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Thursday, October 01, 2015

Google buying Jibe Mobile is aimed at turning RCS into Android's iMessage

Like a lot of people, I was surprised by Google's acquisition of RCS specialist Jibe Mobile yesterday. Lots of theories were advanced on Twitter and blogs about this last night:

  • Wow, Google is recognising that carrier standards, RCS and IMS are the future!
  • Meh, it's an acqui-hire for people who understand messaging on Android
  • Hmm, forget RCS device-side apps, Jibe offers cloud-based RCS servers to operators - it's Google's opening NFV play! (me)
  • It's Google trying to get US carriers to push Android devices more, by acquiescing to demands for native RCS support (even if Google privately thinks it's rubbish)
  • It's Facebook- and TenCent-envy. Google thinks it's missing out on messaging-as-social-platform as its previous efforts have been failures (also me)
On reflection I actually think there's a different story here. 

Forget telcos, the GSMA and 3GPP. Google buying Jibe Mobile isn't about carriers at all. They're a sideshow, or perhaps "useful idiots" in this scenario.

Google (I think) has three competitors in mind: Mostly Apple, but also Microsoft and Twilio.

First, let's step back. There are various uses for "messaging" apps on smartphones:
  • Basic P2P or A2P text messages, ideally with features like read-receipts & pictures. And ideally free
  • Enhanced messaging (not "rich") with better support for things like groups, white/black-lists, security, maybe "ephemerality" etc. Think of WhatsApp, BBM, Telegram and so on.
  • Cool messaging (again not "rich" although they might use pictures or video) - things aimed at "lifestyle", flirting, self-expression, teenagers, and perhaps content streams. Instagram and SnapChat go here.
  • Messaging as a platform, where users don't just send messages but can also use mini-apps or plug-ins inside the system for purchases or collaboration. WeChat and arguably Slack (in enterprise) fit in this category
  • Messaging-as-a-feature, where messages get embedded into other applications or services via APIs, or are implemented natively. Twitter direct-messages are an example, but there are many others - perhaps even including iOS and Android push notifications.
These are imprecise categories. They overlap, and app providers try to push up from one type to the other - for example the content channels on SnapChat.

But right at the bottom of the list is basic P2P messaging. Traditionally the home of SMS (& MMS). It's been cannibalised in a lot of places by WhatsApp or close equivalents, although in places with flat-rate charging for SMS it's been more robust. But there is one important other player here: Apple iMessage, which gives an SMS-integrated experience built into iOS. iMessage is a well-designed, moderately "enhanced" version of SMS that is free between Apple users and has some better features (delivery notice & typing-awareness) than ordinary SMS whilst having a near-identical UI.

While Apple doesn't monetise iMessage, it makes usng iPhones a bit nicer. It does what the telecom industry should have done 10 years ago, and improved SMS without focusing on "multimedia" as a first step. It's the little things that count in messaging - ticks when someone has read something, an indicator that they're composing a reply and so on. Fripperies like file-sharing and "see what I see video" are irrelevant in 99.99% of use-cases. Get the basics right - usable texts & the occasional picture. Maybe an audio-message function for people with awkward languages that don't fit keypads & predictive text very well.

Now Google has had its own Hangouts messaging app on Androids in the past, which can be used as a default SMS app as well. But compared to iMessage, it hasn't been especially well-received, as it's optional. This means that Apple's automated and familiar green-becomes-blue messaging experience for Apple-to-Apple communications hasn't really been replicated in Android.

I suspect that acquiring Jibe Mobile (with RCS) is an attempt to change this. I think Google wants to use a service which handset vendors already accept being integrated "natively" to become its own free Android-to-Android messenger.

The fact that the mobile operators want RCS to be natively implemented is even better - Google gets the telcos to lean on all the handset OEMs to accept it. 

But of course, the devil is in the detail of the implementation. I suspect that a future version of Android will support RCS as a default app not because of its "richness", and not because of its "interoperability", but because it allows Google to compete with Apple on basic device-to-device enhanced and free texting. Messaging that goes via its own cloud most of the time, or which might interact with the telcos' networks either for "AndroidRCS-Out" or fallback to SMS. 

In other words, this turns RCS from being a "service" into being a basic messaging function within Android. It's not about "richness", either - video chat on Android will still be on Hangouts and via its WebRTC support 99.9% of the time. Google undoubtedly knows that RCS isn't really the basis of a "cool" messaging service either - I highly doubt it wants to compete with SnapChat, at least to begin with. It's not about lifestyle or messaging-as-platform - just a well-integrated way to do free basic messages.

So my views is that this is all about creating Google's iMessage, not a ringing endorsement of telco-run RCS or IPX or any of the other industry machinery. The telcos may get the scraps of RCS-in or RCS-out, most of which will be converted back to plain old SMS to terminate on iPhones, or older Androids.

There's also a secondary set of targets here, I think: B2C, B2B and A2P messaging. I'm sure that Google has noticed Microsoft linking Skype and Skype4Business and its other cloud properties. In future, businesses running Microsoft-powered UC or contact-centre software will be able to directly reach out to end-users via Skype, bring messaging, video, presence and so on. I don't think MS really cares so much about person-to-person Skype any more - it's nice, but not really monetised and faces lots of competition. But B2C Skype is different, if it entrenches Microsoft's enterprise platforms and gives businesses a rich (and free) way to talk to customers. Goodbye toll-free numbers, for a start. It also helps Microsoft become a more full-fledged UC player for internal enterprise communications.

