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Monday, March 18, 2013

Joyn a world of delusion

In Douglas Adams' famous novel The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, the protagonist Arthur Dent responds to someone saying "Don't worry, we're safe" with the line:

"Ah, this is obviously some strange usage of the word 'safe' that I wasn't previously aware of"

I was reminded of this sentiment yesterday, when I heard a radio advert from US operator MetroPCS (currently being acquired by T-Mobile) while driving around the Bay Area. While discussing its 4G network and plans, the voiceover came out with this gem of a quote:

"The only network featuring Joyn, the amazing social sharing app sweeping Europe"

Which is, obviously, some strange usage of two words, "amazing" and "sweeping", that clearly I wasn't previously aware of. Being less charitable, I'd say they cross the boundary between acceptable-if-cringeworthy marketing hyperbole, and an outright lie. (Ironically, MetroPCS has actually done something interesting with Joyn, offering it as a Telco-OTT app for non-Metro subscribers, but the advert didn't mention that).

This type of ridiculous puffery is becoming the signature of RCS/Joyn. Obviously, the spinning started with the risible "it's just there, it just works" tagline, although that could almost be put down merely as a crass attempt to "fake it till you make it", imbued with the naive wishful thinking that it might create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Then pre-MWC, there was the loud trumpeting that South Korea's SKT had signed up 1 million users for its JoynT service, albeit with precious few details about active usage, or whether this was just counting bundle subscribers. There was also conspicuous silence about how this compared with the 1.2 million early-RCS users trumpeted in May 2010.

Then in the last few weeks, Deutsche Telekom announced support of a downloadable Joyn app in Germany, alongside the existing effort from Vodafone. Cue various spurious comments such as "Telef√≥nica also plan to launch Joyn in the market later this year, at which point the service will then be available to over 80 per cent of all mobile customers in Germany" which conveniently overlooks the current (and baffling) lack of iPhone versions, and the fact that Germany still only has 50-60% smartphone penetration anyway.

All of this epitomises the RCS/Joyn community's continuing sense of both self-delusion and entitlement. Participating in various discussions on LinkedIn and elsewhere, I still keep picking up the sense that Joyn is perceived as somehow different or special to the 100's of other messaging apps, merely because it's been "standardised" by a committee.

There continues to be be an undercurrent of wishful thinking that the large handset vendors will pre-install Joyn by default in all devices, because telcos will demand it in their published specs - ignoring the fact that globally many devices are sold through non-carrier channels. Plus obviously all the major players have their own messaging platforms like iMessage, Chat-On, BBM and so forth - as well as a variety of partnerships with Facebook, Twitter and others.

Also absent from most of the discussion is another very important constituency - the user. I still have not seen any reason why users will plausibly want to switch from WhatsApp or similar standalone services, while increasingly we are seeing messaging/sharing being "contextualised" into vertical social or business applications like Facebook or Yammer anyway. The best that the telcos can come up with is zero-rating of data traffic for Joyn - not really a big deal when you consider that almost all video-sharing or big file-sharing instances will occur in the presence of non-metered WiFi anyway.

As I've said before, I can see slightly more scope for RCS as an API, rather than an app. B2C messaging could benefit from something richer than SMS/MMS. But to get to that point of utility, the telecoms industry needs to sort the chicken/egg problem - an RCS API is only useful when it provides access to most people. But most people (or, by proxy, their device suppliers) will only adopt RCS if/when it does something useful for them.

Operators' strategy for fixing this dilemma seems to be three-fold:
  1. Pretend the problem doesn't exist
  2. Hope to persuade more operators to adopt/launch RCS in vain hope it might be useful
  3. Hope to force handset vendors to embed or pre-install Joyn and underlying APIs
Personally, I can't see this working until and unless RCS/Joyn offers something concretely important, innovative and differentiating to end-users. There is no reason for OEMs to embed Joyn in "open market" phones sold through non-telco channels. And even less reason to embed Joyn in WiFi-only tablets. In the meantime, operators are aggressively partnering with other so-called OTT players like WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook, while device vendors are pushing their own options. There is much more "ubiquity" to be had from a Twitter API (or Facebook Messaging API if one launches) - when Joyn has 300m+ active users, it has a story to tell.

Notably, Telefonica has announced that it will embed its own TUMe telco-OTT voice & messaging app in its South America handsets. To my mind, this is a much smarter move than pushing humdrum, low-value-commodity RCS as the Spanish and German Telefonica units are trying.

