Forrester published a piece on RCS called “More Myth Than Magic — For Now.” (Report link is only available to clients.) For those of you not following RCS (rich communication service), it’s basically the carrier’s upgrade to SMS, which is nearly 30 years old at this point.

There have been a couple of recent announcements that I wanted to address.

First, the US carriers formed what is called the CCMI, or Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative. This article from Telecompetitor provides a good overview, as does this one from The Verge. I’m going to try to sound more like a realist than a cynic here, but this feels like what Google and the GSMA have been saying all along. Mostly, it feels to me like Google may have stepped out of the driver’s seat and the US carriers have stepped in — a bit of same-same for me. I’ll keep looking for more details.

Second, Google is making an RCS-enabled messaging app available to Android users. That rollout started in the US late in 2019. (The Verge has a good article that explains the details here.) There is a step involved for users to make it their default texting application. There is some friction, but users can get it working if they want to do so.

A few points here:

  1. If you are asking the question, “Do consumers in the US need a messaging app with advanced feature sets?” the answer is “yes.” We primarily rely on messaging to text our friends. At times, we’ll text businesses but not nearly as much. Customer service is the primary use case. (I was really miffed about a botched pizza order/delivery from Yelp/Grubhub last Friday night and sent maybe . . . several hundred in one session.) We haven’t traditionally relied as heavily on it as those outside the US. WeChat blossomed in China, where there were slow network speeds until recently. Over-the-top (OTT) messaging grew up in other countries because SMS was so expensive. (We’ll come back to this.)
  2. I’m old, so I’m going to roll out some history here. RCS in 2020 reminds me of SMS in the mid ’90s. The idea of texting was super cool . . . until you had to know what phone/what model/ hat carrier your friend used to know if you could send him or her a text message. (I still get crazy MMS messages via email sometimes.) RCS is a new version of this, except Google handles some of this complexity in the background.
  3. We already have LOTS of messaging apps: iMessage on Apple phones (not high global market share but high here in the US), WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, Symbol, KaKao, and more. These applications have very rich messaging features. OH, and some of these platforms already have over a billion users. Yeah.
  4. OK, more history — why did OTT messaging boom? SMS was too expensive for too many people globally. Initially, these apps won on price. Soon thereafter, they won on network size and feature-rich services. US carriers have known for years (as has Google) that not owning the messaging service was a big miss. What do you do in 2020 to displace incumbents and bring customers your platform? How is this not too little, too late?
  5. Businesses leveraging SMS to engage consumers are often still paying per message. This problem DOESN’T GO AWAY with RCS. The infrastructure is expensive — it at least costs money. The carriers still want money for content transported on their infrastructure. Go figure. The challenge is: They are competing with free — or the perception thereof. There is an opening here IF the platform is open and attractive to businesses. Yes, businesses could shift spend from SMS to RCS for similar use cases and more services/features. However, per messaging fees are a “no-go” when RCS is a transport technology — not a messaging app. We simply exchange too many messages. And, if use of chat between users and businesses grows, carriers can’t charge per message. If they do, then digital isn’t the low-cost, self-service experience promised. There has been talk of charging per session. Who gets paid may be one of the largest inhibitors.

Google/Android needs a strong messaging app. I can’t say that Allo flopped, because I don’t have numbers. But Google did turn it off. Messaging is too essential to how consumers communicate and will do things in the future to not have a play — especially if you want to be the intermediary between brands and their customers. The upside for the carriers to make this work? There is some, but unless they are the service — and not just the transport — it is harder to make the case.