Getting Rich Slowly

US carriers team up to make RCS messaging service a hit

The four major wireless carriers in the US — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — recently announced the formation of a cooperative organization that aims to establish Rich Communication Services (RCS) as the next-generation carrier-provided messaging service. The group, called the Cross-Carrier Messaging Initiative, is hoping to make RCS the default messaging service, with a jointly developed RCS app pre-installed on all Android devices sold by the carriers by the end of 2020.

The group is working with Google, which has been a proponent of RCS, and Samsung, the largest maker of Android smartphones in the US on this initiative. Carriers have each rolled various implementations of RCS on some devices, but with little interoperability between them.

RCS is of course not new. Originally envisioned more than a decade ago to counter the growing popularity of Internet-based messaging services, it was developed by an operator-led group under the GSM Association. The first version of the technology was released in late 2008, although operators took several years to begin supporting the specification.

There’s no doubt that RCS is a major upgrade over SMS and MMS, providing functions seen in popular services such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. RCS supports features such as transfers of large files, visual voicemail, typing indicators and group chats. It also supports chat bots, allowing the messaging app to be an interface to connect to things as well as businesses. This is an important differentiator. Although it’s easy to see why mobile operators would seek greater influence in a messaging market that was once highly lucrative for them, RCS appears to offer little extra to incentivize users to switch from hugely popular services like WhatsApp.

The promise of a common default messaging app has the potential to migrate tens of millions of people who still use classic text messaging and MMS over to RCS and introduce to them new, advanced messaging features. But these will still live alongside popular social media platforms, which have the advantage of broad support for platforms and device types.

Apple is a notable holdout here. About half of smartphone users in the US are iPhone users and Apple has no immediate incentive to open its platform to RCS given the popularity of its iMessage service. It’s unlikely, although not impossible, that RCS catches on to such a degree that Apple users begin eyeing Android devices, which might in turn cause Apple to change its mind about the RCS specification.

US wireless carriers have a mixed track record with cross-carrier initiatives, but if this works, it would be a major boost for RCS. Even if the initiative is successful, it will take time to reach critical mass, as half the US market isn’t exposed and it could take several years to establish a wide number of RCS users in the country. The US will get rich slowly, if at all.