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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New Report: Zero chance that IMS RCS will become a massmarket service, but niches may be possible

I have just published a new research report on the many failings of the Rich Communications Suite (RCS), which is a proposed IMS-based service for enhanced mobile messaging, phonebooks and communications services. The industry effort is coordinated by the GSMA's RCS Initiative.

My belief is that RCS is not "fit for purpose" as a massmarket application on mobile devices. It is late, it is inflexible, and it has been designed with many flawed in-built assumptions. The report identifies at least 12 different reasons why it cannot and will not become a universal standard. I've written about RCS several times before, since its inception more than 2.5 years ago.

Although originally intended as a ""epitaph" for a dead technology, I've tried to be open-minded and see if something might be salvaged. The report gives a few possible ways that RCS might be reincarnated.

I've been writing about mobile implementations of IMS for more than 4 years. In mid-2006, Disruptive Analysis published a report I authored, analysing the complete lack of useful standards defining what constituted an IMS-capable phone. I've subsequently talked about the failings of the MMtel standard for mobile VoIP in another report on VoIPo3G, and the recklessness of attempting to tie the LTE sports car to the IMS boat-anchor (or indeed, a dead parrot to its perch).

On the other hand, I've been broadly supportive of the GSMA's initiative for VoLTE, as it essentially does what I suggested in the 2007 VoIPo3G report - create a workable "bare bones" replacement for circuit voice over mobile IP. Although it doesn't preclude later adoption of some of the extra baggage that MMtel carries (video and so-called "multimedia", for example), it focuses on the here-and-now problem of making mobile VoIP phone calls, and interconnecting them.

If you look at why IMS has had moderate success in the fixed world, it's because it has been driven by direct PSTN-replacement, often with absolutely no additional features and gloss for the end-user. Yes, there can be more bells-and-whistles for corporate users, or people who want a fancy home screenphone. But it also works for seamless replacement of ordinary phone services for people who want to re-use their 1987-vintage handset plugged into a terminal adapter.

VoLTE also seems to be an attempt to "start simple" - essential, because there will be enough problems with optimising VoIP for mobile (coverage, battery, QoS, call setup, emergency calls etc), without layering on additional stuff that most customers won't want, initially at least. There will also, critically, be a ton of competition from other voice technologies, so speed and flexibility are critical.

Lastly, VoLTE can be deployed by individual LTE operators, without the need for all cellular providers (or handset manufacturers) to adopt it. VoLTE can interconnect quite easily with any other telco or Internet voice service, much as circuit voice, fixed VoIP or Skype can today.

RCS is another matter entirely. Rather than being a "bare-bones" way to migrate SMS (and, OK, MMS) to IP, in both network and handset, it attempts to redefine the messaging interface and phonebook UI at the same time. Rather than just getting SMS-over-mobile-IP to work as well as the original, it layers on additional complexities such as presence, IM and a reinvention of the handset's contacts list. It has been presented as enabling operators to create their own social network platforms, and interoperate amongst themselves.

All this extra functionality is intended to be a "core service" of future phones and networks, with an RCS software client functioning at the very heart of a handset's OS, especially on feature-phones. It is intended to ship (out of the box) in new handsets - although aftermarket RCS clients should also be available on Android and other devices.

Most of the initial thought seems to be an attempt to replicate a 2005-era MSN or Yahoo Messenger IM client. It certainly doesn't appear to have been invented for an era of downloadable smartphone apps, current-generation mobile browsers, mashups - or the harsh realities of a markeplace in which alternatives such as Facebook, BBM and various Google and Apple and Ovi services are already entrenched.

Much of the RCS Initiative effort is focused around interoperability. While this is very worthy, it is unfortunately demonstrating inter-operation with the wrong things: other operators' RCS platforms, rather than the hundreds of millions of people happily using other services already. There are some hooks into Facebook and related services, but these fall into the already-failed effort to put a clunky layer of social network aggregation on top of already-refined services.

The net result is that if an interoperable RCS is going to do something *better* than Facebook, it needs to be available to *everyone* and be adopted by all their friends. In reality, this means that all operators in a country will need to deploy it (roughly) together. And it means RCS functionality needs to be in all handsets - even those bought unsubsidised by prepay users.

As a result, RCS is yet another of a long series of "coalitions of the losers". It has not been designed with either web mashups or 3rd-party developers in mind. (At the 2010 RCS developer competition, there were "almost 40" entries). It has not been designed with the idea that an individual operator could launch a blockbuster service across all networks. It comes from an era of mobile central-planning, where a roomful of people could determine a single universal architecture and service, despite a lack of awareness of users' actual behavioural needs.

