RCS: Mobile UC From the Carriers
My bet is that RCS will yield a next-generation "consumer UC" offering that enterprise users may find "good enough."
I've always been fascinated by the similarities between UC and what we are seeing in the consumer space, particularly around smartphones. While they don't use the term "UC", consumer services like Skype, Facebook, Foursquare, and Google+ are offering many of the same capabilities we have in UC. Users can get presence, location information, one click access to voice, video, chat and email--launched directly from a social networking app or from the native capabilities in the phone. Facebook has made the biggest splash in that recently with the introduction of voice messaging, and the company is now testing a VoIP service in the US and Canada.
Facing a decline in SMS revenues (the most overpriced communications service since the telegram), the mobile industry is now looking to offer a new set of services based on a project called Rich Communications Services (RCS); the consumer facing brand name for RCS is joyn. RCS is a joint development of the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the organization that develops standards for the cellular industry, and the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA).
Up until now, most of the RCS activity has been centered in Europe, but MetroPCS has announced plans to roll out joyn on its network in the US this summer, using Android devices and an application that can be downloaded from Google's Play storefront.
RCS will allow for UC-like mobile communications services that function across operator networks. Among the capabilities described for joyn are:
* Enhanced Phonebook: A directory that can provide contacts' presence status as well as integrated location information.
* Enhanced Messaging: New messaging options including video chat, messaging history, and file sharing
* Enriched Call: To provide multimedia content sharing during a voice call.
In its joyn offering, MetroPCS plans to provide:
* Threaded text conversations
* Share content from the address book with one click
* The ability to share video, images and files while on a call
* Voice and video calls over Wi-Fi networks
A lot of these services aren't "new" per se, but the way they are provided will be. For example, presence is available in Skype, but you have to open the Skype app to see it. As we noted above, Facebook is enhancing its chat options, but you have to open the Facebook app. Similarly, we have enhanced messaging in iMessenger and BlackBerry Messenger, but those communities are closed and you can only get access to the full range of capabilities with your contacts who own the same hardware as you.
The key with RCS is to bring those capabilities into the mobile network and to fully integrate them with the phone's native interface, regardless of whose phone or whose network it's on. Even more than the need to replace SMS revenues that are dipping due to IP-based texting capabilities like iMessenger and BlackBerry Messenger (or Facebook, Skype, Google Chat, etc.), what is driving the operators to offer these enhanced services is the fear of becoming a "dumb pipe" for someone else's really great over-the-top (OTT) service. As LTE is turning the mobile networks into high-capacity wireless IP networks, the "dumb pipe" threat is one they recognize clearly.
From a UC standpoint, the most exciting part of RCS is that it could allow the mobile operators to break into enterprise telephony. With the growing population of mobile workers and the increasing use of smartphones, many users are asking, "What do I need a PBX for?" Clearly there will still be a need for traditional enterprise telephony for desk-bound workers and for specialized applications like contact centers, but what about everyone else? It's getting harder and harder to justify the cost of hardware, licenses, cabling, and maintenance to put a phone on a desk that no one is sitting at.
We have been talking about the idea of "wireless Centrex" for decades, but adding the range of features required for enterprise telephony to a mobile switching center would be no small undertaking. RCS can provide the tools to deliver a very rich and fully integrated mobile UC/PBX offering, but the mobile operators (and their key suppliers) would have to get behind it.
While I'd love to see a real integrated UC-type offering from the mobile operators, I think the operators' tunnel focus on the consumer market will mean that a real "Enterprise" offering never gets out of the starting gate. However, my bet is that RCS will yield a next generation "consumer UC" offering, and that, even without a full-blown "enterprise" feature set, this consumer offering might still deliver enough functionality that we could see business users adopt it as well.