After Jibe Mobile Buy, Google To Provide Carriers With Android RCS Client


Here at Mobile World Congress 2016, the annual Barcelona-based flesh-pressing of the telco industry, Google and a bunch of carriers have put out a press release talking up how they are apparently ‘aligning’ to try to drive adoption of RCS.

Aka the Rich Communications Services interoperable messaging standard that carriers have been trying to push for years.

Carriers’ aim with RCS (formerly called Joyn) was to try to evolve SMS with a new standard that baked in richer features, such as instant messaging, group chats, file sharing and so on; i.e. the sorts of features now routinely found in over-the-top messaging apps like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger. So really that ship has sailed, and the latter apps are continuing to pull users away from SMS, diminishing the old carrier cash-cow even further.

Instead of a new cash-cow carriers have only a lame duck alternative in RCS. And yet they’re still hoping it can turn into a golden goose — hence today’s trumpeting…

By aligning on a universal RCS profile, mobile operators will be able to deploy a consistent RCS implementation, feature set, and configuration. The Android RCS client provided by Google will be based on the universal profile, enabling consumers to access RCS services on their devices. Features such as group chat, high-res photo sharing, read receipts, and more, will now become part of the operator messaging experience, enhancing the experience of over 4 billion SMS users worldwide. GSMA RCS advanced calling features will also be supported in the future by Google.

The profile and client will enable a consistent and interoperable messaging experience between all Android devices and across all operators worldwide, as well as ease interoperability testing between networks and significantly reduce time to market. The universal profile can be implemented by other operating systems and will be supported by a formal GSMA accreditation process. Google will also provide an open source version of the client based on the universal profile specification and will provide developer APIs to enhance the RCS client experience.

Thing is, carriers have been trying and failing to get RCS to fly for years, but got bogged down in trying to agree standards for all the various features. And when OTT messaging platform Whatsapp, which is actually a bit younger than the RCS industry initiative, can boast of having one billion active users now it’s clear who’s stolen the messaging momentum — and it’s not the carriers. Apple has also managed to deliver a widely adopted SMS alternative (iMessage) which, while not perfect, is very usable and well used.

Meanwhile the carriers are now only talking about building “a path” to one billion users for RCS (and a target of four billion+ SMS users). Yet, as others have noted, they’re not breaking out any actual active user stats for RCS.

One billion is also an admission of failure if the original ambition was to build the next gen of SMS…

Today’s RCS announcement is clearly aimed at giving the impression of some uplift — with Google cast as the limelight-bringer. After all it is MWC16 and carriers want to be able to dream of golden gooses at their annual Mediterranean confab.

“Operators have agreed to transition toward a common, universal profile based on the GSMA’s RCS specifications and an Android RCS client provided by Google in collaboration with operators and OEMs,” the GSMA carrier association writes in the release, which lists 19 carriers by name (and the GSMA) yet lacks some of the big names (e.g. no AT&T and no Verizon, the parent of TechCrunch’s parent AOL).

In a statement, Google’s Nick Fox, VP of communications products at Google, adds: “Today marks an important step forward in bringing a better messaging experience for Android users everywhere, and we’re thrilled to collaborate with our partners across the industry to make this happen.”

Why has Google been persuaded to lend its brand gloss to the carriers’ lame duck? We can but speculate that perhaps it wanted to keep the GSMA happy so it would sanction another Android-branded playground landing in the middle of MWC, as has been unveiled today — complete with a free smoothie bar and Android pin badges that delegates can fight over, as per the last time Google’s Android branding took over MWC back in 2011…

More seriously, Google agreeing to provide an Android RCS client does follow on from it acquiring RCS specialist Jibe Mobile back in September, when it said it would adopt the RCS standard.

“SMS carrier messaging is used by billions of people every day and enables people to reach anyone around the world, regardless of their device, carrier, app or location. The features available in SMS haven’t kept up with modern messaging apps. Rich Communications Services (RCS) is a new standard for carrier messaging and brings many of the features that people now expect from mobile messaging, such as group chats, high res photos and more,” said Google at the time of buying Jibe.

Also at the time of the Jibe acquisition, telecoms analyst Dean Bubley suggested Mountain View’s move was actually aimed at building its own Android-to-Android iMessage competitor — a theory he’s still not ruling out, so perhaps Google still has some hopes on that front.

Albeit, Bubley couches Google’s latest RCS pronouncement as “very lukewarm”, noting it has not specified the client will be on all Android devices, for example, even if what is clearly carrier-written PR talks about reaching “all Android devices” — which would encompasses an awful lot of hardware these days, from phones to smart TVs, to smartwatches and more. (We’ve asked Google for some clarity here and will update this post with any response).

Update: A Google spokeswoman said: “Once deployed, the Universal RCS Client will come standard for all Android devices globally, providing a more consistent experience with more advanced features.”  To be clear, that’s ‘standard’ in the sense of OEMs and carriers being able to choose to install it — so not universal, not mandated by Google and thus most certainly fragmented. (Also on fragmentation the spokeswoman confirmed that currently the client only works on phones and tablets, so not all Android devices by any means.)

There’s also no clear timeframe on when Google will be delivering the RCS client. (The spokeswoman had no concrete commitments to impart here, saying only that Google is “planning to launch later this year”.) And, as noted above, without ubiquity it’s going to mean fragmentation keeps RCS-powered messaging apps from building the sought for mass messaging momentum via the platform.

So those SMS “billions” Google seemed to be eyeing up last fall, with its Jibe acquisition freshly closed, aren’t perhaps looking so reachable to it now via the RCS route.

Still, it’s possible Google thinks it’s still worth a punt on the tech to offer an iMessage alternative — if only for a sub-set of Android handsets.

The PR also notes that operators rolling out RCS can deploy their own infrastructure or have “the option to use the Jibe Platform from Google”, which it notes supports the universal RCS profile.

“The Jibe Platform includes a hosted cloud for individual operators to launch RCS services for all leading mobile operating systems and the Jibe Hub to interconnect operator RCS networks,” the release adds.

So Google at least gets the chance to cosy up to a few of those listed carriers — and maybe any resulting relationships could be useful to it for some of its other initiatives. After all, Google is actually rebranded Alphabet nowadays — and it has a business unit for just about every letter of the alphabet. And you can guarantee that all its businesses reap the rewards of increasing connectivity.

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