Rich Communication Services: Whatever happened to SMS.v2?

Days ago, the four big US carriers agreed to update SMS to a new messaging standard: RCS. Is this the beginning of the end for text?

It’s now 27 years since Vodafone engineer Neil Papworth did something amazing on his 1G mobile phone.

He sent a text message.

A split second later, Papworth’s boss received the world’s very first text on his Orbitel 901 – a phone that weighed 2.5kg. This was incredible. The public had never seen anything like this before. In fact, they were never meant to. The carriers designed SMS as a communications tool for service engineers, not for you and me.

They thought texting was far too clunky for the general public. You had to use a numeric keypad to make letters. And you could only type 160 characters. It took seven years (1999) until phone users could send SMS messages to contacts on other networks. And yet – weirdly – SMS took off. By 2010, the world’s mobile users were sending 6.1 trillion messages a year. But here’s something even weirder. It’s 2019, and this channel is still with us. Just.

How can this be so? There’s one obvious explanation: mobile operators have failed to deliver anything better.

This failure, of course, has been a gift to app makers – many of them in the Calldorado community. Savvy developers have delivered fantastic products that bring rich messaging features – group chat, emojis, gifs, photos – to enthusiastic smartphone users.

Today, the vast majority of mobile subscribers use these new apps to stay in touch with friends. That leaves SMS as the ‘fallback’ option. Text may not have fancy features, the fact that it is universal and straightforward makes it useful for some users, brands especially. They choose the text channel to send security passcodes, delivery notes, and appointment confirmations. In fact, enterprises sent 1.67 trillion SMS messages in 2017. That’s 18.2 A2P SMS messages received per subscriber per month.

So SMS is still very much here. But the mobile operators would prefer to update it. Can they? They’re trying.

Which brings us to Rich Communication Services.

RCS is the next-gen messaging system supported by the world’s telcos. You could call it SMS v2. Mobile operators want to make RCS a default channel like SMS – but one that offers the rich functions you get in Facebook Messenger, iMessage, WeChat and other apps.

Just a few days ago, there was some big RCS news. The four major US carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint — announced a joint venture to replace SMS with RCS. They pledged to launch a new RCS messaging app for all Android phones that support the standard by next year.

Sounds ambitious, doesn’t it? Well, the truth is that RCS is actually 11 years old. Yes, the world’s operators have been trying to get RCS moving since 2008! The trouble is that carriers are enormous organizations. They are in fierce competition with each other. This makes it hard for them to cooperate – especially on big new ideas like replacing SMS.

They argued about RCS, and five years after ‘launch’, it had all but disappeared. It was actually Google that revived it. In 2015, Google bought the underlying RCS tech. It then created a new RCS standard that all operators could support. Google called this the RCS Universal Profile.

What was Google’s agenda? This is still unclear. The most likely explanation is that Google had made a mess of messaging. Over the years, it launched Allo, Duo, Hangouts, and more. None of them truly succeeded.

So perhaps Google saw RCS as the best way to build an Android version of iMessagea universal app everyone Android phone owner could use. Unfortunately, Google also struggled. It could not attract carriers in large numbers to host RCS apps on its servers.

Today, for all the efforts of Google and others, there are still relatively few live services. The GSMA says 81 operators have launched RCS. It forecasts an additional 27 operator launches by Q1 2020. User numbers are also modest. Most people still don’t know much about RCS. They use other messaging apps. Mobilesquared says, as of the end of 2018, there were 203 million RCS users. Making up a measly 0.3% of all smartphone owners.

Now, the RCS situation is getting messier. For example, in June 2019, Google stopped waiting for operators to support RCS and simply launched its own downloadable RCS app (called Chat) in the UK and France. The problem with all this fragmentation is that it stops RCS from being a universal fallback– like SMS. This really matters. RCS has to be comprehensive. If it’s not, what’s the point? Consumers can just go back to using WhatsApp, Kik, WeChat, Viber, and the many hundreds of niche messaging apps made by enterprising developers all over the world.

It matters to Android developers like you too. Many app developers currently find SMS useful. It’s great for sending reminders and alerts to customers. It’s perfect for sending authentication codes. In the future, will you be using RCS for these purposes? And if so, what else could you do when not limited by plain text? Send how-to videos? Set up polls?

Important questions. But for now, still no clear answers.