The mobile industry is excited about RCS, the smart replacement for the 25-year-old SMS. But the industry has been here before, warns Alan Burkitt-Gray, and there are still details to sort out, such as the business model, and whether Apple will join
Google has kick-started the latest attempt by the mobile industry to build a successor to SMS text messaging and – more important to carriers – a rival to Apple’s iMessage as well as Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, WeChat, WhatsApp and the rest: services the mobile industry still thinks of as depriving them of their revenue and customers.
The trouble is, people across the messaging industry are still unclear about the revenue model for the so-called Rich Communications Service (RCS), which is expected to be launched during 2018.
Some believe that RCS will be best for person-to-person (P2P) messages; others say its strength will be in application-to-person messaging (A2P). Some say it will be an alternative to the mobile web, searching for local pizza joints or buying tickets. Others hope it will become the new medium for mobile payments. It’s usually free to receive SMS messages, but no one is sure whether the same will apply to RCS. That’s a clue, if ever you needed one, that there isn’t yet a clearly developed business model. Dean Bubley, famously cynical commentator with Disruptive Analysis, tells Capacity: “It’s putting the cart before the horse.”
I phoned Bubley after he posted a list of reasons on LinkedIn why he was happy not to be going to Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona this year. “What, zombie RCS again?” he wrote.
That “again” refers to RCS’s last outing at MWC, back in February 2013, when the GSMA, the trade association that runs the event, launched it under the name Joyn, with hopes it would become global.
Soon Orange in France had Joyn, but I checked in August 2013 and it was still being shunned by the three rival French operators. In Germany Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone had adopted Joyn in August, but not O2 or E-Plus, then owned by KPN. There was better news from Spain, where Orange, Vodafone and Telefónica’s Movistar offered Joyn, and from South Korea, where KT, LG U+ and SK Telecom were all enthusiastic.
But that was just about it, and the industry let Joyn quietly disappear. Go to joynus.com, once the official Joyn website and directory of RCS services, and you get to the GSMA home page. Orange.com/Joyn leads to the regular Orange home page. Nothing to see here: George Orwell couldn’t have done better.
“RCS has been around so long and never got anywhere,” is how Nick Lane, mobile insight analyst at Mobilesquared, sums up the history so far. But we’re five years on, and something has changed. “Google had a great succession of attempts to create its own messaging, but they had largely fallen flat,” says Bubley.
Apple has its own rich messaging service, iMessage, for its iOS operating system, but Google’s Android doesn’t have anything like it. I still have the Google Hangouts app on my phone, which once handled SMS as well as voice and video calls, but the SMS function disappeared in late 2016. That’s because, in 2015, Google bought a New York company, Jibe, for an undisclosed sum with the idea that it could relaunch its messaging effort.
“Google is taking up the mantle and is integrating it with Android messaging,” says Greg Collins, founder of market intelligence firm Exact Ventures. “It’s still early days.”
Google has support from the industry, says Joanne Lacey, COO of the Mobile Ecosystem Forum (MEF, but not the former Metro Ethernet Forum, which uses the same initials). She lists “two or three carriers” as well as the GSMA and notably Samsung as organisations that “should be included in the revival”.
Gregory Hoy, director of product management for RCS messaging at OpenMarket, says T-Mobile US and Vodafone are prominent supporters. Others point to Orange as having a significant influence behind the scenes.
There’s some vagueness in the industry about how RCS will be introduced. Some believe that it can be added to handsets as part of an over-the-air system upgrade but mostly it will roll out as people buy new phones. “Vodafone has an RCS-capable client on a majority of [new] handsets,” says Hoy. “Slowly Google has been introducing RCS to Android messaging and are signing up handset vendors,” says Collins. “Huawei is putting it on its handsets. It’s another way to solidify the Android ecosystem.”
Android is the dominant mobile operating system across most of the world, with a market share that hovers around 82-87%, according to IDC, and Apple’s iOS picks up almost all the rest – with Microsoft’s Windows Phone lost in the noise at well under 1%.
