Can Google RCS Win the Messaging Game Through AI?

15/10/2018

RCS is being brought from the dead by Google, and its next play will probably be with AI.

Carriers have a problem

SMS won’t stay here forever. In fact, most of the messaging traffic is happening on social networks now.

Voice is shifting as well. Migrating to these same social networks. With the ability to upgrade these calls to video calls. With stickers. And silly hats, cat lenses and whatnots.

Want to learn more about the use if silly hats and other AI features in communications? Check out our AI in RTC report preview

Their circuit switched network technology is decaying, left in its 80’s or probably 50’s. Most of what goes on there is spam or OTP passwords anyways. Nobody cares.

So much so that Google is planning on diverting incoming calls to its assistant (but more about it later).

The solution, in the form of IMS and later RCS (or call it Joyn or whatever other branding it was given throughout the years) are some 20 years in the making. And they don’t seem to be coming any time soon. At least not if left to the arduous processes of carriers and their suppliers.

Google has a problem

 

A VERY different problem.

Google has no messaging clout.

For consumers?

Apple iMessage wins on iOS. It acts as a Chameleon, catching up your messages and deciding if they should be demoted to SMS or use modern messaging via iMessage instead.

Facebook with Messenger and Whatsapp is ruling supreme in Android, and in many cases on iPhones as well. Where they aren’t as strong, you’ve got a slew of other social players with 100+ million monthly active users. None of them looks like a carrier. And none of them is Google.

Google has Allo, Duo, Chat, Meet, Hangouts, Messages and probably a few more apps that I’ve forgotten to mention. All in different states and capabilities; but none which is dominant compared to its competitors. Actual monthly active users and amount of real messages going between users? Not shared. Probably not stellar.

And Google has RCS..

For businesses?

Apple, Facebook and others are adding APIs. Introducing bot platforms. Building marketplaces. And they are doing it slowly, fearful of becoming the spam cesspit that is the good ol’ carrier communications tech today.

Slack is killing it. And the rest of the cadre of UCaaS and enterprise communications players are trying to move into their space.

Google has Meet and Hangouts Chat. Part of G Suite. Meet gets used. Hangouts Chat I don’t really know. But it seems that most just skip it and move on to Slack or some other tool.

Google also has nothing similar to a business angle to its consumer facing communications applications yet, or at least nothing popular enough.

What’s new in RCS land?

Nothing really.

I’ve written in April about RCS being still dead. For some reason, Google is still hammering away at it. Similar to Google+ if I need something to compare it to.

A press release last month by Samsung and Google brings Samsung to the RCS graveyard. New Samsung devices, and maybe layer older ones will come -gasp- with a Samsung Messages app that will work seamlessly with the Android Messages app using each other’s RCS technology!

This interoperability nightmare of the carriers will continue on, leaving RCS dead.

Adding new carriers or smartphones or chipset makes into the fold won’t help either.

And it isn’t as if Apple is making any noises of being interested in RCS, and why should they be?

That said, there are those who will be adopting RCS.

We are shifting towards an omnichannel world. No single protocol to rule them all. No single vendor to rule them all. You want to send your message as a business to a consumer?

You can use SMS. Or better do it over Messenger or Whatsapp or Apple Business Chat – there’s more context and richness in those, and consumers actually care about these channels. Which brings us to a place where businesses just need to support wherever their customers are with no decent common denominator.

And wouldn’t it be great if we could throw SMS and use RCS instead? At least where we can?

So CPaaS vendors are adding support for RCS and announcing it in their arms race to world domination by collecting as many social messaging icons as they can.

That’s great, but not enough to save RCS.

Can Google change RCS predicament?

Not really.

There are just too many players and this is a domain where Google has been struggling to go it alone as it is.

Here’s what it takes to bring RCS properly to the masses:

Chipset vendors

Chipset vendors are at the bottom of the food chain, but they need to offer their support to make RCS happen.

Unlike other messaging services, RCS is “bolted” on to the identity of the user and his device. The SIM card. The ability to connect the end user, through an application, to the SIM card, and from there to the carrier network is what presumably makes RCS different. But for that to happen, chipset vendors need to pave the way, even if just a little bit.

Handset manufacturers

Handset manufacturers need to make sure that the RCS application is there implemented, supported and pre-installed in the device.

Without being pre-installed, users will need to pick and choose between an RCS app from a handset manufacturer or a carrier (the word bloatware comes to mind) OR pick Whatsapp instead. The choice is a simple one for most.

They need to make the application attractive and sleek. Things they can’t really do. Competing with current successful social messaging apps requires a lot of investment. Nailing the user experience is a lot harder than it looks.

Carriers

Carriers need to actually support RCS. As a service. In their network. And have these things called mobile phones that support RCS. and enough people that have these devices so they can actually talk to each other.

