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Monday, February 13, 2017

Telcos & OEMS: You should ignore the GSMA's "Advanced Messaging", RCS & "Universal Profile"

Summary: There are  10+ reasons why RCS messaging has failed, despite a decade of trying. Even with Google's involvement, the GSMA's "Universal Profile" and "Advanced Messaging" only fix, at most, two of these problems - and introduce new ones. Despite the hype, mobile operators should continue to deploy VoLTE only when it is really needed, and should avoid Advanced Messaging, RCS and ViLTE entirely. There are many other better ways for telcos to retain relevance in communications apps & services.

What's happening? 

In the next couple of weeks, we will likely be hearing a lot about the GSMA’s “Universal Profile” (UP), developed with Google as a standardised setup for new Android devices to support VoLTE, plus the latest version of the decade-old failed RCS messaging "zombie" service, now being rebranded as “Advanced Messaging”.

UP also incorporates a version of ViLTE, the video-calling application that can’t even be called a zombie, as it was never alive in the first place. Essentially, UP is a combination of VoLTE and RCS6.0. The first spec was published in Nov 16 (link). (Microsoft is also apparently supporting it, although seems less deeply involved than Google).

Expect the MWC announcements to talk breathlessly about how this is going to enable “Messaging as a Platform” (MaaP), and there will likely be some dubious-seeming big numbers mentioned. Any claims of "XXXmillion active users" should be *very* carefully questioned and analysed - what actually counts as use? There will be a lot of spin, painting what is essentially legacy SMS usage with a new app, as RCS. Daily is much more relevant than monthly data here.

Most probably, you’ll hear lots of hype and PR noise about “mobile operators winning back against the OTTs”, or “people won’t need to download apps”, or “everyone is fed up of having 17 messaging apps”. You’ll hear that it can use network—based QoS, which is great for VoLTE primary-telephony calls, but irrelevant otherwise. Vendors will probably say “well you’ve got an IMS for VoLTE so you should sweat the assets and add extra applications”.

We might even get an announcement about “advanced calling”, which is a way to improve phone calls with pre/mid/post-call capabilities (not actually a bad idea if done well) but force-fitted to use RCS rather than a more pragmatic and flexible approach (which is a very bad idea, and likely executed very poorly).

So ignore it. There are no customers, no use-cases, and no revenues associated with “advanced messaging”. It’s the same pointless RCS zombie-tech I’ve been accurately predicting would fail for the last decade. It’s still dead, still shambling around and still trying to eat your brain. It’s managed to bite Google and Samsung, and they’ll probably try to infect you as well.

What's the background?

If you're new here: I've been following and talking negatively about RCS for 9 years now. The project started in 2007, and emerged as a lukewarm 2008 IM concept for featurephones (link) in the days when both iOS and Facebook where just emerging onto the stage. I described it as a "coalition of the losers" in a report in 2010 (link) It evolved to a dead-on-arrival branded app called "joyn" as smartphones gained traction (link), and it has tried climbing out of its grave so many times since that I describe it as a zombie (link). Various operators have deployed it, then given up - even in markets like Spain and South Korea where multiple operators offered it at first.

I'm currently writing a report on VoLTE trends and implications for my STL/Telco 2.0 Future of the Network research stream (link). It should be out in the next month or so. As part of my research, I've been updating myself about the GSMA's plans to blend VoLTE with RCS - hence becoming aware of the Universal Profile and Advanced Messaging developments. 

Most people I speak to in the mobile industry privately admit that it's been a huge white elephant. I've met people who've been given the "poison chalice" of RCS inside operators and eventually quit their jobs in desperation. Huge slugs of time and money have been spent on a no-hope service, that could have been better deployed elsewhere, on things that could make a real difference. 

