If you’re of a certain generation of techie, this all might sound a bit silly. There are lots of truly interoperable messaging standards, whether it’s SMTP (aka email) or XMPP (aka Jabber), and if you don’t like how they work, you can always start a new one. Facebook isn’t proposing anything like that. Facebook is proposing a new system that it controls, which would aim to crowd out existing open standards as well as competing services from Google, Apple, and everyone else. It’s very much a power play, and if it works, it would put Facebook at the center of one of the most important things we do with our phones.
It would also come with its own business opportunities, depending on how the system is constructed. Robust encryption would mean the company can’t read the text of messages, but if Facebook kept the metadata, it would reveal who you’re texting, which could be a powerful tool for targeted advertising and help Facebook build out its graph of who knows who. It wasn’t mentioned in Zuckerberg’s post, but Facebook is also reportedly working on a blockchain payment system that would let users send money through messaging apps, which would make the proposed system even more lucrative. And as regulators around the world start to think about splitting off WhatsApp and Instagram, bringing all three networks onto a single messaging system could be a crucial political protection.
There are a few more ambitious gestures in Zuckerberg’s statement, but they’re more dreams than concrete plans. It’s clear Facebook would like it if iOS would follow Android’s lead and let third-party apps take over SMS duties (something Apple is unlikely to do). He also suggests it would be nice to extend features like encryption to standards-based messaging, although it’s not clear if Facebook is actually putting its weight behind a new carrier-adopted messaging standard or if Zuckerberg is just flagging a problem so we don’t get mad when it pops up later.
The biggest problem for the proposed scheme is something Zuckerberg only touches on briefly. We’re in the middle of a massive shift in how texting works, as the SMS protocol is replaced by a new protocol called RCS, or Rich Communication Services. Like SMS, RCS is basically controlled by carriers, updating the standard with new features like read receipts and higher quality images. (This is a good explainer, if you want more detail.) Carriers and operating systems are taking a while to get on the same page with RCS, but it’s coming, and eventually, it’s expected to replace SMS entirely.
The problem is that, as it stands now, RCS isn’t supported inside of third-party messaging apps, which means you won’t be able to use WhatsApp to send RCS texts. So even as Zuckerberg tries to build bridges with open standards, the latest standards are cutting him off. RCS is still in flux and it’s not impossible that third-party support might arrive.
But even then, there are other issues: Apple hasn’t said a word about whether the iPhone will ever support RCS and RCS is not an end-to-end encrypted protocol. Without a mobile operating system, Facebook won’t have much say in how it turns out, which makes this a very interesting time to launch a new push for interoperable messaging.
It’s an ambitious project, and a risky one, too. Google has spent years in messaging purgatory, trying to reconcile different apps and teams into a single unified product — until it finally gave up and ceded the whole thing to carriers with RCS. Facebook will have less goodwill to draw on, and the interoperability project cuts against some of Facebook’s core products and principles. It’s easy to imagine the product getting stranded, or simply being abandoned halfway through.
But if it succeeds — even slightly — Facebook will have given us a new approach to one of the most fundamental tech products there is and it will have a shot at extending its social networking monopoly into the messaging space. Faced with mounting unpopularity and dwindling options, Zuckerberg seems to have decided it’s a risk worth taking.