Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Last week at Mobile World Congress, Google and a series of mobile operators announced an initiative to accelerate adoption of the GSMA's Rich Communication Services (RCS) on Android. Google will work together with the GSMA and operators including America Movil, Bharti Airtel, Deutsche Telekom, MTN, Orange, Sprint and Vodafone to develop an RCS client with a consistent experience across devices and service providers. The announcement follows Google's acquisition in September 2015 of Jibe Mobile, a provider of RCS software for operators.
RCS is a suite of specifications developed by the GSMA and based on the IP Multimedia Subsystem network architecture. RCS is intended to support enhanced cross-operator communications such a next-generation messaging service that allows users to create group chats and share large photos and videos.
The GSMA has been working for almost a decade to foster broader adoption of RCS as a way to compete with third-party instant messaging and voice apps, but adoption over the years has been patchy. Last year, we wrote about T-Mobile USA's introduction of an RCS-based communications suite called Advanced Messaging (See Challenging OTT with RCS). T-Mobile tried to sell RCS as a replacement for services such as Facebook and Skype by promising it would "take text messaging into the mobile Internet age".
The adoption of third-party services by subscribers has long posed a threat to operator revenues from traditional text and voice services. In the UK, for example, Ofcom reported that revenue from SMS and MMS communications fell for the first time in 2013 and has been sliding since.
Google's support could provide operators with some hope of regaining relevance in messaging, and offer some defence against freely available, cross-platform instant messaging services as well as popular voice-over-IP brands that have been usurping operators' offerings. Facebook now boasts close to 2 billion users across its services.
In our view, this is the GSMA's last hope for RCS. The suite has been branded and rebranded during the years — it was called joyn for a while — and adopted by some operators while being abandoned by others. In South Korea, for example, KT and LG Uplus both announced this month they would shut down their RCS-based services which simply weren't able to compete against popular alternatives.
If Google is able to establish its RCS client as a truly universal and usable client on Android devices globally, it may offer a way to reduce Facebook's stranglehold on messaging services. Google and operators must come to the realisation that it's getting late in the game, and it will take something special to establish RCS as a global standard.
Google said its RCS Android client will be available until later this year, but in many ways this development feels superficial. RCS will not be embedded in Android; it seems it will form just another third-party application. And many leading operators were visibly absent from supporting the movement, meaning its adoption faces immediate hurdles.
Things have become convoluted in the mobile industry, with Google — a provider of several over-the-top services — working to promote a technology designed to tackle the threat of such services. We're not sure RCS-based services can compete against well-established and well-liked proprietary apps. It may be too late to joyn the GSMA's initiative.