keep the European Commission in control of how Apple implements RCS through the enforcement mechanisms of the DMA.

Indeed, the Financial Times reported on 8 November that Google and several large network operators had cosigned a letter to the commission arguing that iMessage should be designated as such.

Microsoft and Google are among the companies that have taken a pragmatic approach to the DMA and have chosen a cooperative stance with the European Commission rather than the more combative stance taken by ByteDance, Meta and Apple, which filed appeals against the DMA. Apple may be hoping that cooperation to support RCS before it is (potentially) mandated will buy it some goodwill to avoid iMessage being determined as a core platform service in February. It would also enable Apple to shape the RCS standard before it’s required by law to adopt it at a later date.

As we expected, the DMA is already delivering unprecedented change to the technology industry. It’s likely to receive significant opposition from multiple companies relating to a range of services that are deemed platform services. Apple, ByteDance and Meta have already lodged challenges, but events relating to iMessage and Apple’s other services will be the most closely observed in the coming months given the significance to the company and its users.