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RCS: introducing the successor to SMS

sms messages rcs zhao flickr

It’s been in the pipeline for a few years now, but RCS (Rich Communication Services) is slowly making its way around the world, being billed as the successor of sorts to SMS.

But how exactly is the service better than traditional SMS? What do you need to take advantage of the service? We got some answers from David O’Byrne, RCS lead at the GSMA, the organisation at the helm of the standard.

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For starters, O’Byrne outlines the platform’s capabilities. Effectively the draw card is that RCS hopes to be as seamless as placing a call or creating an SMS — no extra apps needed. It also uses data connectivity instead.

“Rich Communications Services or RCS is an upgrade to traditional SMS messaging which enables consumers to use familiar messaging features such chat, group chat, file transfer, stickers, audio messaging, video share, enriched calling, location share and live sketching all from the smartphone itself without having to download any apps,” the GSMA representative explains.

“It also means that consumers can use these features without having to identify the apps their contacts are using. It works simply and natively from the device itself.”

RCS currently has 137-million users which is forecast to rise to 350-million by 2018

This all sounds like something you can do in the likes of iMessage or WhatsApp, but O’Byrne says chatbots and plugins will bring some other cool uses.

“This will allow customers to make restaurant reservations, book train tickets or make retail purchases entirely via messaging and without human interaction. All transactions are time-stamped, verifying purchases and providing peace of mind to consumers. Multiple purchases can also be integrated into a single interface.”

Mobile networks will also have the opportunity to “to increase engagement with their subscribers, while brands will be able to maintain a direct line to their customers and improve business interactions”. But that sounds an awful lot like unsolicited advertising, so what’s the GSMA’s take on this?

“It is early days but we do not anticipate that brands will want to put off consumers by bombarding them with unsolicited messages or the service will become unattractive. We expect that it will allow consumers to control how much access a brand can have with them.”

It’s not exactly the type of answer you want to hear, so we asked for clarification on any measures to cut down on spam.

“As it is a new specification and new technology, the mobile operators, GSMA and the SMS messaging aggregators view RCS as an opportunity to correct many of the issues that arose in SMS including spam, ‘grey-route’ messages and fraud,” O’Byrne clarified.

“The RCS specification already allows customers to easily block any spamming number directly on their device and in the coming months we expect to announce more details on spam prevention measures and message sender verification that will significantly improve the end users experience of operator messaging.”

RCS launches and adoption

Is the technology overhyped though? Well, the GSMA says the standard is growing every day and is “very much a reality”.

“It currently has 137-million users which is forecast to rise to 350-million by 2018 and then to over a billion by 2019 making it the biggest messaging platform in the world,” O’Byrne responds.

What’s the point of RCS if your network operator and other entities don’t support it? It looks encouraging, but a little too early to definitely say it’ll be a success on the continent.

“Several leading operators and groups in Africa have voiced their support for RCS including Airtel, Beeline, Etisalat, MTN, Orange and Vodafone. Orange have launched [the service] in Jordan and Morocco, and the GSMA recently chaired a C-level meeting among South Africa operators where there was strong support for an RCS launch,” O’Byrne says.

For what it’s worth, the GSMA lists Vodacom (PDF) as launching RCS in December 2013. In any event, O’Byrne explains what would happen if you use an RCS-enabled app on an unsupported network.

“On a non-enabled network it has all the functionality of an MMS and SMS app,” the GSMA representative explains. But switch to a supported network and you get “is typing” notifications, file sharing and all the other expected options.

And what if you message someone who doesn’t have RCS support on their phone/network?

“The handset automatically detects that the other party does not have RCS or is out of data network coverage at that moment and sends the message as SMS. If a file is attached the recipient gets a link to a server in the operator’s network where they can download the attachment.”

The aforementioned solution seems like a solid idea for the USA, where unlimited texts are almost the norm. But it remains to be seen whether there are any other options, especially in our market, where cost-conscious users shy away from SMS.

What about feature phones though? Well, you’ll need a data connection, which means many feature phones won’t work. But there’s still some hope.

“…the JioPhone initiative by Reliance Jio in India features a 4G feature phone available at low cost to customers which uses WebRTC to enable RCS on feature phones, and we anticipate this technology rolling out globally in the near future.”

Feature image: zhao ! via Flickr (CC BY 2.0, resized)

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