It's been pushed by:

  • A few operators misunderstanding the nature of user behaviour, requirements and preferences for communications services, thinking that there had to be a standardised and interoperable "magic bullet" to compete with WhatsApp, Facebook, iMessage and WeChat (and 100's of others).
  • The desperation of network vendors trying to make IMS seem relevant for something other than plain-old phone-call VoIP, either for fixed broadband voice, or VoLTE.
  • The GSMA's stubborn belief that it needs to predefine interoperability and lengthy specifications, rather than iterate on something basic that people actually like. Also, the belief that it has to tie in the phone number / any-to-any model.
  • Google, wanting to find a way to compete in the messaging space it has repeatedly failed with, especially creating an Android version of iMessage based on the Jibe acquisition. Samsung has recently joined in with its own acquisition of Newnet.
So my "coalition of the losers" joke (er... jibe?) in fact has a reasonable basis in history. And history doesn't record many such coalitions having great success at anything, except maybe keeping a few people occupied.

A couple of operators have launched recently - Rogers and Sprint in North America - but the other operators are still delaying, and have big iPhone populations anyway.
In the meantime, while the telecom industry has procrastinated over RCS, various other adjacent players such as Twilio and Nexmo (now Vonage) have pushed the supposedly "dead" SMS market to become the standard mechanism for A2P messaging, and signed up thousands of developers for that, plus voice/video/notification cPaaS capabilities. In the time it has taken RCS to get to its 10th anniversary, we have seen Apple, Facebook, Whatsapp, WeChat and others create huge value and loyalty.

But, but... Google!

It’s a little difficult to tell if Google actually believes in RCS, or whether it’s just cynically using the GSMA and gullible MNOs to push Android harder – and especially, help reduce the horrendous fragmentation of its platform in terms of both OEM-specific skews and non-updated older OS variants.

As I wrote previously (link), it also seems likely that Google is using the surprisingly-pliant cellular industry to help it create its own version of Apple’s iMessage. The optional hosted RCS Hub could also be an early foray by Google into the NFV and cloud communications space – perhaps with an eye to ultimately competing not just with the Huawei/Ericsson/Nokia axis, but also maybe Amazon and Twilio over time. That’s quite an extrapolation on my part, though - not based on anything public from Mountain View.

What’s definitely clear is that Google doesn’t see RCS as “the one messaging platform to rule them all”, nor the Universal Profile as a way to replace all other forms of voice and video communications. It has a broad range of other services, including Duo, Allo, Voice, HangOuts (now being reoriented towards enterprise), WebRTC support in Chrome and perhaps natively in Android at some point. It also has a stake in Symphony (messaging/UC for finance and other verticals), and works with most of the larger UCaaS and hosted PBX/UC players.

It also wouldn’t be a surprise if Google acquires other cool youth-oriented messaging apps to compete with Facebook’s Instagram, although a post-IPO Snap might be too pricey. And of course, it has its own push-notification platform which is probably (quietly) the world’s biggest messaging service that nobody talks about.

In other words, Google seems OK about creating a lowest-common denominator function that's no worse than what it has already, but which brings extra cooperation brownie-points from the mobile industry, and a bit more leverage with its wayward licensees. Its downside is limited - and if miraculously it somehow it can create a MaaP platform, its upside significant. There's probably also some interesting data-analytics and machine-learning gains in here somewhere too - even if it's just a better understanding of what Android users don't like.

In other words, from Google's point of view, it's a worthwhile and almost risk-free punt. Whether the mobile industry wants to over-rely on a company with a reputation for ruthlessly shutting down failed ventures is another matter.

What's wrong with UP/Advanced Messaging? 
Where do I start?! Well, perhaps by pointing out what actually has changed for the positive. It's true that Google is offering a hosted RCS platform for operators that don't yet have an IMS. ("Effectively sponsoring this piece" - link). That's helpful as it reduces friction and cost of operators getting RCS to market. So to does having a pre-certified set of devices that should work with that platform, or in-house deployments. 
But while perhaps those are necessary, they are very far from being sufficient. Many other problems and concerns abound.

