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Rich Communications Services (RCS) - why we were wrong and why we're happy about it...

It seems a long time ago now, but just over five years ago, I was asked to attend an event hosted by the GSMA in Madrid. This was part of a competition to highlight innovation around RCS applications. It was a nice trip – with a very pleasant evening spent on the way back having too many gins with a fellow attendee.

While there, we saw many of the usual suspects, companies that were trying to carve out a space in the nascent RCS ecosystem, such as Almira, Soloiemes, NetDev and the like, as well as larger NEPs. With sponsorship money, interest from leading operators and the backing of the GSMA, what could go wrong? Surely there were opportunities for innovative, lean companies to show what they could do and engage with a receptive MNO community, eager to do something positive with RCS?

Well, how wrong we were. We were wrong to suppose the MNOs would be motivated to do something with RCS and support their apparent eagerness and enthusiasm with some form of investment. We were wrong to suppose they might act and do something in a short period of time. In short, there was a great deal of noise and then: nothing happened. It’s been more than five years now. Innovative companies continued to beat the drum, while the MNO community, backed by the GSMA continued to make a lot of noise but do absolutely nothing.

We thought these kinds of use cases, blending communications capabilities with other sources of information to enable rich enterprise solutions, for example, would be enough to highlight the potential of RCS to do new things. We were wrong. Instead, they focused on existing, out-dated cases – or cases that were contemporary then but which were rapidly overtaken by more nimble offers from alternative providers that moved quickly to deliver new, richer functionality to consumers. The focus on competing with other messaging services effectively led to nowhere. We are still stuck in this mode.

We should have known better. While the research we conducted in the previous year with Mac Taylor from Moriana showed that many MNOs were extremely interested in RCS, it turned out (in retrospect) we were probably talking to the wrong people – technology-driven stalwarts who, ultimately, do not make the decisions. But what really should have revealed the flaws in the GSMA vision – and the colossal waste of time this was going to be – was the application that won the innovation award at the event in Madrid.

It was a simple mashup that provided information on the proximity of restaurants and delivered it to the RCS client. Woo-hoo. I can remember scratching my head and turning to friends around me in amazement. Hadn’t this been done, better and faster somewhere else? Hasn’t it been done better and faster in a thousand apps ever since? This solution won against solutions that blended rich communications with, for example, CRM solutions – or with video to enable new customer care applications. In other words, interesting things that have suddenly become quite interesting – note the focus on context in communications and “hyper voice” that has emerged recently.

Really, if this was the best that could be done (it wasn’t), then we ought to have concluded then that RCS would never fly. The fact that the award went to a huge NEP should also have rung alarm bells – the smaller companies that really were showing innovative use cases were completely overlooked. Nothing to see here, move along please.

What kept our interest in RCS going was the fact that we had already concluded that the interesting thing about RCS was not what it might or might not do in the consumer world but how it might be interesting for specific use cases in the enterprise domain (we wrote quite a bit about this, despite – and amusingly - being called telco apologists from one noted pundit). As far as we could see:

  • Looking for a business case for RCS was pointless, as no-one would pay any more for it
  • It seemed about the only way in which MNO messaging services could evolve in concert; but few MNOs seemed to be that interested in doing so
  • The QoS benefits were of most interest for enterprise applications but this wasn’t something that gained a great deal of attention

We were reminded of all of this in the news and bulletins that followed MWC this year. There were some nice debates involving a number of people that have had a lot to say on the subject. There was a very amusing – and thoughtful - thread on LinkedIn, which included a broad discussion of the precise kind of zombie that was represented by RCS.

One of the most interesting points to arise from this was a suggestion that QoS doesn’t really matter. In the main, that may be true – best effort can be fine for most of us (except, as we often point out, when you are trying to reach the emergency services, but then you probably don’t recognise the value of this until you have actually tried to do so). But it does matter for enterprise customers. Indeed, they pay a lot of money to obtain QoS, backed by rigorous SLAs. This fact cannot be overlooked among legitimate criticism of the otherwise moribund RCS. RCS, was a waste of time, one argument went, because consumers don't care about QoS, as evidenced by their willingness to adopt one or more of the plethora of services delivered by alternative providers.

On the other side, another contributor piped up with the remark that RCS was all about an evolution of universal messaging and so still had some value. Both sides are probably correct – in the absence of anything better, some MNOs may well press on with RCS, but if they are, they will probably keep jolly quiet about it. No one really cares much anymore.

But there is still a case for MNOs to offer something to the enterprise that may leverage some of the promised capabilities of RCS. As far as we can see, it’s the only conceivable way in which any kind of revenue can be made from these kinds of capabilities. Enterprises want QoS and this cannot and should not be ignored just because QoS has been caught up in the debate about RCS.

RCS as a term has become poisonous. When we see it these days, we kind of glaze over and move on. If we discuss B2B services, it’s a much more interesting debate, but as soon as someone mentioned RCS, then it undermines what might be a sensible discussion. We think QoS is a valid term to use in association with B2B offers – indeed, it’s essential in many cases – but the general evolution of messaging remains a deeply contentious and opaque area. The fact is that many of the most valuable services that are offered by MNOs demand rigorous QoS and these can and must continue to be delivered, even as the network evolves around them. Precisely how that QoS is assured in current, new and future network architectures remains a critical point.

But back to RCS. Despite years of discussion, not much has really happened. I still use SMS more frequently than any alternative messaging service and it’s good enough for most cases. It would be nice if some of the things in iMessage or whatever were universally available but it doesn’t seem likely to happen soon. It might, but it might not. RCS may happen, it may not, but the sooner the term morphs into something more palatable, the better - and it’s definitely time to stop talking about it in the terms originally conceived by the GSMA.

So, we were wrong to imagine that the MNO community would embrace the enthusiasm and creativity offered by the entrants in the RCS innovation awards back in 2010. We were wrong to imagine that anything would happen to build on this. In this sense, those who call for the RCS zombie to be culled are right. Perhaps my MNO messaging service will simply remain the lowest common denominator, to be used when all else fails.

But at the same time, there remain use cases in which QoS is important and this needs to be recognised, freed from the legacy of debate on RCS, which is misleading and wastes time because of the huge baggage that accompanies it. Instead of deliberating what’s happened in the last five years, we should instead focus on use cases for service that have more stringent requirements and which can attract money – and the most obvious place in which to look is in enterprise markets.

We don’t mind being wrong about this, because being wrong from time to time is healthy. It means you’ve made a decision, based on some deliberation and evidence and chosen to take a position. Being wrong means you can subsequently re-evaluate matters and adjust your position – at least you move on and take action.

What is most galling about the whole RCS debacle is not so much the debate, which has been both amusing and interesting, but rather the shamelessness of MNOs that pretended to have an interest in things and then chose to do nothing. For all the hot air expended and energy invested, nothing happens – which means we are more sceptical than ever about the ability of MNOs to innovate, at least when it comes to consumer and mass market services.

And it also makes us wonder about something else. The industry has been very focused on the apparent OTT threat, to the extent that operators have spent the last few years in some sort of existential introspective trance, contemplating their very futures. A number of things have emerged lately that suggest very clearly that this has also been a huge waste of time and that MNOs (and other CSPs) have been looking in the wrong direction entirely. On which topic, more another day.