It’s different in the US, where iOS has around a 55% share, according to Statcounter. In Canada and the UK Android and iOS are more or less equal. But they’re unusual, even in developed countries: in France and Germany iOS is down at around a 32% share.
That gives Google, as the patron of Android, the opportunity to put a native messaging function on its operating system – with the added hope that this will allow the company to win market share from the other messaging companies. If it can do so with the support of the mobile operators and the GSMA, that would give Google an advantage that Facebook and the others don’t have.
What will Apple do?
But the big question is: What will Apple do? Apple, of course, isn’t saying. Apple watchers study the stars and try to deduce the future. One of those taking part in last November’s Messaging and SMS World conference, run by Capacity in association with the MEF, hinted that the GSMA is having fruitful talks with Apple.
I followed up with David O’Byrne, the IP communications project director at the GSMA, who told me in January that the trade association has had meetings with Apple about adopting RCS standards. “There’s been lots of engagement with them” since early 2017. “We know they are getting the case for RCS.” Apple recognises it does not have 100% of the phone market so needs a technology that works across the industry.
Another industry observer, who did not want to be named, says: “There’s been engagement with Apple about how it is going to play with RCS. Would it be a major breakthrough for Apple to join RCS? Yes, no question.”
Others echo that, though Lane at Mobilesquared is more cautious. “Apple is reticent about joining the RCS bandwagon,” he says, but adds that it does have a problem when Apple users try to send an iMessage to others. They get a plain, simple SMS instead. He believes “60% of iMessages fall back to SMS”.
Rob Malcolm, VP of marketing and online sales at CLX, a messaging company working with Google in the RCS ecosystem, believes Apple will jump on the bandwagon: “My opinion is they do want to support open standards. In some countries, such as Brazil and South Africa, Android is dominant by some margin. If RCS takes off in those markets then Apple will follow.”
How? By including RCS in a future iOS upgrade, say those in the know, that will be loaded in new Apple phones and maybe added via an over-the-air update to existing phones. The potential strength of RCS, say the enthusiasts, is that it will become the natural messaging app on smartphones. “If RCS is in the native client, they will just start to learn to use it,” says Hoy. “We’re just at the beginning, but the RCS client is backwards compatible so you could communicate with someone who does not have it.”
That makes it unlike most rival messaging apps. If you want to send a WhatsApp to someone, they have to first download WhatsApp. It’s the same with WeChat or Facebook Messenger or Snapchat. It means we have to carry a mental directory: “Is Alice on WhatsApp or WeChat? Is Bob still a Facebook Messenger user or has he gone back to SMS? What about Carol?”
It’s changing. On my phone, Facebook Messenger now shows incoming SMSs, and for all I know it probably works in reverse, but I can’t remember when I last sent an SMS. I receive them only from my mobile operator, Three, to advise me of rates when I land in foreign countries, from Amazon and supermarkets to inform me about deliveries, and from my dentist, doctor and opto- metrist reminding me of appointments – almost none from humans.
For family and work, WhatsApp is the preferred platform. And that’s the challenge RCS will have, not just to wean people off the 25-year-old SMS messaging platform because, look, something better has snuck into the system. Though that sneaky introduction will also make it hard for the industry to shout about it.
“Why would I switch from WhatsApp?” asks Bubley. “I can’t imagine anyone transitioning from Snapchat.”
Nevertheless, Lane at Mobilesquared believes there will be 162 mobile operators offering RCS by the end of this year, and 299 by the end of 2018. In 2022, 492 operators will offer RCS and there will be three billion RCS devices in use, of which 2.5 billion will be Android, he thinks.
However, in the same 2022 only just over 11% of A2P traffic will have moved to RCS, says Lane.
The rest will still be in SMS, a technology pioneered on 3 December 1992 when a 22-year-old developer, Neil Papworth of Sema – now Mavenir – sent a message to his client, Richard Jarvis of Vodafone, saying “Merry Christmas”.
SMS will see a fair few Christmases yet before it’s finally laid to rest by RCS.