RCS, Operators and Google: an uneasy relationship

13 September 2021 | Giovanni Benini

Giovanni Benini

Blog Author | Guest contributor

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RCS may have been touted as the answer to OTT messaging, but its window of opportunity is closing. Ahead of today’s Smart Messaging stream, GTC’s COO and CFO Giovanni Benini, and senior consultant Mitchell Cutmore, outline the state of the market

RCS is a GSMA and mobile network operator initiative designed to evolve the messaging services of mobile operators and counter OTT messaging services like Whatsapp, Viber, Wechat etc. Those OTT services circumvent the mobile operator and drain value from their messaging portfolio as customers embrace OTT options.

Interventions from Google

Ironically, RCS momentum picked up seriously only after Google’s entry with their acquisition of Jibe and inclusion of RCS in the Android messages app from 2017 onwards. Google’s position at that time was to leverage the standard and support the transition of the MNOs towards RCS.

However, Google clearly expected MNOs to move faster than they did. They transformed frustration into action by launching the Google Guest programme – an independent (OTT) RCS solution. This started slow and almost unnoticed in the UK and France but is now supported worldwide.

In 2020 Google also took a more restrictive approach towards supporting interoperability. Now support is limited to its native client and very few already established co-operations, like with Vodafone.

Tough love

Google’s shifting strategy is on the one hand understandable. Prioritising the consistent roll-out of a new channel is key to success; therefore, operators need to be pushed. On the other hand, not all operators react kindly to being cornered into action with the incentive of Google Guest as a potential competitor. This means that rather than jumping on board at the first opportunity, many operators still search for Google-agnostic options to launch RCS.

Window of opportunity

RCS as a media-rich, interactive messaging environment has a window of opportunity as OTT apps still iron out their A2P strategy. Yet that window may well close if operators do not make peace with working with Google in some capacity. As a leading global RCS hub (essential for interoperability), avoiding Google is no longer an option.

A world apart

There are still attempts to create a Google independent RCS world as described in the Interop whitepaper, for example. Major initiatives like CCMI in the USA, however, have not seen the light of day. At a client level, alternatives like the one from Samsung also seem to be on hold – perhaps permanently. Needless to say, if RCS becomes a Google-only channel, Apple will certainly never join and support RCS – a move heavily expected by most RCS stakeholders for a long time.

Hurdles ahead

Besides operators launching RCS within their networks and driving user opt-ins to boost the available audience, there are commercial models to mould too. RCS was said to be the evolution of SMS but now it seems it might be easier understood as something else altogether. Is that a problem or rather a blessing in disguise?

Most operators have built RCS business models in direct relationship to SMS. That sounds straightforward but seems unhelpful in practice. When comparing RCS with SMS, brands have been put off by the price jump and preferred to wait for a better offer in the future. This has led to some operators repositioning RCS as a new channel altogether: too rich and too interactive to merit direct SMS (price) comparisons.

Identity crisis?

So, if we’re witnessing ‘SMS 2.0’ evolve into a ‘brand new operator channel’, how long until RCS is known simply as that new Google channel?

Operators holding fire on RCS may do so in a false sense of security that slowing things down will allow them time to assess their options. But no. RCS is coming in one form or another. What form it will take (and the extent of Google’s involvement) will be shaped by what operators choose to do, or not do, next.