Can RCS help operators battle mobile app explosion?

rcs.jpg The success of SMS — and the explanation for why Web-based IM or other would-be rivals have failed to replace it — is that it * just works.*

It took years and many false-starts for that to be the case, but when mobile operators and their vendors worked out how to interconnect and interoperate formally siloed SMS islands, the telephone industry’s most successful modern app was born.

Mobile operators can either figure out how to replicate this success — or they can kiss their ability to delivery mobile services, and the affiliated revenue, goodbye. And that’s where RCS comes in.

Mobile operators can either figure out how to replicate this success — or they can kiss their ability to delivery mobile services, and the affiliated revenue, goodbye. And that’s where RCS comes in.

RCS stands for rich communications suite. Depending on how you look at it, RCS is either “a lowest-common-denominator IMS mobile client” (not very appealing, that) or it’s the last best chance to expand the things mobile operators control (or at least mostly control becasue today’s mobile apps even replace the on-phone dialer in some cases) on today’s mobile phones, things like dialers and SMS clients, to include new, Web 2.0-style things such as networked address books, mobile IM clients and the like.

That gulf — between lightly adopted client and universally interconnected services — represents the two ends of the RCS spectrum. RCS has been gaining momentum, especially outside the U.S., but it has a long way to go to compete with the momentum of the iPhone’s 100,000-apps-and-counting ecosystem.

THE COMING OF RCS 2.0

With that as background, we spoke this week with Movial, which today at the RCS conference (not surprisingly, hosted not in a U.S. city but in Paris) announced the release of one of the first RCS 2.0 clients, as well as its participation in a new multioperator trial of RCS in Italy.

It seems a bit odd to be worrying about the 2.0 release of software that hasn’t been widely adopted yet in its 1.0 version. But the new version of RCS supports RCS on the desktop (or netbook) via wireline broadband services, enabling service providers to build services — such as networked address books — that span the mobile phone and the PC. Other supported RCS services include one-to-one chat, group chat, video calling, image and video sharing, and file transfer — all powered by built-in presence capabilities delivered over mobile networks.

“RCS is not going to be a panacea for falling [mobile] revenue; it’s a strategic attempt by the [wireless] carrier community to utilize the very unique capability that is the mobile phone number and the largest social networking community in the world [i.e., mobile phone users,] and try to leverage that and remain relevant,” said Movial CEO Jari Ala-Ruona.

For the time being, RCS remains it’s own island, though Ala-Ruona said that work is being done to build APIs that will let other developers — such as mobile app or Web developers — to access RCS network capabilities. “That’s not part of R2 yet, but I’ve seen some preparation” in that area, he said.

RCS, IMS AND THE ALL-IP NETWORK

For now, though, the RCS focus is on the handful of significant operator trials happening around the world, mostly in Europe and Asia-Pacific. One of Movial’s early deployments is with Optimus, a mobile operator in Portugal, which has seen its youth segment market share rise from 9% to 27% thanks to RCS-enabled IM and mobile microblogging services, Ala-Ruona claimed.

To be successful with RCS, “what is really required from operators is that they have an IP strategy — that’s the bigger question,” he said. “IMS is a very big investment and has lots of [service] enablers, but RCS is the first time the whole industry has agreed on new, interoperable services, similar to SMS and voice calls.”

Analysts see RCS’ potential at last. Infonetics is calling for 1.3 million RCS subscribers in 2010, the first year RCS clients are expected to be available on handsets. Those subscribers will come mostly from Western Europe and Asia, said Diane Myers, analyst with Infonetics, with networked address book and social network links driving interest and usage.

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