Is RCS the future of brand messaging?

After SMS & MMS comes RCS, the new multimedia messaging platform that offers video and audio chats, and more.
4 January 2019

T-Mobile claims to be first to launch RCS in the US. Source: Shutterstock

In technology years, SMS (short message service) is as old as the hills.

Developed in 1982, it was first used primarily by the engineers building the then-nascent mobile phone cell networks and finally deployed commercially around ten years later. Today, the vast majority of businesses and individuals send texts (aka SMSes) daily.

At first, SMS messages were limited to 128 characters maximum length, later expanded to 160 characters. And that’s the way the service has stayed, gaining popularity until today when billions of texts are sent every hour. It’s only the recent use of data-based chat apps, such as KaKaoTalk or Facebook Messenger that SMS has faced anything approaching a possible challenge as the messaging platform of choice.

The next iteration of messaging after SMS was MMS (multimedia messaging service). Developed as part of 3GPP, highly compressed data to around 600kb can be passed from cell to cell, as long as both parties have a data plan. Today MMS is something of a hangover from its time, like WIP-optimized websites, or Flash content.

Businesses wishing to stay in contact with their customers and partners need to adopt messaging solutions that can address multiple channels– so-called omnichannel messaging– so personalized conversations can take place on Facebook Messenger, Twitter, SMS, WhatsApp, WeChat and so on, with the choice varying between geographies and demographics.

Customer care centers, support departments and anyone wishing to interact personally with customers have to dance nimble-footed from platform to platform or install software that will virtualize all channels into a single conduit, neatly formatted on-screen for customer-facing staff.

The latest generation of message protocol following MMS is RCS (rich communication service), which touted as a cross-platform system that doesn’t depend on phone users downloading an app to use. Or at least, that’s the idea.

Backed by giants such as Google and Samsung, RCS is heralded, Tolkien-style, as a protocol to ‘unite them all’. RCS has been included quietly on high-end Android phones for a couple of years now– the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, for example. There’s no specific app that uses the protocol, it’s part of the background services available to users, one that’s not yet in everyday use.

In the US, Verizon is the first US-based carrier to promote the capabilities of RCS (T-Mobile claims first to launch), which include group chats, video & audio messaging and read receipts. The GSM Association, for whom SMS was devised back in the day, has accepted RCS’s standards, and the stage is set for grandson-of-SMS to continue the family tradition.

That’s dependent, of course, on whether there’s take-up by cell phone carriers and OS producers– both of whom need to buy-in to the concept and technology. With Google (Android) signed up, and Microsoft also happy to adopt for its mobile platform, Apple remains unconvinced – at least, as far as its relative silence can be regarded as a snub.

Cupertino’s stance is perhaps not surprising; the company would rather keep all users firmly in its walled garden, with iMessage and Business Chat for iMessage safely ensuring a user base, and customer care functions in businesses, that remain reliant on the iOS platform.

Unless Apple decides to adopt RCS (the company does not respond well– or at all– to its user base’s demands), then the protocol may remain as proprietary as Facebook Messenger.

As far as the call center and customer care department is concerned, RCS is another channel that omnichannel communications platforms will need to be able to assimilate. Whether or not RCS takes off is as unsure as the mass take-up of Business Chat for iMessage, Messenger for Business, or WhatsApp Business. We know which one Apple would prefer.