Is Marketing Ready For RCS?


The noise surrounding AI has drowned out darn near everything for a year, but there are market shifts not AI worth some attention. This post covers one that could have as much impact on email-marketing teams (and vendors) in the short term: Apple and RCS.

First, a quick primer on RCS — ‘Rich Communication System.’ RCS is an open messaging standard, developed and maintained by participants in the GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications Association.) In simpler English, RCS is what (a) telcos and (b) Google have been pushing as the successor to SMS for some years now.

If your phone has messaging involving people from both of the dominant mobile platforms — Apple and Android — you’ll understand the issue. For iPhone users, the Android folks are “green bubbles” — second-class participants in message threads with no typing indicators, crappy visuals and herky-jerky delivery. For Android users, iPhone participants might or might not seem different. RCS is specced to deliver rich messaging, but RCS has not been adopted across the board on Android.

If you and your phone operate mostly in a market outside North America, you may wonder why this matters. For a bunch of quirky historical reasons, SMS-based messaging is the mainstream in North America, while app-based messaging systems with their own rich feature sets (and rich owners) are the go-to apps for messaging, particularly WhatsApp in the EU and India, WeChat (Weixin) in China, and Line in Japan. Well, we Yankees and our Canadian buddies have put up with a fractured platform-centric text-only SMS experience for mixed-platform messaging, and “we’re not gonna take it anymore.” Maybe.

As recently as last year, Apple was the notable (née smug) RCS holdout, with Apple CEO Tim Cook quipping “buy your Mom an iPhone” when asked about Google’s pressure for Apple to join the RCS standard. Someone’s mother in the EU bureaucracy likes her Android, apparently, because as of last summer, it was looking like the EU was going to require Apple to support RCS.

That lines up with the timing of Apple’s announcement about RCS support, which came in mid-November 2023:

Later next year, we will be adding support for RCS Universal Profile, the standard as currently published by the GSM Association. We believe RCS Universal Profile will offer a better interoperability experience when compared to SMS or MMS. This will work alongside iMessage, which will continue to be the best and most secure messaging experience for Apple users. (Source)

But wait…things have changed!  Earlier this month (Feb 13 2024), the EU Commission announced this:

Yesterday, the Commission has adopted decisions closing four market investigations that were launched on 5 September 2023 under the Digital Markets Act (DMA), finding that Apple and Microsoft should not be designated as gatekeepers for the following core platform services: Apple's messaging service iMessage, Microsoft's online search engine Bing, web browser Edge and online advertising service Microsoft Advertising. (Source)

Additional coverage from The Verge.

That doesn’t mean Apple is dropping RCS, though. The widely respected Jon Gruber at Daring Fireball had this to say:

“Apple’s hand was effectively forced. But by China, not the EU.” (Source)

Gruber’s article is worth reading in entirety; this excerpt is particularly relevant vis-a-vis email:

“Power your iPhone off and try to send or receive an SMS message from another Apple device. It doesn’t work, because it can’t work, because SMS is a phone carrier protocol. RCS is exactly the same in that regard. You need a phone to use RCS. You don’t need a phone to use iMessage.”

OK, so now you’re caught up on a bunch of telco-related stuff you didn’t need to catch up on. So what? OI is an email community, right?

In over 100 conversations about email on The Future Of Email podcast, messaging and SMS has come up in at least 50. There’s been enough overlap between email and SMS in the last few years to drive those conversations. Both ‘channels’ are highly personal, 1:1, habitual, usually available across devices (Apple should get extra points on that front). There’s a lot of divergence as well — messaging, particularly SMS, has been short and text-centric, relatively “flat”, quite expensive, and far more heavily regulated.

Here’s the punchline, way too late in the joke: depending on just what Apple does with RCS, “text messaging” could become far, far more important as a marketing channel at a very rapid pace. If “text messaging” becomes rich, media-enabled and interactive…if marketers don’t (pardon me) screw it up for themselves by being invasive, clunky, and heavy-handed, surrendering the game to regulators for the sake of an extra point in the 1st quarter…then the question is, what group within the marketing function is best-positioned to handle this emerging channel?

Put your marketing hat on, and think through your strategy for handling a channel with capabilities like this:

  • Multimedia Messaging: RCS allows users to send high-quality images, videos, audio clips, and files
  • Read Receipts and Typing Indicators:RCS shows when a message has been delivered, read, and when the other person is typing a response​​​​.
  • Group Chat Improvements: RCS enables better group chat functionality with the ability to name groups, add or remove participants, and support for larger group sizes​​​​.
  • Presence Information: RCS can show whether a contact is online, offline, or currently available, enhancing the real-time communication experience​​.
  • Chatbots and Business Interactions: RCS allows businesses to engage with customers more effectively through chatbots, providing automated responses, customer support, and facilitating transactions within the messaging interface​​.
  • Advanced Features: RCS supports location sharing, suggested replies, rich link previews, and contact cards, enhancing the messaging experience and making conversations more intuitive and efficient​​.
  • Offline Messaging: RCS supports offline messaging capabilities, ensuring that conversations can continue seamlessly even if one party is temporarily offline​​.
  • Integration with Additional Services: RCS has the potential to integrate with various services such as mobile payments, ticketing, and scheduling, simplifying processes and enhancing convenience​​. (According to Gruber’s article, the RCS standard does not address encryption. Hmmm. Join the upcoming OI-members-only Live Zoom Discussion call to discuss.)

Very few of those items are technically feasible in email, even with interactive technologies like AMP for email.

While there are a bunch of great reasons (IMHO) to suggest that the email team should tackle messaging, there will be a bunch of things for them to learn if they do. RCS isn’t a replacement or substitute for email, but if the trajectory of rich messaging platforms in other markets is any indication, we’ll have to start learning how the two co-exist.

I suspect there’s a pent-up appetite for a uniform rich-messaging experience in the North American market. Having seen a few ‘insider’ presentations on what RCS can do, I think there will be some really interesting opportunities for brands to find new ways to connect and serve their markets. Who’s going to run that show for the brands?

I’m probably mangling the quote, but some years back, read that “It’s an observable truth that no railroad company went into the airline business, because they defined themselves as being in the railroad business, not the moving-people-and-goods-over-distance business.” Something for “email marketers” to consider.