The biggest lie about RCS and the “universal profile” is that it will become universal or ubiquitous. Not only is Apple not likely to support it, but it is far from clear that Android OEMs will implement it on all their devices, especially those sold in the open market. It is unlikely to have good PC support (although to be fair, neither does Whatsapp). It is unlikely to be downloaded onto older Android phones. It is unlikely to work smoothly on dual/multi-SIM handsets, of which there are hundreds of millions. It’s unlikely to work well on many MVNOs’ devices (neither does VoLTE). It’s also unlikely to work nicely on the vast plethora of smart IoT devices that support SMS – even those with decent web-browsers and app downloads. 

I've seen some of the projections for RCS-capable handset penetration, and I think they're significantly over-enthusiastic, especially if considered on a country-by-country basis.

There is no relevance of RCS for the enterprise UCaaS and vertical markets that telcos urgently need to focus on. That has to integrate with all manner of other communications services that seem unlikely to have more than a loose coupling with RCS, if at all. It won't be replacing email, Office365, Cisco Spark, Slack, HipChat and numerous other collaboration tools, not to mention the universe of video-conferencing. It's also going to be a long time before it becomes another channel in contact centres' multi-channel platforms - there's a long list of bigger fish, especially if WhatsApp and Facebook offer APIs to billions of users.

The MaaP approach seems doomed to failure – there are no examples of successful technology platforms that have not been based on successful technology products first. Trying to pre-guess the requirements for a platform – let alone creating voluminous standards for it - ignores a wealth of experience: customers use products in unexpected ways, with spikes in viral adoption, unpredictable demographic biases, emergent behaviour and geographical patchiness.

Platforms are created in response to a product’s growth, not pre-ordained. Nobody predicted that Snapchat had the potential to become a media channel and camera/AR platform – those angles represent reactions to actual real-world usage, as well as improvements in “adjacent” technology in the interim. More importantly, developers are unlikely to become interested until there is evidence of real-world usage among a decent slice of their target audiences. You'd have to be a brave airline to ditch your native apps, ignore Facebook and WeChat and iMessage, and port your main loyalty "experience" to a mini-app inside the RCS client.

There are assorted other problems lurking as well - interconnect and roaming should be interesting. Will it really be free to do video-sharing and file-transfer to your friend in Singapore? Trying to work out the pricing aspects will be challenging too - unless everything is free, for everyone, and to everyone. While that might be feasible for post-paid customers with big data quotas, it's unlikely to translate to the worlds billions of prepay users. 

It's slow to evolve, as it's designed by committee. It's not set up to do A/B testing on live audiences - maybe 100 million on a redesign first, to see how it goes and then make a call on full rollout. Standardisation and interoperability doesn't work with the agile, devops approach to apps that is de-rigeur here.

And another of the herd of elephants - what's it for? Who is going to use it, and why? I can't foresee any case-studies of teenagers saying "I used to SnapChat my friends all the time, but now we only use HyperMessage+ from NetworkXYZ!". Is it just generic SMS-style "Hi, I'm running 5mins late" stuff? But with "rich" elements, at least insofar as the person you're connecting with is another RCS user who can see them? Why else are people going to use it, except maybe as some sort of lower-than-lowest common denominator? And moreover, whats going to keep them using it, given how dynamic the communications app market is. Unless it can capture the "cool" factor, it's toast.

This is the problem - pretty much everyone can get WhatsApp or WeChat or Facebook. There's a 90%+ chance your friends are on your platform of choice and have no reason to switch. iMessage is the obvious anomaly, but it's more of a hygiene factor between Apple users - who often also have multiple devices like tablets and Macs as well, and who expect to "fall back" to FB or WA for friends (or groups of friends) who aren't Apple users. I guess in low-Apple penetration countries there could be tighter communities of Android buddies, but they may well include people with a lot of prepay accounts, older open-market handsets (some multi-SIM) and little likelihood to upgrade to a new UP-powered one soon. (One possible exception is India, given Reliance Jio's influence). 

