Android Does… RCS !? What About WebRTC? Hangouts?

October 1, 2015

Some people are fidgeting on their chairs now, while others are happier than they should be.

I’ll start by a quick disclaimer: I like Google. They know when you acquire companies to fit my schedule – just got back from vacation – so I actually have time to cover this one properly.

Google acquires Jibe mobile

Let’s start from the end:

Google and Apple are the only companies that can make RCS a reality.

To all intent and purpose, Google just gave RCS the kiss of life it needed.

Google just acquired Jibe Mobile, a company specializing in RCS. The news made it to the Android official blog. To understand the state of RCS, just look at what TechCrunch had to say about it – a pure regurgitation of the announcement, with no additional value or insights. This isn’t just TechCrunch. Most news outlets out there are doing the same.

Why on earth is Google investing in something like RCS?


RCS stands for Rich Communication Suite. It is a GSMA standard that has been around for a decade or so. It is already in version 5.2 or so with little adoption around the world.

What is has on offer is an OTT-style messaging capabilities – you know the drill – an address book, some presence information, the ability to send text and other messages between buddies. Designed by committee, it has taken a long time to stabilize – longer than it took Whatsapp to get from 0 to 800. Million. Monthly active users.

The challenge with RCS is the ecosystem it lives in – something that mires other parts of our telecom world as well.

Put simply, in order to launch such a service that needs to take any two devices in the world and connect them, we need the following vendors to agree on the need, on the priority, on the implementation details and on the business aspects:

  • Chipset vendors
  • Handset vendors
  • Mobile OS vendors
  • Telco vendors
  • Telcos

Call it an impossible feat.

In a world where Internet speeds dictate innovation and undercut slower players, how can a Telco standard succeed and thrive? The moment it gets out the door it feels old.

Google and Messaging

Google has many assets today related to messaging:

  • Android, the OS powering 1.4 billion devices, where 1 billion of them call home to Google’s Play service on a monthly basis
  • Hangouts, their own chat/voice/video service that is targeted at both consumers and enterprises. It is part of Android, but also works as an app or through the browser virtually everywhere
  • Firebase, a year-old acquisition that is all about powering messaging (and storage) for developing apps

As Kranky puts it, they were missing an iMessage service. But not exactly.

Google thrives from large ecosystems. The larger the better – these are the ones you can analyze, optimize and monetize. And not only by building an AdWords network on top of it.

The biggest threats to Google today, besides regulators around the globe, would be:

  1. Apple, who is doing its darnedest today to show off their better privacy policies compared to Google
  2. Facebook, who is vying after Google’s AdWords money with its own social network/ads empire
  3. Telcos, who can at a whim decide to shut off Google’s ambitions – by not promoting Android, making it hard for YouTube or other services to run, etc.

Getting into RCS and committing to it, as opposed to doing a half witted job at an RCS client on vinyl Andorid, gives Google several advantages:

  • It puts them at the good side of Telcos, which can’t be bad
  • Improves Android’s standing as an ecosystem, and making it easier for Google to force the hands of handset manufacturers and chipset vendors in adjacent domains
    • Maybe getting the codecs they want embedded as part of the device for example?
    • Forcing improvements on mobile chipset designs that offer better power management/performance for all messaging apps
  • Opens the door to deeply integrating Hangouts with RCS/Telco messaging
  • Enabling Google to become the gateway to the telco messaging space
    • Got a device running Android? An RCS client is already there and running
    • Don’t have Android? Connect through your browser from everywhere
    • Or just install that Google RCS app – it already has a billion downloads on it, as opposed to a measly 5,000 downloads of an operator-brand app
  • Becoming the glue between consumer and enterprise
    • Hangouts may well be a consumer type of a product, but it is part of the Google Apps offering to enterprises
    • Carriers are struggling in monetizing consumer services these days besides connectivity, and Google is fine with giving consumers a free ride while making money elsewhere
    • Google is struggling with getting into the enterprise space. Hangouts is marginal compared to Microsoft Lync/Skype and Cisco
    • Offering direct connectivity to the carrier’s messaging for consumers can bridge that gap. It increases the value of RCS to the enterprise, making Google a player that can integrate better with it than competition

Why Acquire Jibe?

Beside being a nice signal to the market about seriousness, Jibe offers a few advantages for Google.

  1. They are already deployed through carriers
  2. Their service is cloud based, which sits well with Google. It means traffic goes through Jibe/Google – something which places Google as the gateway between the customer and the Telco – a nice position to be in

In a way, Jibe isn’t caught up in the old engineering mentality of telco vendors – it provides a cloud service to its customers, as opposed to doing things only on premise. While Google may not need the architecture or code base of Jibe Mobile, it can use its business contracts to its advantage – and grow it tenfold.

