RCS is still not dead: Sprint launches Google version of RCS messaging

The GSMA’s Rich Communications Services (RCS) platform was meant to be the de facto standard which made MNO-provided voice and messaging relevant in the age of Skype. However, years of trials resulted in only a few countries having more than one RCS operator (interoperability being essential to the case), and limited consumer uptake. Then at this year’s Mobile World Congress, Google announced support for RCS and seemed set to give the technology a new boost by tying it more closely to Android.

Progress has still been slow, despite Google’s reach and influence, but now RCS has scored an important win, with Sprint announcing plans to launch RCS messaging in partnership with Google.

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.

Google has created an RCS client for Android, which operators and OEMs can pre-install on devices, with updates managed from Google Play. This provides supporting operators with a universal implementation that guarantees interoperability out of the box. Importantly, this implementation supports SMS – which really does have universal scale, despite its limited functionality compared to RCS or most OTT apps.

So this, on paper, bridges the old and new messaging worlds, and gives RCS the kind of scale that the big web apps enjoy. GSMA CTO Alex Sinclair said in February: “Google’s contributions will provide operators a new opportunity for a rich, consistent implementation across Android devices and offer a real step change in messaging experiences for consumers worldwide.”

But it is also an indictment of how the MNOs have failed to implement their own clients in a common manner, or to make common cause even with the GSMA’s unifying framework to help them.

And of course, relying on Google to do this for them is a double-edged sword for operators, since it puts a standard which was supposed to be controlled by the MNOs into the hands of the greatest challenger to their power. Sprint was the only US mobile operator to support the move, though Google gained statements of support from about 60 carriers and vendors.

“Today, we’re excited to announce the next step in this initiative with our first carrier launch supporting the new universal RCS profile,” wrote Google’s RCS chief Amir Sarhangi on a company blog.  “Together with Sprint, we’re launching RCS messaging to their customers using Android devices, starting today. This will bring enhanced features including group chat, high-res photo sharing, read receipts and more to the standard SMS experience upgraded through the Messenger app for Android devices, developed by Google.”

“Next year, all new Android devices from Sprint will come with Messenger for Android preloaded as the default SMS and RCS messaging experience,” Sarhangi added. “Subscribers currently using select LG and Nexus phones from Sprint will have the messaging experience upgraded automatically through an app update, and subscribers using other Android devices can download Messenger from the Play store.”

Google’s app is powered by RCS platform provider Jibe, which Google acquired last year in a clear push to seize the initiative in carrier-based messaging. Jibe powers RCS services – mainly WhatsApp-style messaging rather than more sophisticated potential offerings like video calling – for 26 operators including Orange, Sprint and Deutsche Telekom.

For Google, this is a parallel effort to its own over-the-top messaging and voice offerings, a sort of belt-and-braces approach to fend off Skype and Facebook/WhatsApp.

Sprint will not be the first US provider of RCS services – T-Mobile has offered them since last June under the brand Advanced Messaging. At the time of the Google announcement, TMO said over 5.5 million of its customers were using the service, sending 40 million messages a day. Advanced Messaging supports sharing of videos of up to 10MB in the native dialer, with no need for an app.

It will be interesting to compare the progress of this offering with the Google-designed one, which aims to be broader, moving towards a universal messaging platform of the kind the GSMA originally envisaged. Google has recently hinted at new enhancements to come. Todd Parker, business development manager for messaging, said in a recent conference: “In the future, we will be introducing three new pieces of the puzzle, which we think will start helping the carriers take it to the next level, helping them monetize, helping messaging start making more money.” The first two items are new plug-ins, plus bots, to broaden the applications supported by RCS, while the third is enhanced support for mobile video messaging.

Google is emulating the moves of OTT messaging providers like WeChat by promising to add chatbots and other enhancements to RCS. So far, RCS is positioned as Android’s messaging app, but it is not tightly integrated and does not require a download. That enables Google to offer constant enhancements as the OTT players do. “You have to iterate that product every two weeks. WhatsApp is doing it, Line is doing it. Everyone is doing it, so you have to be right there with them with a very high velocity rate for features,” said Parker.

This article was first published on RethinkWireless.

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