What is RCS: The Mobile Operators’ Fightback Against Instant Messaging?

RCSThe rise of messaging apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage and WeChat has driven the decline of traditional SMS textservices, with instant messaging estimated to have overtaken SMS back in 2012. Global SMS revenues have fallen accordingly, with Ovum predicting that P2P SMS revenues will have fallen by 42 percent between 2017 and 2022, to $40.2 billion.

Mobile operators have been forced to bundle unlimited SMS messages into mobile tariffs in order to remain relevant to customers, according to Ovum, since instant messaging apps are essentially free (other than the cost of the data required to send and received messages). But even at this greatly reduced cost, SMS texting is missing a lot of functionality, such as group messaging, read receipts and the ability to send GIFs and stickers, all of which are common in instant messaging apps.

But the mobile operators are fighting back with RCS (Rich Communication Services), a protocol which will introduce many of these features which have been sorely missing from SMS. As well as the features listed above, RCS will make it easier to send high quality pictures and videos, make it possible to send larger files and attachments, and enable consumers to see which of their friends are online and available for contact. And those working in the space say that RCS will not only help mobile operators win back consumers from instant messaging apps, but will also provide a big opportunity for marketers.

A Very Long Engagement

While the initiative may seem long overdue, RCS has actually been in the works since 2007 when the ‘Rich Communication Suite Industry Initiative’ was formed. But the protocol’s evolution has been slow. Various operators have rolled out RCS messaging services under different brands, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications, mobile network operators trade body which guided the RCS project) released the ‘Universal Profile’, a standard which allowed full interoperability between RCS services.

Since then, the initiative has picked up speed. The Universal Profile has gained wide support, with the GSMA claiming 55 operators are on board, including AT&T, Verizon, Vodafone, Telefonica, Orange, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Singtel and China Unicom. Additionally, 11 device manufacturers including Samsung, Huawei, LG and HTC are signed up.

And significantly, Google’s Android operating system is on board, as well as Microsoft’s OS. Google bought Jibe Mobile, a company working on RCS, back in 2015. Since then, it’s begun rolling out RCS messaging on Android phones in several markets, starting with the UK and France back in 2018, and bringing it to all US customers earlier this month.

The move means RCS messaging is finally set to go mainstream. Google’s RCS enabled messaging app, ‘Messages’, comes pre-installed on a lot of devices as the default text messaging app. And users with Android-powered devices which don’t pre-install it are able to set it as their default SMS app if they choose. And as adoption grows, RCS has the potential to combine the more advanced functionality of instant messaging with the reach and ubiquity of SMS.

Uniting Brand Communications

The change has obvious benefits for consumers. While a lot of the new features available in RCS will already be familiar to many consumers from various instant messaging apps, RCS’s reach could be its advantage if it becomes as ubiquitous as SMS. The likes of WhatsApp, Messenger and Viber require users to download and sign up to the same app in order to communicate with each other, whereas this won’t be necessary for RCS as it becomes the standard for text messaging.

But there are big opportunities for marketers too, as the advanced features of RCS could allow for smoother and more complex interactions with their customers. Howard Thompson, who handles RCS market development for O2 Telefonica, talked VAN through some of the possibilities.

“Brands have a lot of different channels of communication available to them today: brands, email, people might contact them on Twitter or other social media, there’s WhatsApp for Business or Apple business messaging, people might speak with an agent or an automated voice system. RCS looks to consolidate a number of those communication channels into a single pipe,” said Thompson.

Thompson gave an example of how this might look. “So today, in your text messaging app, you’ll have a list of different names, and it’ll mostly be people you know. In RCS, you’d have a list of people you know, but also brands, who could have their logo and colouring there, and could be verified, in the same way they would be verified on Twitter,” he said. “I might want to contact Tesco and find out if they sell Häagen-Dazs at your local store, so I could message Tesco and ask via text. Around 80 percent of communications on RCS could be handled by a bot, so simple questions like that would be handled by a bot.”

“Or for something more complex, I might want to buy some shoes, so I could text Nike,” said Thompson. “If I’m a previous customer, they might already know my shoe size and the type of shoes I like, so they could show me a selection of shoes I might like within a spinning carousel. If I click on a pair, then a map could pop up within the chat showing me the nearest store where I could collect those shoes. Then I could buy those shoes right then and there, still in the chat, and they could give me a QR code so when I go into the store, they scan it, and I collect my shoes. Or maybe they’re waiting there for me when I arrive with my shoes and a cup of my favourite tea! That kind of capability exists.”

Again, many of these features have been available in some form or another elsewhere, but the big draw of RCS is to unify these channels of communications and make them much more accessible to consumers. Mobile operators will also be able verify customers via their mobile numbers, as well as other verification steps, meaning marketers could more easily connect up RCS with other communication channels. Thompson gave an example of a customer dialling in to a brand’s automated ‘interactive voice response’ (IVR) system, and needing to cut off the call in the middle of the conversation. That conversation could be picked up within RCS if the customer has been verified, and vice versa.

Will Apple Come on Board?

There are still a couple of challenges for RCS to overcome. Firstly, a lot of RCS’ appeal comes from its potential to become ubiquitous, but right now only one of the Western world’s two dominant mobile operating systems has signed up, with Apple yet to commit.

Thompson however said he expects Apple to come on board at some point in the future. “They already have the technology built in, at the moment they’re choosing to push their own offering, but maybe there will be a merging of the two in the future,” he said. And slides purported to have been shown at a GSMA conference last year claimed that Apple has been in conversation with the GSMA around introducing RCS into its iOS operating system.

And RCS messaging isn’t end-to-end encrypted, which could be a sticking point for some users. But it’s questionable whether Facebook-owned alternatives like WhatsApp and Messenger will be seen as safer alternatives – despite their end-to-end encryption. A Censuswide poll last year found that 63 percent of Britons don’t believe the big messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Messenger respect their privacy rights.

But if these challenges are successfully navigated, RCS has the potential to have a big impact in uniting brand communication, marketing and commerce.

Subscribe to Weekly VAN Newsletter

Ad TechBrandsCampaignsMobilePrivacyTech