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Is Google finally managing its messaging mess?

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Is Google finally managing its messaging mess?

Exclusive: Chat is Google’s next big fix for Android’s messaging mess | Artists: Garret Beard and William Joel

Sadly, the time has come for me to write about Rich Communication Services again. There have been a few pieces of news about it in the past week or so and I find myself vaguely optimistic that by this time next year Google will be offering properly encrypted messaging to Android users with a relatively simple, seamless experience that’s well on its way to being universally available.

Plus, Google is finally starting to transition users from Hangouts to Google Chat in a real way under new management that is motivated to finally get it right because everybody is paying way more attention during the pandemic.

But let’s stick with RCS for the moment. Google has me at the spot where Charlie Brown is at his most tragically hopeful and Sisyphean: right before he resolves to run at the football and really kick it this time despite knowing in his heart Lucy will pull it away again. Except the football in this case is the easy answer I’d like to give to Android users about how text messaging works on their phones.

Instead, the answer is as it ever was. (Deep breath.) RCS is the more advanced replacement for SMS and if the carriers and phones of all texters in a thread support it then you’ll get chat-like features like typing indicators and bigger attachments. But there’s no real way to know whether or not you’ll be getting RCS or plain old SMS until you open up a chat window with one or several people and then wait to see what you get.

If your carrier doesn’t support RCS, you can still get it via Android Messages and let Google handle RCS for you, but it will still fall back gracefully to SMS or MMS. In any case, none of these solutions offer truly end-to-end encryption and there’s no indication Apple is even faintly interested in supporting it on the iPhone.

Good grief.

And yet, I’m going to take a run at that football. Because while I don’t think there’s going to be a simple answer, I do see signs that Google is making tangible progress towards better answers.

The most recent news is that T-Mobile will finally begin supporting proper cross-carrier RCS messaging via the “Universal Profile.” Until now, T-Mobile could technically say it supported RCS but in reality it only worked between certain T-Mobile phones.

If you’re reading this and are an Android user, chances you think this whole thing is moot because Google is already providing RCS services to anybody who wants them via its Android Messages app. But the most common Android phones are Samsung phones and Samsung ships its own texting app by default. And most people just use the default.

So T-Mobile figuring out how to get its RCS to talk to Google’s RCS via the globally accepted default is meaningful progress. That doesn’t mean we don’t have more confusion in store. Last year the major US carriers signed on to a joint agreement called the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative that was designed to do the thing Google had been asking them to do all along: support RCS Universal Profile. What does T-Mobile’s announcement mean for the CCMI? Stay tuned I guess!

All of this RCS interconnect confusion and politicking would just be a morbid fascination of mine if it weren’t for the fact that it all has direct and tangible effects on Android users’ real lived experiences with text messaging.

So while I apologize for belaboring the minutiae, I am doing so to make a point: even though you’re paying a monthly bill, your needs are not the priority for your mobile carrier. It’s much more important in the boardrooms of these carriers to make sure they’re not accidentally giving up anything to another major tech company than it is to move more quickly towards the correct solution.

That’s not to absolve Google, but as its CEO Sundar Pichai told me in our interview earlier this month, “RCS is where we are like United Nations. We try to herd a bunch of people.” Google is committed to keeping Android at least somewhat neutral in the tug of war between carriers and Google itself. That’s why progress is so slow.

But all of this is just a new version of the SMS status quo, honestly, because RCS by default is not end-to-end encrypted. Unlike iMessage and Signal, your texts are not as private as they could be.

Apparently that might change, as an internal dogfooding build of Android messages has a bunch of strings and settings for end-to-end encryption. As it promised last July, Google is clearly working on some kind of solution.

What will that solution look like? We’re still a little too early to say, but if I had to guess I’d say it will be something that’s available for people who use Google’s Android Messages app, but if anybody in the texting chain doesn’t it’ll fall back to regular RCS or even SMS.

See, the way RCS works is your app sends a ping to the other phones to ask whether it too can do RCS in a process called “capability exchange.” If both apps support RCS, then you’re off to the races. There’s no technical reason that capability exchange couldn’t also include a “hey do you support end-to-end encryption?” message, too.

Maybe it will be more broad-based than that and become part of the official GSMA Universal Profile spec, such that apps like Samsung Messages will also work with it. But if I had to guess, I’d say Google’s going with the minimum viable product. Or maybe that’s just what I hope Google is doing, because the fastest way to create pressure is to show real consumer demand.

Right now, iMessage users have the option for secure, end-to-end encrypted messages when they text other iPhone users, built right into the default experience. If Google comes through with encrypted messaging in Android Messages, it’ll have the same option for Android users when they text other Android Message users — again, built right into the default.

It would be nice if I didn’t need to add so many provisos to those sentences. It would be really nice if, as they have done with exposure tracing, Apple and Google could work together to create a system that protects user privacy in messaging as well.