So what should you do? (Or not do?)

If you’re the head of advanced communications at an operator, or looking into future voice and video services, don’t bother wasting your time in Barcelona on RCS or "advanced messaging". 

Sure, speak to vendors and look at cheap ways to implement VoLTE. The industry painted itself into a corner with a horrendously complex and expensive approach, so finding quick/simple/reliable ways to launch or scale it make sense. (Think open-source, cloud-based, pseudo-NFV for IMS without the hugely complex MANOs etc). VoLTE is becoming increasingly mainstream, although its adoption in many operators' networks is quite gradual. Insofar as the Universal Profile helps with handset/network interop for voice calls, it has a role to play.

But beyond VoLTE, operators and handset OEMs need to ignore the exhortations of the GSMA to implement so-called “Advanced Messaging” (I wrote that before I realised the acronym spells SCAM). It will soak up money, technical and marketing resources, customer attention and credibility. Even if the Google-hosted RCS platform reduces the cost of operators deploying their own servers, it will still need testing, integration with in-house IMS platforms and new NFV systems and other actions.

Be very very skeptical of all the announcements. Any user statistics should be scrutinised carefully - while some operators technically have RCS servers live, the key statistic that won’t be mentioned is how many active users are doing anything beyond basic SMS-type messaging. How many are actually using RCS properly - and like it? The reality is that essentially zero people have switched from using Facebook Messenger, WeChat or Snapchat to using RCS for any meaningful purposes – and a reasonable forecast for 2019 would be roughly zero as well.

Go and see genuine innovators in messaging and communications platforms for inspiration. Have a look at the various business UCaaS providers. Seek out anything based on WebRTC. Speak to the cPaaS providers & talk about partnerships. Look for open-source platforms for infrastructure and IMS (eg from Metaswitch & Canonical). Track down in-app messaging, or ways to hook IoT devices' signalling traffic into the mix (MQTT and so on). Look for companies doing interesting things with SMS - it's not dead, especially for A2P uses. Look at what some vendors are operators are doing with 2nd/3rd-generation API platforms for developers.

There are dozens of clever options for messaging innovation available for operators (or MVNOs, cPaaS providers, UCaaS players and other types of SPs). RCS is not one of them.
It's notable that in all of the GSMA's literature & commentary I've been able to find, I've seen almost zero mentions of these words: Viral, Fun, Snapchat, Slack, Instagram, Emoji, Twilio. But there's lots of "interoperable" and "rich" and scare-stories about telephony ARPU.

Although, ironically, GSMA's own Twitter avatar is a SnapChat ghost at the moment. And it has its own Snap channel (link). Maybe if it announces at MWC that SnapChat is transitioning to/interconnecting with RCS it'd be a gamechanger. But otherwise, it speaks volumes that it's promoting one of the Internet success stories in 2017 messaging.

As I've said before: Ubiquity is earned, not imposed. RCS stilll needs to prove that users actually want it before it can have pretensions to being a platform. For now, remember So-Called Advanced Messaging is still a failure - it's an unfortunate acronym, but amusingly appropriate. If the Universal Profile had just been about implementing - and improving - VoLTE to improve the telephony experience, it would make sense. Instead, it's been weighed down with a lot of harmful baggage.

If you're thinking "So what else should I do instead?" or "How do I stop my management team making an expensive mistake?" then you're in the right place. Contact me about possible workshops or other advice. information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com


James said...

Ubiquity is earned, not imposed - so true....

The GSMA should have learned by now that it is not possible too make the next big thing just by telling the industry that it *is* the next big thing....

A little bit of innovation is required - something that the GSMA have been renowned for...!

Martin Geddes said...

"Skate to where the puck once used to be" is a fabulous comedy skit idea, but unsuitable and unworthy for an institution like the GSMA when there are more serious matters to focus resources on.

Shai Berger said...

"[Google] has its own push-notification platform which is probably (quietly) the world’s biggest messaging service that nobody talks about"... what is that?