Most phone users have used the Short Message Service at one time or another. Nowadays, we just call it texting people. Then came the promise of MMS (Multi Media Messaging), or picture messaging. That never really took off in the same way as texting people, since the costs to send an MMS was prohibitive. Soon enough, these Over The Top (OTT) messaging platforms took over and started to eat the operator’s proverbial lunch. Think WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, Apple Messaging, Line, and the list goes on.
So these services were about more than being able to send more than 160 characters at a time. You could send voice notes, or stickers, pictures and photos, or emoji. In some apps, you even have the ability to put some words in bold, or italics, to make things stand out. You could easily confirm when your message was received and/or read by the other person. All of a sudden, the experience you had communicating with your friends was a whole lot richer.
And there you have it – the option of your standard SMS, but without having to have a plan or allowance for these services. They all came out from your data limit…. And most smartphones have a data allowance. That’s why they’re able to be smarter, right? They’re more connected.
As mentioned earlier, although these services are platforms, they don’t connect to each other. You can’t use WhatsApp if your friend swears by Signal. Your best friend treats any blue messages like second class citizens. All in all, interconnection is a problem, and no app manufacturer has a vested interest in allowing other platforms to have access.
Yep. But don’t worry the GSMA (Global System Mobile Association) has an answer. They’ll make these Rich Communications that you’re so used to, and like into a standard. In fact, they already have. Some time ago. In 2007, the GSMA even went so far as to come up with some branding, and named the initiative Joyn. Snazzy, right? And yet, it didn’t take off. In order to take advantage of this new system, a couple of things had to be in place. RCS has to be baked into every phone wanting to use the service. Then not only would it take new phones that support these Rich Communication Services, RCS, but the network operators themselves have to install equipment. And for the longest amount of time, there was no incentive for them to do so. A picture message was prohibitively expensive to send, and that equalled profit. Then the operators started giving away text messages for free as part of a tariff, so how would they monetise RCS?
All the while, WhatsApp, iMessage, and Skype continued to grow. These effective walled-gardens still gave people a way to enjoy RCS and nobody really cared about being able to have the one app to talk to everyone. If you really needed to, you could fall back to sending a text, right?
Right. Plain old text. Then a couple of years ago, Google bought a company called Jibe, who specialised in RCS. Maybe the hope was that all Google phones would pioneer the service and other manufacturers would follow suit…
Wait, why do you keep saying was?
Because after years in the mobile tech wilderness, things are starting to roll – kind of. Google is now building out RCS inside their Messages app. At the same time, in a move that will surprise literally nobody, Messages will likely go through a slight rebranding to Android Messenger. We haven’t seen it over here yet, so time will tell. However, the kicker is that both the networks and the handset manufacturers, who are not always the fastest at agreeing to work together.
Yes, we do have a standard. Yes, the GSMA has confirmed it, and all we’re waiting for it everyone else to get their act together. But this is a slow process. AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile have all signed up and implemented RCS on their network.
So all great! What’s the problem?
In a word, implementation. RCS has been rolled out in Canada, and it works normally. But AT&T implementation will only allow on-net calls and the ‘RIch Communication’ of RCS if you use AT&T’s app. The good news is that things aren’t the same over in Europe, if not quite the U.K. Vodafone Italia and TIM in Italy have RCS rolled out. Even Russia has a network, MTS, that’s had RCS since 2016.
Does that mean we aren’t going to get RCS?
Maybe, but probably not. Handset makers like Samsung are implementing RCS, but in their own fashion. We don’t know if Samsung handsets will have Samsung specific profiles that ‘enhance’ their usefulness when they talk to other Samsung handsets. We don’t know if the U.K networks will want to put in the time and effort. Why would they? How would it affect their bottom line? People who want to talk to each other can already to do, using the apps above? Sure, it doesn’t provide that full ubiquity and ease of use that a default app will have. Yes, I’m looking at you, iMessage. But anyone who wants to be able to communicate with emoji, picture messages, gifs, voice notes, attachments, pictures, memes and whatever you can think of, can still do so. All in their own little ecosystem. So the data is being used one way or another. However, I can’t see the networks deciding any time soon that having one messaging protocol to rule them all is financially worth while.
I mean, it’s not like off-network calls and text messaging made mobile take-off way back when, is it?