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Having acquired the RCS platform vendor Jibe Mobile in September 2015, Google has partnered with the GSMA and a number of operators to announce a new initiative aimed at boosting the sluggish progress of RCS. The initiative will see the operator members transition toward a new universal profile for RCS, which will be based on the GSMA’s existing RCS 5.3 specification. They have also agreed to use an Android RCS client that will be based on the universal profile and will be developed by Google in partnership with operators and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

Google’s participation has attracted mobile operators, but pace may be a problem

Google’s entry into the RCS market, combined with what appears to be a more convincing strategy for making it easier to launch RCS services, seems to have encouraged a new set of operators to publicly express their interest in the technology. These operators include Turkcell, Philippines operators Globe Telecom and Smart Communications, Poland’s Play, and the MEA-headquartered operator groups Etisalat, Millicom, and MTN. It has also had the effect of reigniting the interest of some of the operators that had previously committed to RCS, but had either lost interest since the first RCS initiative was launched in 2007 or had been dragging their heels on launching RCS services. These operators include Bharti Airtel, Telenor Group, TeliaSonera, Telstra, and TIM (Telecom Italia). In all, 19 operators have committed to the new RCS initiative, the remainder being Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Vodafone, America Movil, Sprint, KPN, and VimpelCom.

It is encouraging that the group of operators interested in RCS has swelled, but interest now has to turn into action if the RCS initiative is not to simply wither and die. The first major hurdle will be how quickly the GSMA can “transition” to the universal RCS profile, which will be based on the Rich Common Core specification RCC.07 “Rich Communication Suite 5.3 Advanced Communication Services and Client Specification.” If the transition requires the agreement of the previously mentioned operators, and if the operators take too long to agree, the development of the universal profile may be delayed, with a knock-on effect for its inclusion in Google’s Android RCS client. Any lengthy delay will likely mean that some of the participating operators will lose interest and the initiative will lose momentum. In the worst case scenario, Google itself might become frustrated, abandon the initiative, and strike out on its own, using the Jibe platform to develop an iMessage-like service for Android.

To help speed things up the universal profile and the client will initially focus on providing “consistent and interoperable” messaging services, such as group chat, photo sharing, and read receipts, with enhanced calling features to follow. However, this will not be enough to enable players in developed markets to compete with OTT players. Addressing only messaging in the first instance puts telcos in developed markets at a disadvantage when it comes to providing services comparable to those offered by third-party communications apps, given that voice services are now standard for many third-party apps. This is less of an issue for telcos operating in emerging markets, such as Millicom and MTN, because smartphone and mobile broadband penetration is low enough that there remains an opportunity for the operators to “enter” the market on the same level as third-party apps.

It is telling that Google has decided to develop a client, rather than to embed RCS natively in the Android OS. This may be an acknowledgement that embedding RCS natively in the Android OS would be a lengthier and more complex process. However, operators and OEMs will be able to preinstall the Android RCS client on devices and updates can be driven from Google Play. Although telcos will not have to encourage their customers to download an app, they will still need to persuade them to use the new RCS features.

In addition, Google has committed to providing an open source version of the Android RCS client, which will also be based on the universal profile specification, and to providing APIs for developers. Providing an open source RCS client and APIs will effectively widen developer accessibility to RCS, over which the GSMA has held tight control for the past eight years. But again, whether open source can be the savior of RCS will be determined by the extent to which developers choose to engage with the technology, which will in turn be governed by what developers perceive to be the size of the potential addressable market in terms of users. And for RCS, KPIs remain thin on the ground – the GSMA has again missed a prime opportunity to make them public, which likely means that RCS user numbers remain too low to be promoted.



Pamela Clark-Dickson, Principal Analyst, Consumer Services

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