I think that Google wants to do the same thing, linked to Google Apps for Work and other services. And having a native "AndroidRCS" (not "TelcoRCS") capability in every device will help. So perhaps, Jibe is intended to become Google's equivalent of Skype. And again, the likely majority scenarios would be internal within the Google ecosyste, plus a small minority of in/out to the telco (or enterprise SIP) domains.

Lastly, I wonder if this is an oblique way to compete with Twilio and a few other PaaS providers. Using a cloud-based messaging platform linked to a native client in Android gives a whole set of possibilities for developers to do free A2P messaging - basically a version of push notifications for people who don't have an app installed. Or easy, free web-to-device notifications (something missing in WebRTC when the user is outside the browser). And again, there is little reason to involve the phone networks except as exceptions or gateways to/from SMS on other devices.

In summary - this isn't a win for GSMA and RCS. It's not "fighting back against the OTTs". It's not going to suddenly revolutionise the market for messaging and promote the hoped-for renaissance of subscribers paying for "richness". It's not about video-chat or filesharing. It's not about QoS. It's not going to compete against SnapChat or Instagram or WeChat. (That traffic has gone to apps that are simply better and cooler. It might get a bit of basic text back from WhatsApp, but not much, as that's the cross-platfom winner in markets with a mix of Androids and iPhones).
I believe that, in fact, this is Google "stealing" RCS for its own purposes - free basic Android-to-Android messaging, with free B2C and A2P messaging to follow. It can vault into the big league with a billion AndroidRCS text users. The amount likely to touch the telcos' IMS's will likely be minimal. And the GSMA has done all the hard work encouraging the handset OEMs to support it. Thanks guys.

(And of course, there's also the very high probability that the whole thing is a total dud, or that users just ignore it, or only gets implemented in a sub-set of Android devices. Google's record here isn't great - think about Wave and Google+ debacles)

Dean Bubley & Disruptive Analysis specialise in analysing the future of voice, video & messaging, including VoLTE, WiFi-Calling, WebRTC and Contextual Communications. If you are interested in a private advisory workshop or project, please contact information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com


Martin Wren-Hilton said...

Good analysis Dean.

What would it mean to the MNO 'community' (and E.164 identities) if Apple and Google subsequently interconnect AndroidRCS and iMessage?

Rob Pickering said...

All well reasoned, but I can't see any technical reason why Google would want/need to use any part of RCS to build and drive adoption of an "Android iMessage".

They already have the Hangout technology which is perfectly capable of delivering everything they need. It is not the technology that is holding them back, just their inability to achieve the universal adoption by handset builders. Unless the question involves federation, monetisation etc (and even where it does) RCS makes no technical sense, and they must be aware of this.

iMessage works as well as it does, not because of any protocol advantage or indeed unique inimitable UI goodness of it's own but just because Apple gets to make it universal on their devices. This is despite the networks' antipathy to OTT messaging just because Apple has the power in the relationship through end user pull.

Google has a similar technical capability with Hangouts, but has no real leverage over how it's ecosystem is delivered. The handset builders won't put it's messaging centre stage because the network operators, who are waiting for this inexplicable thing they call RCS, don't want them to.

You can imagine someone sitting there and saying "For goodness sake if the only reason they won't use build our messaging in is because we aren't Apple, and it isn't spelled RCS, then we change one of those variables by henceforth calling our stuff RCS". "Our engineers will all resign if we actually try to implement any of it, so we may have to buy some cred at a garage sale, but that isn't really the point".

Sort of embrace, extinguish, but without the need to extend (thankfully).

Mr. Poopy said...

Hi Rob,

It is the technology holding them back, but you're also right, there's more to it. Hangouts is a mess, even people close to the project are not happy. In fact, since the beginning of this year, several if not most of the key engineers left the project and the team.

Google getting Jibe for RCS is an attempt to cover their weakness in enterprise communications aside from consumer messaging. Their Works program is a tough sell to carriers and enterprise if collaboration isn't there. An Office 365 Platform w/ Lync is a powerful business combo. And Apple's stance to cut out Google as much as possible (Maps, Ads, Search, etc.) are also huge threats to Google. Where does Google make all its money? It's search, and they are extremely vulnerable. Google has made a habit of, if not evil, definitley not doing all good. This is why they can't get adoption, because they want everyone to follow without questioning and have no qualms about making unilateral decisions without concern for partners. In their own words, Samsung is a great partner, but too big and too strong; so they want their partners weak and reliant on them.

If you want to understand Google's attempts at messaging and communications, follow the path of Craig Walker, CEO of Grand Central that was acquired and became Google Voice. At Google he became involved with Google Ventures, founded Uber Conference and is CEO of Switch.co, both of which are now in use by Softbank and subsidaries (aka Sprint) and have also received investment from both Google and Softbank (coincidence former Googler Nikesh Arora is being groomed for CEO of Softbank?). Pattern? Sprint is weak, they have to go along with whatever Google says, even if it's not better.

What will also be interesting is to see how long Google can maintain control of Android. There's a reason Cyanogen has received a significant investment from Andreessen Horowitz and Microsoft.

John Hurley said...

So when 85% of Smartphone users have Jibe and 15% have iMessage,
(assuming Windows phone users will have a Jibe app to download!) what will happen when an iPhone user sends a text message to an Android/Windows contact?

Will that go by SMS? MMS? or will they use Google's API? and vice-versa?