Is RCS eventually now poised to become the next big thing in global messaging? Our VP of Product, Neil Downing, considers the options.

19th December 2019

by Neil Downing

Over the past couple of weeks I have attended a couple of key events that are shaping the messaging world, namely the recent meeting of the MEF Future of Messaging Group, and the Messaging and SMS World event in London. One of the main topics again at both these was discussions around Rich Communication Services, or, RCS.

The idea behind RCS was to provide a product that was much more in keeping with the times and could offer the same level of ubiquity and easy of use as SMS, but with the capability to embed the rich content that we are all used to seeing and consuming on our mobile devices (such as pictures, video, embedded web content etc.). RCS is one of several technologies that come under the umbrella of RBM or Rich Business Messaging, which Enterprises are increasingly latching onto as a far more effective method of customer engagement, both pre and post sales. But where it differs is that it’s the only real technology that needs to be adopted by the Mobile Network Operators, hence the discussions in these forums on how best to do that.

RCS has been around for a long time, it was first discussed in 2007.  Many people have called it SMS 2.0 but having listened to a lot of debate I think that is not helping either SMS or RCS. However, one thing for sure is that it has the potential to heavily impact SMS and potentially change how brands engage with customers and where our business moves in the future.

So here is my take on where we are:

Firstly, it’s disappointing that despite being around for so long there is still no agreement from either Google (who are pushing RCS most aggressively) and the mobile operators about how to charge for it. Should it be charged per message like SMS or per session given it is more ‘conversational’ than SMS? And if charged per session how long should that session be or how many messages included? I think for use cases involving customer support this is probably less of an issue, given every message will get you closer to solving the customer issue and save you potentially much more expensive customer contact centre agents’ time, but for other uses cases around marketing and customer acquisition it’s a lot harder. How do you tell a marketing person that you don’t know the cost of a campaign before it starts?

Secondly, there have recently been developments regarding the other main elephant in the room, Apple. Apples’s lack of support for RCS, in their iPhone range, has been a significant element in holding back its adoption, however some industry commentators suggest that positive news is about to happen, with at least ‘fallback support’ for RCS being talked about situations where iMessage does not work. We will see what 2020 brings in this area.

Thirdly, the operator landscape is changing. One of the other issues that has plagued the rollout of RCS has been lacklustre support within the Mobile Network Operator community to support it. However, announcements like the CCMI initiative in the USA between AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile earlier this year may be changing that. Aside from this, companies such as Mavenir are offering ‘off-the-shelf’ RCS solutions for carriers, and the indications are some carriers are taking them up on it.

But, all these issues frankly pale into insignificance compared to the threat from the other channels in this increasingly omni-channel World. One source of obvious competition is the so-called Over The Top (OTT) players, such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp for Business, Viber and others. Closed user groups they might be, but no-one can argue that they have the potential to reach billions of consumers and can provide the kind of rich content that RCS was intended for, and they have defined charging models ready to use. They also can relegate the Network Operators revenue streams by a couple of kilobits of data carriage, keeping the lion’s share of the revenue for themselves.

Aside from OTT’s there are other potential ways in which the mobile World can lose out, from Browser-enabled technologies such as WebRTC, SIP and others. Third party providers such as OpenTok (part of the Nexmo/Vonage group) offer Enterprise grade WebRTC messaging alongside their traditional SMS/RCS channels.

It feels like RCS might be a more perfect technology, but we all know what happens to perfect technologies if they don’t get widespread adoption.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. What came across loud and clear is that the use cases to make RCS worthwhile are really starting to emerge and be implemented. The growth in what is now being called ‘conversational commerce’; which seems a profoundly logical way for brands to want to interact with their prospects and customers; is happening. For certain that’s why I believe RCS could be far more than SMS 2.0 as it enables this multi-media conversation in a way that SMS never could, and spawns a generation of Person to Application (P2A) rather than Application to Person (A2P) or Person to Person (P2P) which has been the SMS way. Many predict that SMS will disappear, but with carriers still reporting growth, and with the charging model for RCS unclear, perhaps that means SMS will remain the method of choice for simple, one-time, non-conversational and ubiquitous messaging, with RCS creating a role for itself at the conversational end of the market.

The stakes are high and it feels to me like 2020 may not be the year for RCS, but then again there may never be one.

Further reading:

Definition of the RCS protocol:

GSMA paper discussing potential charging frameworks for RCS:

Press release regarding the CCMI initiative in the USA:

Introduction to Conversational Commerce produced by the Mobile Ecosystem Forum:

How Mavenir can allow Mobile Network Operators to RCS-enable their networks:

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