Updated 3:55pm ET to include statement from AT&T.

A couple years ago, my younger, whipper-snappier self put a question to the masses: why were we still using traditional SMS text messaging? Given alternatives like Google Voice, iMessage, WhatsApp and the like, SMS seemed positively archaic with its 160-character limit and lack of rich messaging functions. Worse yet, wireless carriers were charging a lot for the privilege of using this outdated system, demanding upwards of $20 per month for unlimited access to a resource that cost them essentially nothing to provide.

Flash forward to 2015, and not much has changed. While monthly smartphone bills are slowly coming down thanks to the presence of disruptive influences, carriers still charge an obscene amount for SMS messaging, which is as limited as ever. Meanwhile, competition from instant messaging services has only intensified. Upgraded builds of old favorites like Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger now battle for attention with new apps like Slack, Viber and Snapchat. In this climate, paying anything at all for SMS seems almost laughable.

sms t-mobile

Wireless carriers, ever eager to avoid being demoted to the status of “dumb pipes,” finally seem to be waking up to the new reality of messaging. In a blog post issued earlier today, T-Mobile’s Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray unveiled the operator’s new “Advanced Messaging” service, offering the following features:

  • Rich 1 on 1 and group messaging, including near real-time chat
  • See when others are typing, when your message is delivered and even read
  • Share high-res photos and videos up to 10 MB just as you would a regular text message
  • And T-Mobile Advanced Messaging is built to work across all devices, makers and operating systems—and wireless operators.

While it’s nice to see a carrier taking steps to push messaging to the next level, the underlying architecture has been around for a while. “Advanced Messaging” is the consumer-branded version of a standard called Rich Communications Services (RCS), which started life as the Rich Communications Suite way back in 2007. It took until last year for the feature set to start making headway on US carriers, with Sprint rolling it out to most of its Android smartphones as the preinstalled Jibe Messenger app and Verizon Wireless promising to build the feature into its network alongside VoLTE. (AT&T, for its part, says that it is “aligned with and supports the roadmap of Rich Communication Services (RCS) and is driving for … deployment of other RCS like video calls, rich messaging, presence-based capability and more” sometime in the future.) The way T-Mobile sees it, its big advantage over competitors –and the way it justifies its “first-to-market” claim– is that Advanced Messaging will work right out of the box on its forthcoming smartphones, with no need to download an additional app to enable the functionality (though software updates will be required to activate it on older phones). It’ll also be fully interoperable with other carriers’ RCS offerings, whenever they roll out.

On the plus side, this sounds an awful lot better than dealing with a preinstalled app under the usual Jibe or Joyn brand names. “Advanced Messaging” is a much more generic label that, I think, successfully conveys the convenience of RCS versus an over-the-top messaging app like Viber or Skype. With Advanced Messaging, you don’t need to create a new user account with yet another password, and you don’t need to encourage your friends and family to download yet another app just to chat with them. Theoretically, it brings all the out-of-box convenience of SMS and all the rich functionality of IM. It’s a win-win. And if you don’t believe me, check out this hip video from Interop Technologies, which uses the power of animation and electric guitar to make its case:

But in a world where OTT messenger apps seem already to have won the war, I’m forced to wonder if services like Advanced Messaging aren’t woefully late to the game. Many carriers already bundle SMS into their rate plans, so will they unbundle them in order to push the added value of RCS? If so, they’re going to have an uphill struggle to convince subscribers to pay for something they already get for free with Facebook Messenger or Skype. Even if the carriers leave pricing alone and just position this as a value-add (as T-Mobile seems to be doing), this feels like a reactive move at best – and one that not all customers will appreciate. SMS/MMS isn’t the sole messaging solution it once was: if people want to send pictures or video, or get deliver/read receipts, they can do that elsewhere. And some folks doubtless appreciate the simplicity of SMS as it exists today. Read receipts, for example, can be a pain if you don’t always want someone to know that you’ve seen their message, and we’ve even seen a trend toward simplifying the social experience in the name of soothing an overconnected populace.

Ultimately RCS services like Advanced Messaging are inevitable; by some estimates, carriers stand to lose up to $54 billion by 2016 thanks to their failure to keep up with instant-messaging competitors riding atop their networks, so the pressure to do something is enormous. And RCS brings features that, like it or not, have become table stakes in the modern messaging landscape. But like the VoLTE enhancements rolling out on the voice side, they’re coming far too late to make much of a splash. While I look forward to my first out-of-box RCS message exchange, I can’t help but feel that this is just the latest example of wireless operators closing the barn doors after the horses have left.

Source: T-Mobile

Title image credit: Joyn