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Monday, April 28, 2008

IMS Rich Communications Suite - Necessary but not sufficient?

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.


Julian said...

as usual good post and you highlight the questions that usually dont get answered - however surprisingly you skip over the somewhat dubious utility of presence on a phone in the first place!

Anonymous said...

Presence-enabled AB solutions have been around for a long time; especially with Asia carriers such as SKT and KDDI. Helio in the US has been offering such a service on feature phones and keyboard devices as well. Common portal integration (Yahoo, AIM, MS, Google, NATE etc...) is mandatory. Location information is increasingly added to the solution. Seems to be popular with users. So, all of this can and is being done without any IMS framework at all; so, what is the point of converting all message flows to SIP?

Dean Bubley said...

Julian - thanks. I agree, presence on a mobile certanly isn't a dead-cert winner, although it seems useful for a number of purposes. I actually think "absence" is more valuable - what's the worst way, or the worst time, to attempt to reach me....

Anonymous - I totally agree. There's nothing that can be done with IMS that can't also be done without it. When I say "necessary but not sufficient", I mean necessary from the point of view of the IMS advocates, not necessary from being able to achieve it by any means at all.


Anonymous said...

Do you think this cartel of RCS will succeed without players like Vodafone on it? How much time do you give to this type of a consortium before it can be declared worth the effort?

Martijn Brouns said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martijn Brouns said...

Hi Dean,

Obviously IMS and RCS are in principle aimed at continuing a respectable market share in the (mobile) services arena.

My pick is that RCS is aimed at migrating legacy messaging users to a new service experience. That, on its own right is a logical strategy. In the end, if you were sitting on a gold mine called SMS you'd like to use its key strengths (handset and user penetration) to ensure your leading position, right?

Looking at an advanced market like South Korea - a country with top-ranked penetration in both mobile and fixed broadband - it is clear that social network usage is growing immensely and ... at the same time text messaging usage is shooting through the roof. You might conclude that there is a need for both: (1) community services as well as (2) mass communication services.

Services under (1) act as platforms to share/communicate in a community context while (2) acts as a red line enabling you to reach anyone irrespective if that user is part of your community.

Would you care to comment on the above?

Dean Bubley said...

Anonymous - I think that RCS might work as a "cartel" in a few operators/markets that think they can control the entry points to social networks in mobile. It'll depend on competition, user experience, how users currently use social network(s), which get supported and so on.

In the UK, it'll be a struggle for example, because of the prevalence of Voda and 3, which I can't see being interested in this. Also, I can't imagine that RCS will interface nicely with things like Skype, which will dissuade a lot of potential users. Elsewhere, maybe it'll be more successful if users are more relaxed or there's less competition. I wouldn't bet on it though.

There also needs to be an iPhone version, as many of the "cool" social-hub type users will have one. Should be an interesting discussion with Mr Jobs & his new notification server....

Dean Bubley said...

Hi Martijn

Yes, I'd agree that RCS might (for some operators) become SMS 2.0 .

The issue is that the Korean market has fewer different networks than many other countries - there's a reasonable chance that many your "community" of friends will be on the same mobile operator. That's much less true in other markets with 4 or 5 operators, plus MVNOs etc. There's also strong links between the MNOs and the popular social networks.

Doesn't work so well elsewhere, though.

Anonymous said...

hi Dean,

Kind of strange reading this year almost one year on from the last Barcelona event. The only real change in the past year is that the RCS group has been bundled into the GSMA and some more lab interop testing has happened hosted by Orange using SFR as the dummy partner. The dominant vendors remain Ericsson and NSN but Alcatel-Lucent is pushing in a bit. Of course a huge number of vendors are adding their names to the supporters list - why shouldn't they? Potential source of revenue from the mobile operator. The question is where will this all take the operators? Orange blazes it colours all over RCS but, it is not so clear that outside group that is promoting RCS do the Orange profit and loss masters really believe in this.

The handset areana has changed a fair bit as have consumer perception of service. Leading one to the conclusion that RCS is probably not needed and not not sufficient.

Anonymous said...

I read the post almost a year later. Nevertheless, the framework still reamins the same: this kind of initiatives (RCS) aim to mass market, and that is driven by "global reach"...I personally believe that this is something that OTT players can not compete with...wether many people like it or not, E164 is the biggest community on this planet, and telcos want to secure this...