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)