At the Informa IMS conference in Paris last week, there was a lot of discussion about the new acronym du jour - RCS, or Rich Communications Suite. I'd had a bit of a heads-up on this at 3GSM in February, but I got to drill a bit deeper, see some demo's, and harass a few of its advocates with awkward questions.
In a nutshell, it's a lowest-common-denominator IMS mobile client, that incorporates a presence-enhanced address book with some IM capabilities and bits of file/image/video-sharing. It's being pushed by a semi-formal alliance of the largest handset vendors and a few of the more IMS-centric operators who share a fairly centralising/walled-garden view of the world. (I talked a bit about Orange & Telefonica as being 'old school' in February, and their central role in RCS just enhances my view - and I'd add TeliaSonera to the list as well).
Interestingly, RCS is being pitched as a lowish-end standardised client suitable for embedding onto featurephone platforms, as well as higher-end smartphones. This makes a huge amount of sense to me: smartphone-only software is of little use for services that require Metcalfe's Law to be exploited (ie value growing with the square of the number of connected users). The chances of everyone in a group of friends or IM buddies having a smartphone any time in the next 5 years are essentially zero.
In a nutshell, it seems like RCS is destined to join the fairly short list of very-standardised set of native applications on most phones:
- Phone dialler
- SMS client
- MMS client
- WAP browser
- (on 3G phones) - videotelephony
The more observant reader may recognise that not all of these have been a monumental success. The amount of 3G videotelephony traffic is utterly negligible, and there are no reasons to believe that it's going to change any time soon.Some of the RCS features like IM are fairly uncontroversial, especially if the operators deploying it are prepared to "play nicely" with existing Internet IM brands. However, the exclusion of those same Internet players from the RCS closed-shop is a major negative. There's also been little involvement of the myriad of smaller IMS-client framework vendors that have been working hard on presence-enabled phonebooks and the like for several years.
I'm pretty negative on things like video-sharing, but at least having a standardised solution means that less money is wasted on dozens of individual projects. Filesharing and image-sharing are more worthwhile - I just place a low value on real-time variants like video.
Also a negative is the pointless rhetoric about RCS enabling a "community of 3 billion mobile users". Amusingly, I heard this roughly 48 hours after posting about the misuse of the exact same figure. Nothing I heard suggested that RCS' promoters had actually bothered to understand the sociology of how communities & social networks form and evolve, and to design the software to accommodate this. I strongly suspect that the way in which engineers form networks of friends & contacts differs substantially from the way in which FaceBook, Bebo et al have emerged. As an extreme example, consider the role of the "cool" people who inevitably act as social-network hubs, migrating large groups of their friends en masse. Given that a reasonable chunk of such super-influencers have iPhones or steer their social empires from their PCs, it strikes me that courting them upfront could have disproportionate effect on RCS' success.
There are plenty of other unanswered questions, as not that much information on RCS specs have been released publicly yet. But some more food for thought:
- will operators provide presence data for free to prepay users, in the hope that one day they'll send a message?
- how "realtime" is the presence function if you have 100 buddies?
- will anyone bother to put an RCS client on a "vanilla" handset sold through non-operator channels? How is it configured?
- what happens if an end user wants to use an IMS service provider other than his/her access provider? If I'm an Orange customer but I really like a Telefonica app, how can I get it?
- what happens to people who belong to multiple existing social groups or online communities? Can I get access to my Skype buddies? Or should I just download fring to give me full access?
- is there a developer API? How is it used? Through Java JSR281?
- how well does RCS integrate with "legacy" users who won't have it enabled on their phones at first?
My gut feel is that RCS is primarily being designed as a walled-garden defensive play to protect SMS revenues, by trying to push some form of IM as "SMS v2". I certainly can't see it driving additonal revenues on its own, in its current version, but I'll keep an eye out for future developments.