If Google actually enables end-to-end encryption, who will be holding the secure messaging football? Google? The carriers? Apple? All I know is I’m standing here under a leafless tree, a determined glint in my eye, getting ready to take another run at it again. Knowing full well that one of them is definitely going to yank it away.

Rats.


SpaceX’s first crewed launch

SpaceX’s first crewed launch: all the updates on the company’s historic mission for NASA. Here are all of our SpaceX stories on the launch in one place.

Here’s what to expect as SpaceX launches its first human crew to space. Loren Grush provides the rundown of what to watch for.

The Crew Dragon is designed to require minimal input from its passengers, but since this is a test, Hurley and Behnken will do some manual flying before they reach the space station. “It’s obviously something that we want to make sure we understand completely for future crews in case they ever have to fly the vehicle manually,” Hurley said during a press conference. The plan is for Hurley to take control right after Crew Dragon reaches orbit as well as when they approach the space station.

Gadget news

Sony’s Xperia 1 II ships in the US on July 24th for $1,199. For that price, those cameras better finally deliver. Sony’s rap for years has been that it makes the best sensors but somehow whiffs on its own smartphone cameras. Twelve hundred bucks is definitely put up or shut up money.

I will say that as a Sony camera user, I’m weirdly excited for the pro camera options here because Sony is using the same interface I’m already used to for it.

The Sony ZV-1 is a tiny vlogging powerhouse.

Lenovo made two new tablets with detachable Bluetooth keyboards. Putting Bluetooth in the keyboard on a Surface clone (which is not a knock, just the easiest way to describe this form factor) is maybe clever. Honestly, is there a Windows computer Lenovo wouldn’t try out?

The Oppo Watch isn’t bad, but it does look like an Apple Watch. Sam Byford:

The most interesting thing about the Oppo Watch software is its selection of built-in apps, which are accessible through a scrolling grid that’s halfway between the Apple Watch’s weird honeycomb and list views. There are the usual apps for phone calls, fitness tracking, timers, and weather, as well as an on-watch app store and China-specific services like Alipay. It’s a pretty robust feature set, including things like sleep tracking that haven’t come to the Apple Watch yet.

Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 review: perfect for work-from-home life. Chris Welch says they’re competent in lots of categories even if they’re not class-leading. Sometimes nailing the basics is exactly what you want.

As you may have realized by now, the Surface Headphones 2 don’t best Sony and Bose in every category. But since Microsoft decided on a much smarter, more affordable price this time around, they don’t necessarily have to.

Carqon electric cargo bike review: urban transport, solved. Thomas Ricker:

I just spent a week riding Carqon’s first production bicycle here in Amsterdam. It’s an 88-pound (40 kg) electric cargo bike designed to transport an adult and up to four kids a distance of up 75 miles (120 km) before needing a recharge. I came away a believer in the transformative power of the electric cargo bike to replace both diesel-gulping delivery vans and family cars in the world’s cities.

More from The Verge

The human cost of Instacart’s grocery delivery. Russell Brandom talked to eight Instacart workers who got sick, yet despite promises from the company only three of them got sick pay. Just incredibly terrible treatment of workers here.

Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that customers would get frustrated. The app made it seem as though shoppers had access to a special warehouse where all of the goods were kept, like Amazon. Why would the app list a product for sale if you couldn’t actually buy it? Instacart would recoup the cost of a particular grocery order if buyers refused to pay, but there were lots of other ways angry customers could make life hard for shoppers, like clawing back tips or leaving a zero-star rating. And most of the time, customers didn’t get mad at stores; they got mad at shoppers. Instacart had arbitraged customer anger onto the most vulnerable people in the system.

Nilay Patel interviewed Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield for the Vergecast, wherein Butterfield said that Microsoft is ‘unhealthily preoccupied with killing us.’

Emergency COVID-19 vaccines will have to convince a skeptical public. You’ve already learned a lot of medical terminology in the past couple months. As Nicole Wetsman writes, you’re going to need to learn yet more:

The challenge is, Quinn’s research shows that most people don’t have a good sense of the difference between drug approval and emergency authorization. She found that Americans have a limited understanding of FDA terminology around experimental products. “People don’t understand that kind of language,” she says. In one survey, she found people were unfamiliar with terms like “emergency use authorization,” “off-label” (which is when a drug is used for different disease than the one it was approved for), and “investigational new drug” (a drug that’s being tested in clinical trials).

HBO Max is full of potential, but its biggest hurdle remains AT&T’s messy execution. It’s launching today. Julia Alexander on all the ways AT&T is own-goaling itself on this launch strategy:

In the middle of it all is a confusing, nearly comedic branding struggle that has HBO diehards concerned and WarnerMedia executives on the defense. (I cover this industry daily, and even I scratch my head over the differences between HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO Max.) That’s the question at the heart of HBO Max’s launch: what is it? Leveraging prestigious programming from HBO, tentpole franchise movies from the DC and Harry Potter universes, kids content in the form of Sesame Street, and new original programming, HBO Max wants to give anyone and everyone something they can watch.

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