RCS and Universal Communications - This Time, It May Work

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An annoying fact of modern inter-personal messaging is that there are many methods. A glance at any smartphone may show many apps for messaging, video conferencing or teleconferencing such as Allo, Duo & Meet (from Google), Messenger & WhatsApp (from Facebook), Signal, Cisco WebEx, built-in Dialer & SMS text messaging, Zoom, Skype, LinkedIn, LINE, Twitter, Facetime, Messages & Facetime (from Apple), GoToMeeting, WeChat (prominent in China), and Join.me. Plus, there are many many more.

Extending to the desktop, we might find SIP softphones such as Bria, RingCentral  and cousins of the above apps that allow for multi-endpoint logins. These apps provide voice, screen sharing, and text messaging but in this blog, we're talking about the need for universal messaging.

Thus, if you want to send a quick note to someone, it’s hard to figure out what to use. Many young people don’t use voice calls anymore, so they resort to messaging. Phones do a reasonable job of associating contacts with different platforms, but you never know if they are properly logged-in to a particular system. So, messages will fail to get delivered, or auto-converted to emails that get delivered later.

So many of us resort to SMS text messaging (or its cousin MMS) since we know that will generally get through. But it’s so primitive, it's not very useful for anything other than short text messaging.

One potential solution was the Rich Communication Services, a communication protocol that replaces SMS messages, launched in 2008 and re branded as Joyn in 2012 and advocated by the GSM Association and mobile carriers. But early attempts on smartphones, such as the first edition of the Joyn app, were failures (can we say dismal failure?) as competitors provided a better experience and are no longer promoted. It doesn't compete with a full video conferencing system, but offers many needs requested by modern users.

One can argue that the mobile carriers were not fans of having competitors like WhatsApp taking the spotlight away by running “over the top” (OTT) on their network and wanted to create their own competitor to SMS. But more importantly from the end-user perspective, there was a need for better messaging.

RCS is back to the forefront again with a new attempt for proliferation, a Universal Profile. What is that? It is a specification agreed on by the GSMA standards body, and now 53 mobile network operators, 11 manufacturers, and 2 OS providers (Google and Microsoft) have announced their support (as of this blog publication date -- and it may increase).

Google is a big advocate, supporting RCS on Android devices and supporting the Universal Profile on its Jibe Cloud platform. Not only is the text content “rich,” it allows for stickers, presence notification, and the embedding of content such as maps or train schedules.

I think this is a great development. One can argue that this is a revenge of the carriers against the competitors who have siphoned away end-user attention and revenue. Perhaps it’s Google’s attempt to get to the forefront of the messaging world by working together with carriers as opposed to going at it alone.

That is not the main issue – the real benefit is that end-users finally get a universal way to communicate with each other. Specialized programs such as secure communication using Signal or messaging integration with social networks will still exist, but a replacement for SMS is long overdue.

Furthermore, businesses have a way to work with RCS in clever ways. Chats with businesses via the A2P (Application to Person) messages will enable users to order pizza or access customer service. GSMA and Google demonstrated many of these applications at Mobile World Congress Americas in 2017. Important items for privacy such as spam protection and privacy controls are also built into the Universal Profile.

Despite the early stumbles of RCS, I strongly encourage end-users and businesses to look at the revival of RCS, now that the universal profile is on its way to global acceptance. Carriers are going to roll it out, and we may finally get true universal messaging interoperability.

What’s different this time? Strong support from Google as a cloud provider: 1) via the Jibe Platform and 2) also as a creator of Android, is key. Agreement between carriers and device makers is an obvious pre-condition too. I bet that this time, if all the pieces get in place, it will work out for RCS.

If it takes off, people in countries other than China may start to use their messaging app as a hub for communication and commerce, just like the way users in China use WeChat today. This can be a transformation in the way people use smartphones and change the role of carriers in people's lives.   At the risk of using a buzzword, I'd say this can really spur digital transformation for businesses and end-users alike.

Topics: Cloud Computing Networking Cloud Platforms & Services RCS