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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Creating user engagement in RCS and other communications services

I've been having many more discussions recently about my vehement views on RCS and why I think it is (still) destined for failure. In short, the current hoopla about various operators and vendors doing a big push to "make it happen" is not enough.

Yes, it helps that DT, FT, the US & Korean operators and (belatedly) Vodafone seem to be getting their marketing machines & spin-merchants lined up. Yes, it helps that RCS-e ditches the early RCS presence function which normally kills batteries and generates large amounts of extra signalling traffic. Yes it helps that Android is "malleable" so operators can get RCS-e clients onto some future handsets without too much pain. Yes, Orange and others are reportedly trying to strong-arm handset vendors into implementing it. Yes, executives from DT and other operators are name-checking it wherever possible on the conference circuit. Yes, I've even heard the word "freemium" mentioned in the same sentence as RCS.

All good stuff. But falling under the banner of "necessary but not sufficient".

These improvemens still don't mean that RCS-e somehow overcomes the other dozen or so problems I identified last year in my report on its near-inevitable demise. I predicted it would launch, splutter along for a bit, and then fail.

It's notable that when I have discussions with operators or vendors about what the problems really are, the one theme that seems to resonate is that of user engagement. How do you encourage people to actually use and exploit RCS rather than the myriad of other messaging and sharing and social-networking tools at their disposal? What makes them "invite friends" and others to accept those invitations? What makes them "invest" in the service?

Top of the list of things that versions of RCS I've seen *don't* do is permit the little snippets of user interaction that make alternatives like Facebook or Twitter or BlackBerry BBM so engaging.

The most obvious is "Like". On Facebook, you get instant validation that you've posted a cool picture, added a fun status update, attended a great event, listened to a great music track or whatever. It's a single click, but it communicates involvement, friendship, respect, attention, humour and all those other human qualities. It's a way to say "No, I haven't forgotten you, I am reading your stuff but don't have time to write a full message". It's like smiling at a friend, rubbing your partner's back, winking at someone in a crowd.

"Retweet" is similar. As are a whole host of "Vote up/down", "+1", "Recommend", "Share" and so forth.

These create user involvement and engagement, with a simple HTML link. They also tend to be extensible - as seen by the amount of Facebook Connect logos around the web.

Maybe a future version of RCS - or perhaps some operator-specific variants - will do something similar. Because if not, the services are likely to be very "dry".

There's another form of user interaction for messaging I've just become aware of in this context as well, triggered by this article about Apple's new iMessage service. It has something that most PC-based IM software has had for years, as well as BlackBerry Messenger - "typing indication". That's the little animation on a Skype or Yahoo IM window that shows that the other person is composing a reply. It will be interesting to see if any RCS clients can do the same thing - some of the specification documentation suggests it should.

The problem is that in future, communications users will have a very low tolerance of "clunkiness" - and they will also expect features to be upgraded like today's best apps, on a monthly or quarterly basis. There will also need to be a mechanism for operators to test different types of apps on certain groups of *live* customers. Google and Facebook can change their web page layouts, or app behaviours, for certain groups of their users, to see what works best. In my experience, it's pretty rare for telcos to do comparison-testing of different versions of services on their "production" customer base.

Overall, I still think that RCS is going to face insurmountable challenges - especially with newcomers like iMessage and whatever Google does with adding communications services into the browser. I think there will be a few niche usage cases - and perhaps specific countries where local conditions are unique enough to support it. But unless they get the user experience not just "good", but "fun" and "engaging" as well, it will struggle to gain traction.

4 comments:

juan said...

Dean,I understand your points and suffer the lack of speed of telcos, but RCS/RCS-e is the opportunity of telcos to provide their own OTT offering. Check how telco messaging could be a common enabler to link to other messaging systems, bettet to work interconecting the people rather than creating silos (as it seems to become the iMessage).

http://youtu.be/zF_roI2IOA0

Colin said...

Dean, I concur with your sentiments. Reading your blog I found myself comparing RCS(e) to iCloud. There are many differences (and not everything Apple does turns into gold) but it's well-designed with a clever revenue model. It creates a "walled garden" very succesfully and as some basic social networkig features. I have little doubt it gains traction with iPhone and iPad users.
One of the obstacles RCS faced was internal resistance at telco's as RCS appears to cannabalize telephony and SMS. RCS has always been a carbon-copy of succesful messaging/VoIP services. Would Telco's ever get to the point to rethink their business model and start with a communication offering that customers today want (and potentially tie in other services telco's offer)? iCloud could provide Telco's a model how this can be done.

Anonymous said...

I concur. Let's face it, Telcos should first of all become high quality bitpipe providers. They should compete on providing best bandwidth, availability and customer service for these bitpipes. No end user wants this RCS stuff. Telcos need to listen to what their customers want, not invent dozens of ways of "beating OTT competitors"

Martin said...

Juan mentions the often quoted - better interconnect than creating silos. And that is in general a wise statement. Problem is - users care about convenience. Internet is full of interconnection that happens organically, not pre-planned. Inter-connection is one feature, but what determines anything social is: are my friends there, is it easy to use, and does it add anything that competing social networks don't have. RCS ability to interconnect with Facebook and GTalk is a pure hygiene factor, shared with a multitude of chat apps. The only area where RCS could excel is bridging between calls, sms and to carry over sessions and data - but they are only valuable if the usability of it is polished to the extreme - as the option of just closing your chat app and calling from another app is always present in a smartphone.