2019: The Year Mobile Operators Need To Finalize RCS Plans

Japanese businessman in Tokyo with smart phone texting outdoors

This post first appeared on D!gitalist on February 20, 2019.

Remember Joyn? That was a marketing brand established by the GSMA back in 2012, after the release of RCS-E – a simplified version of the standard called Rich Communications Service, or RCS (here’s a link to the latest GSMA RCS page).

In fact, the RCS technical standard goes back to its first release in 2008. Between 2008 and RCS-E in 2011, there were multiple releases with no real mobile operator support. In those days, RCS was complex and fragmented and did not do well at all. In short, it failed. One of the few telcos that launched a Joyn-branded RCS program and one of the last to shutter that service was in South Korea. Those 2012-2013 iterations of RCS made many skeptical of the service – and many remain understandably pessimistic to this day.

For historically minded readers, take a look at a 2012 IDC Insight on RCS and the old Joyn brand.

Fast-forward to November 2016: The GSMA Universal Profile 1.0 (UP 1.0), supporting P2P RCS messaging, was released, followed by the mid-2017 release of the much-anticipated UP 2.0 standards that provided support for B2C RCS. These new standards ushered in a new era for RCS – a kinder, gentler, and simpler unified standard with significant support from Google and Samsung, among other technology platforms.

Today, RCS around Universal Profile 2.x is gaining significant support from more than 100 messaging providers, messaging aggregators, and technology providers. Brands and enterprises are excited about what they can provide with RCS interaction with consumers. There are already dozens – approaching the low hundreds – of trials of PoCs and early B2C RCS launching on mobile operators that support UP 2.0. Open rates, engagement rates, and consumer feedback are extremely positive – in some cases, better than results of the already-strong B2C SMS.

So here we are in the first quarter of 2019. MWC 2019 is upon us. Where will RCS go this year? What will help it take off?

First, we as a messaging industry need mobile operator support for Universal Profile 2.0 – and quickly. In 2018, we had strong messaging provider and aggregator support for RCS, but only a smattering of operators launched support for UP 2.0. The GSMA notes that around 75 mobile operators have launched RCS, but the vast majority of these are UP 1.0 support only. Remember, this time around it is the enterprise/brand (A2P) RCS that is driving this new SMS replacement. It is supported by all the top messaging providers that manage over 80% of the world’s A2P (or B2C if you want) SMS messaging. These are the companies that have the enterprises, banking/financial, travel industries, logistics, social/entertainment, consumer brands, and more that are already using messaging.

Messaging today is predominately SMS, and it is growing. But there are also providers that support multiple-channel messaging, delivering the same messages to Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Telegram, Viber, and others, and soon even to WhatsApp, in addition to SMS. Messaging providers understand that the mobile messaging ecosystem is fragmented and each social/chat app has limitations. Yes, everyone still uses SMS, and B2C/C2B SMS will continue to grow well into the next decade. But there are benefits to some of the richer messaging capabilities that social/chat apps can provide. As another messaging channel, RCS can provide significant advantages to both SMS and social/chat apps.

That said, worldwide, more than 80% of smartphone users have Android devices that already support or can support UP-based RCS. In fact, the Messages app fully supports UP 2.x and is available in the Google Store. More and more OEMs are making that (along with Samsung Messages) their default messaging app – which means that for those lucky enough to use an operator that supports UP RCS, their Android-to-Android communications likely already are using RCS – rich messaging. And if they are really lucky, they may get to enjoy B2C RCS for some of the early brand adopters.

As I noted above, the messaging industry needs mobile operators to launch RCS UP 2.x as soon as possible – this year. RCS Business Messaging (B2C/A2P) is the important driver for this technology, not Person-to-Person (P2P). In many countries, SMS or operator messaging is not the predominant channel – it’s likely WhatsApp or other social/chat apps. That is probably not going to change. Even in places where P2P messaging is predominantly WhatsApp, SMS is the strongest B2C channel. Mobile operators must realize that when RCS is launched, they will not see heavy P2P usage, as their subscribers are on other messaging platforms. Consequently, the rollout must include B2C RCS (RCS Business Messaging). For many Android subscribers, what was SMS could become RCS as their messaging clients are updated to support RCS.

Brands and enterprises are anxious to move toward more interactive, engaging content; they don’t particularly want to invest more in mobile apps. Certainly, the combination of a strong, responsive web design and interactive, bot-enabled messaging through RCS is exciting, and they want to know: “How many operators can we launch with?” For many countries, the answer is none, or maybe one. For initial tests and PoCs that’s fine, but after that, these enterprises will be ready to move ahead.

I believe we are at a critical crossroads when it comes to RCS. We need more countries with active mobile operators to support RCS Business Messaging, or at least commit to a roadmap to launch within a specified period. We’ve been somewhat stagnant over the last 6-9 months, and it’s time to start the launching process. Otherwise, the real benefits of RCS Business Messaging may begin to lag some of the up-and-coming social/chat app channels. Wait too long, and that deficit may be difficult to overcome.

SMS will still be a strong and growing viable B2C/C2B channel for quite some time; however, if we could have more RCS capabilities, I believe business will gravitate toward RCS as a top choice for their primary messaging channel.

Mobile operators and RCS Messaging hubs (e.g., Google, Samsung, etc.): Please get your RCS Business Messaging moving and commit to new launch dates this year. The industry, brands, and enterprises won’t wait indefinitely. They may have other channels and options, but RCS looks promising to them, and they want to leverage what it offers.

The next move is yours.