Either way, the telecom operators clearly need to get a sense of reality about Joyn - and start to think about how to exploit the increasingly sophisticated user base for advanced and contextualised messaging. The best thing for them to do it stop wasting time, money and resources on RCS/Joyn immediately, and abandon it. It is a distraction and inevitable failure - and given the huge opportunity costs from not "doing something more useful instead", it is a bizarre act of self-delusion to keep clinging to it, at this point.

If operators do want to continue pursuing the  RCS "opportunity", they need to do 5 things immediately:

  1. Get the iOS version out within the next month
  2. Drop the silly slogans & advertising - focus on driving real virality and adoption
  3. Follow MetroPCS and aggressively push OTT variants of Joyn. Vodafone Germany should have been pushing its branded Joyn app to T-Mobile and O2 DE customers already.
  4. Develop some clearly differentiated use-cases for the app
  5. Move to iterating and updating Joyn features at least quarterly, and ideally have a rolling 2-4 week app upgrade cycle adding new features, fixing bugs etc
There's also various things around WebRTC extension, and API exposure, but I'll save those discussions for private advice and consultation sessions.

As I've said before, RCS/Joyn is a zombie technology - dead, but still walking around and apt to try to eat your brain if you let it get too close. It seems that the first sign of infection is self-delusion.


brknMsg said...

Dean - "mostly harmless". Thanks for the laugh and some good points! cheers, Neil.

Guy said...

I too find the value prop of Joyn vs. OTT apps quite weak, and relate to your comment "why would anybody move away from WhatsApp".

Do you find that all "standard" IMS based applications (IR.92, IR.94) are irrelevant the same way, or you just object to the Joyn ceremony..?


Dean Bubley said...

Guy - some standard IMS apps are OK, notably fixed-line VoIP, which is suitable for cost-savings vs. 30yr-old switching infrastructure.

IR92/IR94 are better in principle than Joyn - I wrote in 2007 that there needed to be a simple, standard, 3G/4G telephony product. But it's 5 years late, so may have missed its window as we go past "peak telephony". It isn't a general voice platform, just telephony v1.1

VoLTE also has lots of implementation issues, not least the choice of AMR-WB and the lack of upfront focus on acoustics issues.

Overall: VoLTE is the right idea, but limited, buggy & late. RCS/Joyn was a flawed idea to begin with.

Ayoub Cherkaoui said...

Hi Dean,

Thanks for the Article, as usually, it's very entertaining and informative.

While I agree with some points like the non-clarity of how to offer joyn to the end user, i have to disagree with some statements related to the irrelevance of joyn.

I would briefly say the following:

- Messaging is a communication service at the same level of voice. Voice/Messaging cannot be dissociated; consumers deserve a 1 click communication experience. So if you think IR92/94 is relevant, you must think that joyn is relevant (joyn endorses IR92/94). In a way joyn is a global trial for the future of unified/standardized communications. It's just harder to get 1000s of organizations aligned so quickly.
- The non-standardization of communication services a life-threatening condition. Just check the reports following the latest US school shootings. It was clearly identified that the lack of standardized communication prevented the schools from alerting students/teachers on time. I’m not saying standardized communication has to be offered by the “traditional” Telco’s strictly, but we need a common ground to ensure that telecommunication will continue supporting our social and economic evolution. I’m very concerned about the “Tower of Babel” Effect that the abundance of communication channels may create in our society.

I will leave it at that for the moment.


Dean Bubley said...

Hi Ayoub

Thanks for commenting.

I'm sorry, I have to disagree with you. Voice (you actually mean telephony) and messaging can quite easily be dissociated. Or alternatively, they can be associated in various forms, eg VoLTE+SMS or various mashups via WebRTC or other APIs.

Furthermore, VoLTE can work on a standalone basis, easily converted to other forms of VoIP or circuit telephony in a gateway or SBC. So one operator in a country can deploy VoLTE successfully on its own, interoperating with CSFB, GSM and wireline NGN VoIP. RCS on the other hand is pretty useless if deployed by a single operator in a country, unless they do an OTT version for non-subscribers as well.

None of this gets around the fact that RCS, RCSe and RCS5 are badly-designed in the first place. There are many possible ways to improve SMS in terms of user experience that were ignored in favour of "multimedia" for its own sake.

You say that "non-standardisation is life-threatening". That overdramatises considerably - and also points out that we definitely need a broad rethink on emergency communications in the new era of fragmented apps & services & embedded comms. It's worth noting that Voxbone provides standalone emergency calling for VoIP players.

If Ericsson feels that the "Tower of Babel" is a problem, it ought to be encouraging regulators to look for imaginative solutions & highlighting the inevitable, rather than trying to turn back the clock to the Dark Ages of Scarcity-derived Ubiquity.