Are we one step closer to Rich Communication Services for all?
Are we getting closer to interoperability between messaging services? Will Rich Communication Services (RCS) be the key to breaking down the barriers between competing technologies, or will industry rivalries threaten to sink the whole matter?
With hardware becoming more and more interoperable, as the EU agrees on a universal charging port for mobile hardware, can Rich Communication Services (RCS) bridge the software divide and bring unity to mobile messaging?
First proposed more than a decade ago, RCS is the next step in messaging protocols, ditching the limitations of SMS and MMS in favour of messaging via Wi-Fi or mobile data, high-resolution images and video sharing, presence information, read receipts, location sharing, encryption, and more. Businesses can, in turn, gather analytics to fine tune their customer experience.
RCS will bring mobile messaging services on parity with other OTT messaging applications, or Number Independent Interpersonal Communications Services (NIICS) as they are now known, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
Use of major Number Independent Interpersonal Communications Services (NIICS), UK (2021)
The road to compliance has been long and troubled, beginning in 2007 with the establishment of the first RCS standard. Google has subsequently been the driving force behind its adoption since 2015, having acquired Jibe Mobile to enable RCS support on its apps. The RCS-enabled Google Messages app is now the default messenger on many new Android devices with over a billion downloads according to Google Play. On the CSP side, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon tried to get their own RCS offerings off the ground in 2019, forming the Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative, only to abandon the venture two years later, with little explanation given – perhaps in fear of being relegated to “dumb pipe” status?
Now though, mandatory interoperability between online messaging platforms is on the agenda as part of the European Commission’s Digital Markets Act, imploring “the largest messaging services… to open up and interoperate with smaller messaging platforms, if they so request. Users of small or big platforms would then be able to exchange messages, send files or make video calls across messaging apps, thus giving them more choice.”
A good idea? Not according to Apple, who are remaining obstinate on RCS and focusing on their proprietary iMessage service instead, which already boasts these extra features, plus Apply Pay functionality and inter-Apple device messaging. With more exclusive features on the way, including streaming videos or music with contacts and the ability to edit or unsend messages, Apple’s stance is unlikely to change anytime soon.
In a series of tweets, Hiroshi Lockheimer, senior vice president of Android, accused Apple of “holding back the industry and… the user experience for not only Android users but also their own customers” by not implementing RCS.
Supporting RCS would improve the experience for both iOS and Android users alike. That’s right, RCS will also improve the experience and privacy for iOS users.— Hiroshi Lockheimer (@lockheimer) January 10, 2022
Google had previously requested Apple support RCS in iMessage, a proposal that Apple considered – ever so briefly – in 2013, before Apple Fellow Phil Schiller declared the move would “hurt us more than help us.”
Indeed, the deck is stacked very much in Apple’s favour, making changing their mind a seemingly insurmountable task; a recent Wall Street Journal report [paywalled] asserted that teens have turned iMessage’s blue message bubbles into a status symbol, the green message bubbles from SMS and Android users are something to be looked down on – even eight-time PGA Tour-winning pro golfers, it seems, aren’t immune to this humiliation.
RCS has seen more success in markets such as Japan, where +Message, an RCS partnership between KDDI, NTT Docomo and SoftBank running on GSMA standards, now comes preloaded on new Android smartphones, and is available to download for iOS.
+Message allows consumers to communicate directly with businesses through virtual assistants, all from one app; next year, 1.2 billion of these messages could be sent in Japan for e-commerce services, deliveries, reservations and booking transport.
However, the rollout hasn’t gone quite so well in India, Android's biggest market by users, where Google has halted businesses from using RCS for promotion following an influx of spam messages by some firms.
Taking a step backwards though, spam messages may be the least of our worries for widespread RCS implementation; experts fret that RCS simply isn’t achievable en masse without undermining the end-to-end encryption that many of these services boast, as no two apps encrypt messages identically. Even those that do – such as WhatsApp, which uses a version of Signal’s protocol – still can’t communicate with one another.
Making these apps interact with one another risks watering down their unique selling points – would a self-destructing Snapchat message remain intact within a Telegram inbox? Would group sizes have to be raised across the board to match Telegram’s 200,000 user limit? Would Discord’s VIP channels be compromised?
How each platform handles security and user management is also questionable – would anonymity be managed, particularly with Facebook’s real name policy? Could trolls and bad actors circumvent blocks on particular apps by targeting their victims across other apps? Perhaps in this case, silos are a good thing – many users may not appreciate, for example, their work messages from Slack overlapping with their personal Messenger account.
Such a decision should rest with the consumer though, not Apple limiting the messaging experience of its own customers to try and keep them bound in its service ecosystem. That isn’t to say that Google are innocent either when it comes to holding back innovation in the mobile space for their own benefit.
Having lost significant ground in the messaging space since the advent of OTT messaging apps, RCS offers a great opportunity for telcos to regain some lost ground. Worldwide revenues from RCS are expected to hit $4.6 billion by 2026, with click-through rates as high as 22.2%.
Telcos, and businesses particularly, should recognise the benefits of an industry-wide messaging standard. The question is – do they remain part of a traditional messaging bundle, or is there room for more creative models like the conversation-based pricing used by WhatsApp business?
Provided they can overcome their own inertia, as the gatekeeper of the underlying systems powering these services, telcos can be just as vital a part of RCS, and just as much a beneficiary too.
Update [07/02/2024]: WhatsApp has announced interoperability with third-party messaging apps including iMessage, Telegram, and Signal as part of its obligations under the Digital Markets Act (DMA).