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What is in Apple’s announcement on RCS?

Apple will implement RCS messaging in iPhones in 2024, as a software update later in the year. This was reported by 9to5 Mac as a direct statement from an Apple insider. The direct quote seems to have provided a way to release the announcement without making it too prominent or officially sanctioned. Apple had resisted integrating the standard until now: its CEO, Tim Cook, said it did not see customer demand for RCS in 2022.

The carefully crafted announcement is careful to avoid any message to Google, that took to the public a very public campaign about “green vs. blue” bubbles – referring to the colours in the iMessage for SMS. Instead, it is making a direct reference to the currently published standard by the GSMA. In the latest years, Google had taken a primary role in the introduction of a de-facto set of standards.”

The announcement is a politically balanced approach: it introduces the new technology without celebrating it. After all, Apple is not moving away from its successful Apple to Apple messaging platform, iMessage. Apple is holding closely to iMessage, and it is here to stay. Nor does it suggest Apple stopping its foray into its own version of business messaging, which currently only supports companies that want customer initiated messaging, primarily aimed at customer service. It is an RCS announcement, and not “RBM” (RCS Business Messaging), but the news is big – even if expected to an extent. So, Apple Messaging for Business is also here to stay, for now at least.

What the news brings is much needed interoperability of multimedia and secure messages across Android and iOS. Previously a user trying to reach a different OS smartphone would have to be dropped to SMS or MMS when attempting to include a picture. RCS will bring better person-to-person messages across the standard messaging services that a user found from their phone.

It’s GSMA RCS, not Google RCS..

The carefully crafted announcement is careful to avoid any message to Google, that took to the public a very public campaign about “green vs.  blue” bubbles – referring to the colours in the iMessage for SMS. Instead, it is making a direct reference to the currently published standard by the GSMA. In the latest years, Google had taken a primary role in the introduction of a de-facto set of standards.

What will be the impact for users?

With the new upgrade, Apple users will still be sending iMessages to other iPhones but will be able to send better messages to non-iOS devices. Sharing between the two different smartphone families will support clearer pictures and videos, read receipts, typing information, and you will be able to share location and some files in a better way. In addition, you are not going to pay each single message as for SMS and MMS, but you will only be charged for the data, the bits, as part today’s common bundles for smartphone, or even by using WiFi.

Things get a bit blurry though we the latest innovation brought by Google, are not supported in the GSMA standard.  RCS on Google messages is encrypted end of end, for instance.

The Impact on OTT Apps

As mentioned, Apple had resisted integrating the standard until now: with its CEO point at weak customer demand for RCS in 2022. The question of demand is an interesting one. People on the street are not asking for RCS, but they are downloading apps such as WhatsApp, Viber or Signal. It is true people were not asking for RCS, but they voted for advanced multimedia messaging with their thumbs and downloaded billions of OTT apps. In effect, the big winners of the fragmentation between the default messaging apps for iPhones and Android’s were the alternative over the top apps that provided a more consistent approach thanks to a global base and a cross device service consistency. The announcement is now too late to provide a real worry for a player such as WhatsApp: it is already well established in Latin America, Europe and part of Asia. The change will not affect its usage base Immediately. If Google and Apple were to back the service for deeper device integration in future, that might represent a challenge for Meta and other messaging companies.

Why did Apple do it?
The reasons behind this announcement are not public. But we can speculate on some reasonably obvious drivers:

  • User Experience: SMS/MMS interconnection for advance messaging was becoming unsustainable for Apple. Messaging is now much more advanced. An evolution for SMS had to be supported even by Apple, even if only for non-iOS.
  • Higher RCS uptake is now higher, MEF announced in October at an estimated 1.2 billion devices supporting RCS in the market globally. According to MEF Data there are 1.1 billion iPhones in the world. For the first time there are more RCS devices than Apple. Google changing the opt-in to a default service (opt-out) for RCS made it a true replacement of the SMS messaging in Android phones.
  • Regulation: the European Union legislation on Digital Markets Act was going to include Apple’s iMessage service in its list of gatekeepers, with a specific request to offer messaging interconnection. Apple was likely to be forced to introduce to comply in one way or another.

What does it mean for business messaging?
There is a sense of euphoria in the RCS camp. Apple support of the RCS services had become something close to an obsession for the industry. SMS personal traffic was dwindling and left the universal messaging platform to be the inbox of one-time passwords, reminders and advertising. A strong person to person service is a necessary complement to the business services that are now the main source of revenue. Without personal messages opening rates will plummet and so will the return on investment of campaigns. This is good news; however, this is not the end goal many in the industry would like to see.

There is still work to be done in RBM

However, to win the heart and minds of businesses wanting to launch a messaging campaign for their users with the same ubiquity as SMS, Apple’s support for person to person messages on RCS does not go far enough. The industry has still to sharpen the RCS channel for business messaging – there is plenty of work to be done still. RBM is not supported by all Mobile Operators, and so Google will need to decide if they are willing to wait for those unable or unwilling to commit to the channel. As a result, pricing can be complex in some countries, in comparison to simpler OTT offers. The RBM industry has a great opportunity, but will need to move fast.

Fewer SMS messages in future

SMS is not going to die, as a true universal service it still has a unique role to play in the industry. However, this will also mean a drastic reduction of personal messages. Only a few countries such as the USA and Canada can report higher year on year SMS traffic. Globally the number of SMS sent is likely to diminish. If Apple were to support RBM then with the basic message initiative, there would be little reason for brands to use SMS for many business messaging use cases.

CPaaS managing omnichannel

The Communication Platforms will still have to be able to show their worth and orchestrate business messaging across the different Apple, Goole and Meta platforms. This is a great opportunity to create value, but not all players are technically ready to manage campaigns seamlessly. Besides the different commercial models, the real challenge is to manage this adaptation gracefully, efficiently and at scale. A technical feat that does not see all players ready.

Dario Betti

Chief Executive Officer at Mobile Ecosystem Forum