Smartphones, and the emergence of Apple, Google, Nokia, RIM, Facebook and others as applications powerhouses, has now guaranteed that there will never again be another single, ubiquitous mobile service, controlled solely by the operators. That ship has sailed, MMS being the last vessel limping from the port.

Let me ram that point home. There are now more users of open and flexible 3G smartphones, than there were total cellular subscribers when MMS was first invented. Almost all of them know what a good IM or social network service looks like - and which ones their friends are on.

The report covers all the topics raised here in greater depth, and also looks in more detail at some of the other "minor" gotchas around RCS, such as its impact on radio network signalling and handset battery life. Or its complete lack of obvious business model. Or any enterprise focus.

As I mentioned above, the report does contain some suggestions about possible "salvage" use cases for RCS. It could be used to create single-operator niche services, perhaps - maybe a music or movie fan service, perhaps.

Contents, pricing and online purchase of the report are available here , or contact me directly via information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com .

(Note: I'm trying out a new online payment / download service, please drop me a message if there are any problems and I can send the report by conventional invoice and email)


Steve said...


I completely agree with your RCS assessment.

Of course, I locked in on your comment about voice and VoLTE:

“Lastly, VoLTE can be deployed by individual LTE operators, without the need for all cellular providers to adopt it.”

I think this is a great point and it’s quite true. LTE will be deployed in islands for many years to come. Individual LTE operators may wish to invest in an entirely new IMS infrastructure to provide voice to their LTE subscribers.

But for those who want to leverage their new R4 softswitch voice infrastructure, which already uses IP transport and is dirt cheap, VoLGA provides a very practical and low-cost voice over LTE option.

Plus VoLGA is not ‘a workable “bare-bones” replacement’ for voice on LTE. It’s actually a completely full-featured 3G voice service offer. The same service subscribers receive on 3G (and will expect on LTE).

As operators begin to evaluate their voice options for LTE, VoLGA starts to look better and better. We’ve been getting unsolicited requests for information from operators around the world (even those who are active in the VoLTE initiative).

VoLTE is a long ways out and interim solutions are a must. Kineto’s analysis of the incredible signaling load combined with huge increases in call setup times inherent in CS Fallback are being proven out.

IMS will certainly be the future for some operators, but while we move towards that end goal, VoLGA offers a complete voice over LTE solution… today.


Anonymous said...


Does Kineto have any information about the fallback times on MetroPCS's LTE network? I can't find any information on it and it seems interesting, as they're falling back to a 2G rather than 3G voice network.

W/r/t the original post: How much longer do you think we'll see any (relatively) serious advocacy for RCS? I'd like to know because it seems like a good way to gauge its supporters and the industry in general. If more than 10% of car manufacturers tried to sell me a manufacturer-controlled steering wheel I'd start to worry.

Dean Bubley said...

Listening to a presentation yesterday, I heard a comment that "fallback" to CDMA 1x is potentially faster than GSM/UMTS.

But I'm wondering if it's actually "proper" CSFB, or if it's more of a Velcro solution with a complete second radio "on in the background" the whole time.

In terms of RCS advocacy - I sense that it's stumbling on still, in some quarters, although I'm hearing quite a lot of hints that it's on its last legs apart from a few more hardcore supporters.

I guess I'm attempting to administer a coup de grace.


Anonymous said...


I've just been at a presentation with a major carrier in Asia. They are desperately interested in RCS as a way to protect their SMS and Voice revenue, but are still only at the planning stages of deploying the core IMS network required to support it.

I see this situation all the time.

RCS is too little, too late and will only be implemented even later.
Operators have given the keys to the vault to Apple and RIM, and paid them for it too.

Davide said...

According to the survey below:


it seems the business behind applications for smartphones is not so attractive for operators.

About RCS, perhaps operators would be right in "concentrate their activities around rich communication services, such as location-based services and improving the quality of voice calls, and look to innovate here."?

Martijn Brouns said...

Great article. In my opinion, RCS is the carrier standard behind Vodafone 360 and Vodafone 360 is (or was?) Vodafone’s attempt to escape the (slow) GSMA consensus model and to attempt to go to market in time (rather than being too late as RCS is)

Dean Bubley said...

Hi Martijn



Voda's Director of Internet Services Marketing on a panel talking about 360. RCS was "going in the right direction, but taking too long".... so they used standard web technologies instead.