(Image source: Jibe Mobile)

Google has recently announced they are acquiring Jibe Mobile, a leading provider of RCS (Rich Communications Service) that is particularly specialising on running RCS infrastructure in the cloud, allowing carriers easy hosted implementations and/or also bridging the disparate carrier instances of their own operated RCS services for interconnection. Established in 2006, well before the launch and rise of iOS and Android, their mission statement was to bridge the “newer world of Silicon Valley with the older world of telecommunications”. Among the 26 carriers working with Jibe Mobile are Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Sprint, to name a few.

Background on RCS: it was/is the GSM Association backed standard that carriers have been working on as the SMS future replacement from as early as 2007. It is aiming at delivering exactly those kind of features to native device integrated messaging services that the so called over-the-top services like WhatsApp, Kik, Line, Skype, etc. have been offering for years: presence, typing indicator, easy delivery and read-receipts, photo and media inclusion, enhanced phonebook, IP calling, IP video calls, etc. Only these newer players did it much quicker and better… but I will assess this in more detail in another post on the IP communications ecosystem. Launched under the ‘joyn’ brand by first carriers in 2012 RCS has faded to the outskirts of the carrier Marketing efforts and the service has been renamed individually depending on the telco, often to something linke ‘message+’ or the likes. The long timeframe between specification start and first launches, huge technical hiccups and UX flaws, lack of interconnection and interworking in the first stages and hence disappointing adoption by users in contrast to staggering growth of proprietary messaging and communications apps have put RCS under pressure throughout carrier decision boards.

Now, with this move, Google themselves say that they’re teaming up “with mobile operators, device makers and the rest of the Android ecosystem to support RCS standards and help accelerate their deployment in a more consistent way. (…) Deploying RCS to create an even better messaging experience on Android will take time and collaboration throughout the wireless industry, but we’re excited to get started.”

There’s various different views and angles you can find how industry experts and the media interpret this move. These are just a few of those:

  • they’re trying to make another attempt at mobile social as previous efforts have failed
  • they’re finally recognizing carrier efforts on enhanced messaging in the smartphone era and believe RCS & IMS are the way to go
  • they simply want to improve the messaging experience on Android-powered devices
  • it’s an acqui-hire to get a skilled team on board that understands messaging on Android
  • they’re getting into the NFV (network function virtualization) play with Jibe’s hosted RCS (“Jibe Hub”)
  • it’s a move to establish an iMessage style Google controlled messaging service in the Android ecosystem

My opinion? The way RCS has been previously executed, i.e. in the classic telco/carrier way of doing things in a federated model where every carrier has to implement and run their own instance of a standardised service with control only over those users which buy network access from them, is seriously flawed. But RCS itself and what it can do doesn’t necessarily have to be a loser in the IP communications arena, provided it is tied into the right execution strategy.

I think that Google is indeed making another effort to establish a messaging platform similar to Apple’s iMessage, this time by relying on a standard where things with the carriers can run more smoothly. Although that doesn’t mean it’s an equal balance of power game, but more on that in a moment.

Committing to RCS and implementing RCS into the core of Android’s native messaging services is a smart move. It looks like building a bridge towards carriers, albeit a bridge with more lanes from Google into the heart of the carriers’ messaging business than in the other direction. Experience has shown there is a need for some sort of bridge building, especially previous attempts involving Hangouts. Carriers had big headaches when Google tried to impose the Hangouts app as the default (SMS) messaging app on Android devices, when in 2014 it become mandatory for OEMs to ship it as part of Google Mobile Services Suite (GMS). “You want Maps, Youtube, etc.? Sure, but you have got to ship Hangouts, too and make it the default messaging app.” Clearly a big pain from a carrier point of view.

Google wants more (or full) control over the mobile centric communications services. Still there is a higher dependency on business ties with other players when compared to Apple: OEMs (because they make and sell Android devices and will with this move have less hassle implementing their own native RCS compatible messaging apps that carriers have been begging for) and of course carriers themselves (who ask for lots of customisations and bespoke settings and apps).

So here’s the adapted game plan in my opinion:

  • You make a commitment to a technology / standard that can deliver – if well executed and further enhanced – on your desired user-experience and features.
  • This technology / standard is the one that carriers are utilizing, too.
  • You officially comfort your carrier business partners by finally bringing support for “their” standard into the native OS implementation of the comms service (“finally Android will bring native support for RCS, phew!”).
  • You can even stress the story of interoperability/interworking with the carrier services, further comforting the carrier community with an element that is compliant to their traditional federated operations model for services (is interworking a crucial benefit for Google though? not so much… but so be it!).

This is what it looks like from a carrier point of view:

  • A strong industry player like Google is supporting RCS now… “dear board, see, RCS is not set to failure”.
  • “Google will help us drive this industry standard to become the dominant one”.
  • “Finally we have got green light on our long-term ask to have RCS deeply and natively integrated on OS level”.
  • “… and the services are even interoperable!” (pleasing the idea of the classic federated telco operations model).

But here’s the inconvenient downside of this story for them:

  • Google owns the strong control points, not the carriers: owning the OS, owning the UX for messaging within the OS interface. This is an extremely powerful lever to push users into Google’s RCS-based comms service, and lesser to that of the carriers’.
  • Execution excellence: it seems more likely that an organisation which lives and breathes software engineering and which possesses of all the crucial control points towards the end-user (and those are hundreds of millions of Android OS users) is the one with the better setup. In contrast there is a telco ecosystem with loads of dedicated entities which usually have to rely on external software engineering expertise to implement and operate such services, which do not own those UI/UX control points and where each entity can address only a fraction of the overall user base (i.e. those users in their own network).
  • Last not least, Google has the carriers to a degree ‘by the balls’ by now owning the company that has snapped up so many deals for running RCS based managed services for 26 of them. How much passion on board level will there be – after years of lowlights from the RCS projects and corresponding budget cuts – to once again shift everything back into their own realm or to yet another provider of such managed and hub-style services (and: Jibe was clearly the highest profile partner for this)? Acquiring Jibe Mobile gives them some profound RCS expertise and from a business perspective gives them a shielding lever towards the carriers shifting even more negotiation power to Google. And of course the Jibe Mobile Aqcuisition should represent relatively little money from an overall Google M&A budget perspective.

The adapted approach with RCS and Jibe Mobile as ingredients is an easier sell to carriers than previous attempts, but it is still a bitter pill to swallow for them.

The outlook? Is RCS as a technological foundation sustainable enough for Google when competing with the rest of the pack (i.e. web-based or so-called over-the-top communications providers)? Why not? As the most agile player and likely heavyweight in the RCS field, it should not be a problem for Google to take over control in driving and improving the service. That is by relying on more proprietary principles. A similar approach has even been taken by a group of Telcos and OEMs (Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Orange, Sony, Samsung, etc.) with their so-called “Operator Interest Group” driving the “Call+” initiative. This adds new voice-call centric features within the RCS framework but doesn’t wait for lengthy standardisation cycles to be completed. If it works, it will “find its way into the standards”.

Altogether this step by Google is an interesting move. Definitely spicing up the exciting communications and messaging market. Keen to see how this will develop.

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