Interoperability is key for richer media, functionality

Ask two technologists in two mobile communications companies what IMS (IP media subsystem, and the services its standards support) means to them, and you will probably get two different answers. The mobile industry has adopted standards and then ended up updating them to meet localized challenges and business opportunities.
In contrast, the RCS (rich communication suite) initiative is proposing and delivering a whole suite of new services that was conceptualized to leverage the IMS structured framework for their delivery and demand. However, they could well deliver the second generation of successful messaging services to follow SMS.
That's a bold claim, but it might succeed because, firstly, RCS brings some consensus on a list of priority services to roll out, based around media-rich and feature-rich calling and enhanced messaging. Secondly, the RCS project is being designed and specified with the operators needs in mind and around the end-user experience to ensure ease of use.
In the near term, RCS will provide a range of services, including rich calling that allows the sharing of multimedia content during calls, enhanced phonebook that supports presence-enabled contacts, and next-generation messaging that covers chat-style threading, multimedia content and better message search functionality.
RCS messaging will be a value-add service with lots of enhancements over generic text messaging. In addition to the presence-enabled phone book and an IM-style chat interface, RCS also includes a specification for groups.
But the provision of a service with a great list of features does not guarantee its success. At Acision, we think there are some essential issues to consider in making RCS a success.
The first requirement for success is that RCS messaging must not be a standalone messaging service, but instead be transparently incorporated into the existing messaging technology on the handset. The user must not be asked to choose between SMS, MMS or RCS -- there should be a single ‘messaging' option - and the underlying technology should take care of all the options and choices. In this way, adoption can be driven by exposure or osmosis. If the technology rolls out as part of a standard interface, it can propagate much faster.
A further requirement is the interoperability across operators' platforms. Currently, a messaging user has to know if he is sending an SMS or an MMS, use different clients to send messages to phone numbers or to alphanumeric addresses, and cannot readily send a text message to a group of users across SMS, MSN and Skype. When deployed appropriately, RCS messaging can be a stepping-stone to connecting these islands of messaging.
Internet companies have difficulties in learning this lesson and mobile operators should rightly demand that RCS is not only scalable but seamlessly interoperable.
Also, since every successful message delivery has a probability of generating a response (which is itself a charged message), two inherent advantages of RCS messaging -- group messaging and ‘chat' mode -- have great potential for increasing the volume or messages delivered. Hence, there is potential for consequential new messaging traffic even if only one of the parties has an RCS device.

For this reason, interoperability will be the key to the success of RCS, as it will ensure the uptake of RCS messaging. Interoperability will also maximize the consequential growth in messaging traffic.
The challenge is to extend the messaging platform to support RCS messaging within the existing architecture and ensure that interoperability is not only apparent on the handset, but extended throughout the application layer. More importantly, a unified application means a unified inbox. One of the irritations for users with initial deployments of MMS was the requirement for multiple inboxes.
It is important that RCS messaging in its future form is evolved to also cater for A2P (application to person) traffic. In the future, we can envisage many imaginative applications in which people will glean information by engaging with multimedia-enabled "messaging bots" or automated avatars.
As the first handsets appear, it will invariably attract a premium audience but eventually RCS (or its successor) will become a volume play -- and eventually the core model for messaging. Ultimately, RCS will not be a high-end service. The interface will be ubiquitous enough to appear on even basic handsets and it will become democratic like SMS.
RCS will take five years or more to reach anything like an SMS-like level of propagation and penetration, because of the requirements to develop the range of handsets and to roll them out in sufficient volume across global markets. But even in the interim, RCS messaging will present a real opportunity to augment SMS as a key revenue generator for operators.
For Acision, RCS presents an opportunity to take the messaging experience to the next level and embed a raft of disparate online-type applications into a single, satisfying and naturalistic mobile experience.
Acision plans to ensure that RCS is supported on their messaging platforms in a way that maximizes the cost-effectiveness of the operators' messaging infrastructure, yet guarantees the maximum level of interoperability. Expect to see the first scaled and branded deployments of RCS in 2010: with ease-of-use built in from the start.
Louis Corrigan is CTO at Acision.