When your next RCS message will be sent out, Google will know about it. Not because it sits on your device, but because it sits between the device and the network.

Why will Telcos Accept this?

They have no choice in the matter.

RCS has been dead for many years now. Standardization continues. Engineers fly around the world, but adoption is slow. Painfully slow. So slow that mid-sized OTT players are capable of attracting more users to their services. It doesn’t look well.

And the problem isn’t just the service or the UI – it is the challenge for a carrier to build the whole backend infrastructure, build the clients for most/all devices on its network and then launch and attract customers to it.

Google embedding the client front end directly into Android and a part of the devices means there’s no headache in getting the service to the hands of customers and putting it as their default means of communications.

Google offering the backend for telcos in a cloud service means they no longer have to deal with the nasty setup and federation aspects of deploying RCS.

Only thing they need to do is sign a contract and hit the ground running.

An easy way out of all the sunk costs placed in RCS so far. It comes at a price, but who cares at this point?

The End Game

There are three main benefits for Google in this:

  1. Selling more Google devices
    • If these devices come equipped with RCS, and their backend comes from the same Telco and operated by Google, then why should a Telco promote another device to its customers?
    • It isn’t limited to Android versus an iOS device – it also relates to Chrome OS versus Windows 10
    • When mobility needs will hit tablets and laptops and the requirement to be connected everywhere with these devices will grow, we might start seeing Telcos actually succeeding in selling such devices with connectivity to their network. Having RCS embedded in these devices becomes interesting
  2. The next billion
    • Facebook and Google are furiously thinking of the next billion users. How to reach them and get them connected
    • With RCS as part of the messaging service a Telco has on offer, they are less dependent on third party apps to connect
    • With Google having both RCS and Hangouts, it increases the size of their applicable users base and the size of their ecosystem
  3. Carrier foothold
    • Carriers are reluctant when it comes to Google. They aren’t direct competitors, but somehow, it can feel that way at times – Google Fiber and Google Fi are prime examples of what Google can do and is doing
    • This is why having cloud services owned by Google and connected to the heart of a Telco is enticing to Google. It gives them a better foothold inside the carrier’s network

Where’s WebRTC?

Not really here. Or almost not. It isn’t about WebRTC. It is about telecom and messaging. Getting federated access that really works to the billions of mobile handsets out there.

Jibe has its own capabilities in WebRTC, a gateway of sorts that enables communicating with the carrier’s own network from a browser. How far along is it? I don’t know, and I don’t think it even matters. Connecting Jibe RCS cloud offering to Google Hangouts will include a WebRTC gateway. If it will or won’t be opened and accessible to others is another question (my guess is that it won’t be in the first year or two).

An interesting and unexpected move by Google that can give RCS the boost it desperately needs to succeed.

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  1. Good post but I’m not convinced.

    I think Google is trying to *steal* RCS, not support it.

    It could be its equivalent to iMessage, plus also enable free messaging to/from contact centres and applications to Androids. It’s aimed at Apple, Microsoft & Twilio.

    Google will also know it’s a complete dud as a “rich” service – there’s no way it’s going to reclaim fans of the cooler apps like SnapChat or Instagram or WeChat or whatever thing teenagers are using this week. It’s a basic messaging service for text & the occasional picture. It might get some usage back from WhatsApp in markets with no iPhones – but it will almost certainly be free Android-to-Android, and may not even be visible to telcos at all.

    My take: I’ve been RCS’s fiercest critic. I think it’s still dead – a zombie technology from 7 years ago. But Google might have found a way to profit from grave-robbing, by turning it into Android’s equivalent of iMessage (and maybe Skype/Twilio)

    I think this is about *free* basic messaging to, from and between Androids.

    It’s not about mobile carriers, it’s certainly not about “fighting back” against so-called OTTs like Instagram or WhatsApp or WeChat. Ultimately the service itself is still pretty much a dud – but the industry has decided that it should be implemented natively. I think Google is going to subvert this and make it a free feature rather than a “service”.

    1. There is a wider strategy at play. Messaging is expected to become the next internet front-end, in many ways replacing apps and websites. Facebook has made over $20B of investment in that space because it acknowledges that and is preparing for it.

      Right now, Google and Apple more or less own your smartphone experience. They control and benefit from the apps (through the app stores) and websites (through the browser) you use. If much of this use goes to OTT messaging apps they don’t control (FB, Whatsapp) then FB just took away their prized platforms. They have to fight back.

      For Google, getting the carriers on its side in this fight is brilliant. The bottom line is that Google wants to have its own chat eco-system and as it’s not been successful in launching any consumer product from the ground up for a long time, carriers can really help. etc.

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