Google tries one more time to breathe life into RCS

Google has been toying with the Rich Communications Service (RCS) platform for a few years now, and represents the GSMA-initiated technology’s only real chance of relevance. RCS was supposed to rescue mobile operators’ voice and messaging revenues from the rise of over-the-top alternatives like Skype, WhatsApp and WeChat, by allowing MNOs to launch added-value services that relied on their cellular networks and provided differentiation against OTT offerings, and so could be charged for.

This seemed like a vain hope against the free services, outside of some high value enterprise voice and messaging requirements. Limited operator uptake and even slower moves to make different MNOs’ services interoperable did not help to stem the tide of Skype and WhatsApp.

Then Google stepped in, in 2016, and said it would make RCS an in-built Android service, which would be offered in partnership with operators, initially Sprint. Not much has happened so far, but now it is taking a more positive step, saying it will launch its own RCS service, rather than just providing an Android client as before. Reports indicate that the launch markets will be the UK and France, rather than the USA, where it previously targeted its initial RCS operator alliances.

Android device users will now be able to send RCS messages and content using mobile broadband and Google’s servers, bypassing the cellular network where there is no carrier-delivered RCS service. That gets round the problem of roaming and limited MNO support, but it sacrifices the end-to-end encryption of SMS. And it will not be a default in Android, just an active choice.

But will anyone make that choice? It is clear that Google’s and the MNOs’ interests are aligned here – to defend themselves against WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Skype. But the idea that RCS might evolve into a full social media and communications platform like Facebook’s seems fanciful. Neither the operators nor Google have made a success of social platforms and RCS in its current form adds little to the ever-expanding capabilities of the OTT messaging services.

Google has been working with RCS since it acquired Jibe Mobile in 2015 and in 2016 it released a universal profile which would allow different implementations to work together. Its unexpected interest was probably the only thing that saved RCS from being completely moribund, given that only a small handful of operators had supported it, and only Spain and South Korea had multi-operator roaming.

The early hopes for RCS – that it would support rich messaging experiences which customers would be happy to pay for, despite the rise of free services like WhatsApp – have unsurprisingly been dashed. While the GSMA and the few RCS deployers spent years working on services and interoperability tests, the OTT alternatives changed the face of mobile communications, and left Google out in the cold too.

Google says the Universal Profile, the GSMA spec which it supported and effectively launched in the market in 2016, is now supported by 55 operators round the world, and by Microsoft. The GSMA says this is “a single, industry-agreed set of features and technical enablers developed to simplify the product development and global operator deployment of RCS”.

Successful or not, the RCS adventure highlights the way in which Google behaves very differently from OTT internet providers. In the mobile world, it gets a lot of its power from creating harmonized platforms – notably Android of course – which drive usage for operators and are not inherently hostile to them. Unlike Apple’s walled gardens, Android and apps like Chat can be harnessed by MNOs to improve their own offerings.

Some resent the success of Android in killing off the MNO’s own mobile platforms and experiences, but successive attempts by operators to create open, interoperable APIs, services and apps platforms have failed. Google’s developer base is more effective than those of the individual MNOs because it promises them a vast user base, not a fragmented and politically divided one.

So if RCS succeeds against the odds, it will because Google brought the ecosystem together and made a workable app out of years of GSMA operators’ technical tinkering. But success will likely come largely at the expense of remaining SMS usage, not because it steals significant share from WhatsApp.

It is more likely to fail. Google has been surprisingly weak at creating a compelling messaging offer and having RCS as its base hardly suggests this one will be better. Operator support is valuable but not a deciding factor in an app’s success (though some of WhatsApp’s strongest early markets were built in partnership with emerging market MNOs).

But the likelihood of RCS delivering its ambitious goal of saving MNOs’ messaging business is almost as far away as before. Formerly branded joyn, RCS adds value added capabilities such as group chat and high quality video messaging to carrier- supplied voice and SMS, in 3G or 4G networks. It is designed to offer a superior experience to that of WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook Messenger, keeping users loyal to cellular solutions. Though voice and messaging are offered at very low cost by most MNOs to fend off over-the-top challenges, keeping subscribers on the cellular services drives additional, paid-for usage and allows the operator to monitor and monetize the user.

And relying on Google to provide the usable, interoperable app they failed to produce themselves is a double-edged sword for operators, since it puts a standard which was supposed to be controlled by them, into the hands of the greatest challenger to their power.