Preferably, all carriers within a country should light on the switch on RCS simultaneously.

How likely is that to happen?

Single, very complex specification

And all of these players need to do so for a very complex IMS/RCS specification.

Testing the combinations of devices and networks is going to be hellish, especially for those who aren’t going to just select the default Google implementation of RCS client/server.

Which is exactly what Samsung decided to do. Have its own service and then interoperate it with Google’s. I can easily see other big players – chipset vendors, handset vendors and carriers who would be either scared shitless of ceding control to Google or not magnanimous enough in letting Google take control over that piece.

This headache also suggests something really important:

If RCS succeeds, it won’t move as fast as any of the other social networks in introducing new features, services and capabilities

There are too many moving parts, controlled by different players, some of which doing the same things.

Network effects

Then there’s the network effects.

When can I use RCS on my phone?

It needs to be installed there. Probably pre-installed.

The people I communicate should have it as well.

Our networks should support it.

Oh – and there’s this minor detail of me actually going into that app to send a message.

How many times this week have you clicked on this icon on your Android phone?

What about these icons?

Enter Artificial Intelligence

I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time.

How can Google become relevant in messaging?

It is unlikely to come from features and capabilities at the core of social messaging. None of its services stick:

  • Google+ was “shutdown” publicly this month. Google found a great excuse – a potential security flaw
  • Duo was supposed to compete head-on with Apple FaceTime, offering things like faster connections and knock knock feature. But what have we seen from Duo since its launch? And are you using it at all?
  • Allo was interesting, but got no adoption. It got halted on April if you believe the news
  • Hangouts is being replaced by Meet, at least for the enterprise. Will it be shut down for consumers? Time will tell
  • Hangouts Chat is only starting its way, though I haven’t heard anything at all since its public launch
  • Meet works just fine. For the enterprise. If you have a Google account
  • The Google Messages app is purely for SMS. And it is crappy to say the least. It doesn’t respond as fast or as fluid as other social messaging apps, and frankly, I don’t really care about the technical reasons for it

The one thing Google has going for it is AI. in droves.

Which is probably why Google Duplex is reportedly rolling out next month, helping phone users book tables at restaurants – on their behalf.

It is also why Google is now adding to its Assistant the ability to screen spam calls:

These AI features have a potential to actually succeed. They don’t really relate to RCS or even messaging, but they are about telephony.

Allo was about messaging. As reported on The Verge in the April Allo pause:

As part of that effort, Google says it’s “pausing” work on its most recent entry into the messaging space, Allo. It’s the sort of “pause” that involves transferring almost the entire team off the project and putting all its resources into another app, Android Messages.

Google won’t build the iMessage clone that Android fans have clamored for, but it seems to have cajoled the carriers into doing it for them. In order to have some kind of victory in messaging, Google first had to admit defeat.

That’s the Google RCS effort right there.

If you take the AI related features in Allo, and think of them as getting Google Assistant into Messages, the Google RCS app, then it makes sense in a way. But not enough sense.

The Google Assistant doesn’t feel like a product by now. It is a large set of features and capabilities that can be used to add smarts into phones. It is a window to the phone’s (and Google’s) AI for the consumer.

Limiting it to run for RCS only doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. Would it be enough to save RCS? Would it be enough for Google to gain back users from other messaging apps?

It is too early to say, as none of it as come to fruition in an app customers can use.

Google could have tried to do with Allo the same things it is doing with its Contact Center AI:

Provide the whole AI for communication part as an API, a set of building blocks for others to use and embed. It worked so well for them that it got many in the industry lining up to partner with it in contact centers. Launch partners for the Contact Center AI include Mitel, Genesys, Vonage, Cisco, RingCentral, Five9 and Twilio to name a few.

Would such a thing work with social messaging apps?

Apple wouldn’t touch it with a long stick for its iMessage.

Facebook wouldn’t either. So no Messenger or Whatsapp.

Telegram? I don’t see that happening.

WeChat? Chinese.

Who would they be left with? The smaller players, who might grow, but none seem to be rising above white noise level.

Which gets us back to Google itself. With Messenger/RCS/Chat.

What Google needs to do is find the sticky features that will get users to use its app. Those that can get value out of it even when the other participant isn’t using the same app. Add smarts into SMS itself, while providing a rich experience to the user when interacting with others who have that app.

The real question is why limit this to RCS and carriers? why not just offer it as the out of the box Android experience to everyone? Have it there by default. Let people download and install it on older devices and on iPhones.

Probably because Google still believes it relies on carriers for its Android success. Which is what’s keeping it back in mobile social messaging since Android came to our lives.

Want to learn more about the use if silly hats and other AI features in communications? Check out our AI in RTC report preview

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