You may be using RCS without even knowing

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Guillaume Le Mener, GM of Enterprise Solutions at Mavenir argues that there may still be a lot more to RCS than you think.

We have taken it for granted. When we use our smartphone, it is just another icon on the screen but, believe it or not, SMS is more than 35 years old. It was first proposed for the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) in 1982, although its most popular time was the late 90s and early 2000s, when entire generations mastered the art of compressing ideas, passions and conversations into small snippets using the most ingenious abbreviations in order to fit within the 160 characters limit. And its popularity generated a significant amount of revenue for mobile network operators (MNO) worldwide.

Then the mobile internet exploded, data plans became ubiquitous and over-the-top (OTT) applications usurped the throne that SMS had held for more than two decades and the MNO’s person-to-person (P2P) messaging revenue was severely diminished. However, SMS continued to live on as the platform of choice for application-to-person (A2P) or business-to-consumer (B2C) interactions. You have been using SMS to receive your two-factor authentication codes, confirmations about flight reservations, links to download mobile boarding passes, discount codes and coupons, or alerts every time your credit card was not present for a transaction. Mobile messaging is a part of our lives, even though we don’t pay much attention to it anymore: we have taken it for granted.

But mobile messaging has been going through a complete transformation. Originally embraced by the GSM Association (GSMA) in 2008, a new messaging protocol was developed with the goal of succeeding SMS as the mobile messaging application of choice: Rich Communication Services (RCS).

RCS was initially an industry response to the threat of the OTT messaging applications that were eroding their P2P SMS revenue and so it focused on introducing the features that made these applications popular—conversations, images, video, audio, typing notifications, read receipts—while ensuring the global reach that SMS provided.

For many years, RCS struggled to grab interest from MNOs and handset manufacturers because the business case wasn’t favorable. The OTT applications had taken over the P2P business almost completely—except on the markets where all-you-can-eat SMS plans were already in place—and it was uncertain that RCS could retake the throne. But recently, RCS introduced the Universal Profile—which enhances its capabilities by laying out the common functionality that needs to be supported by every player—and there has been a sudden interest to use RCS for A2P applications, a scenario that provides a profitable business case. Moreover, there is a push by mobile handset industry giants such as Google and Samsung. All these developments have infused RCS with new life.

A major improvement in A2P messages

The RCS open platform provides developers with everything they require to implement and deploy advanced communication applications. The message richness, combined with its universal reach, make it a very attractive delivery vehicle for brands, and offers new revenue opportunities for MNOs.

RCS solutions have been in mobile networks for several years provide major improvements in A2P scenarios such as:

  • Sender identified by name, not a short-code or MSISDN
  • Integration of graphics and QR codes
  • Hot-buttons to websites replacing links
  • Executable code embedded in the message, enabling customers to take action immediately without going to a website
  • Spam protection and privacy control measures to maintain customer trust

And by combining it with solutions like messaging-as-a-platform (MaaP), RCS provides the basis for up-selling A2P SMS now, and a chatbot platform in the near future, as well as P2P message monetization and data sponsoring opportunities.

With Google pre-installing the new Android Messages app on Android 8.0 Oreo and Samsung adding their own RCS capable messaging application on their smartphones, almost all the Android devices launched in 2018 will be RCS compatible and most major networks have deployed or are deploying Universal Profile compliant RCS solutions in the market — 55 operators and 11 OEMs globally as of January 2018, according to GSMA, with a forecast of 200 operators by Q1 2019.

What about the iPhone?

Even though the iPhone represents a smaller market share—around 20% globally according to Statista—Apple is the second most popular smartphone vendor after Samsung and their flagship device is still considered one of the trendsetters in the industry. Therefore, it is only natural that key industry decision makers look at their positioning around RCS.

iOS 11, the latest version of the iPhone operating system, does not support RCS capabilities in their Messages application. Apple did not wait for RCS to become popular and invested in their own multimedia messaging solution that was named iMessage. The Messages application on the device automatically detects if a contact has the iMessage service and utilizes it in the conversation—the user knows because the messages are blue. If the destination does not support iMessage, the application falls back to utilize MMS or SMS, presenting the user with a green messaging interface.

But this doesn’t mean that RCS cannot be used on Apple devices. It is still possible to provide a downloadable application that allows users to benefit from RCS’ message richness and universal reach. In some cases, other iOS applications may utilize RCS as a messaging mechanism within a specific user experience. For example, amobile-native unified communications and collaboration (mUCC) solution uses RCS in the mobile network as the instant messaging delivery mechanism. RCS can deliver everything a unified communications solution needs—such as typing and delivery notifications, message store and forward, conversation synchronization, or image, video and audio assets— and more—for example, rich cards and carousels—with the ability to deliver messages to any phone number in the planet by downgrading to an MMS or SMS message when needed, just like iMessage does.

And although Apple does not usually advertise their roadmap, past experiences show that they normally adopt technologies once they are mature enough—such has been the case with WebRTC—which makes it likely that iOS will support RCS in the near future.

Conclusion

RCS has already permeated into the networks and is about to take the center stage in the mobile messaging theater.

Unbeknownst to most of the people, MNOs and device manufacturers have been implementing RCS within their solutions. The GSMA claims there were 159 million monthly active users of RCS globally, as of January 2018, forecasting 350 million by the end of 2018, representing a $74 billion market by 2021.

In the US, for example, T-Mobile is already claiming that 30 million customers are sending over 250 million RCS messages every day across their network.

With the closure of the Universal Profile 2.0 and the strong push by Android, in the next few months users will begin to see RCS in every aspect of their daily lives. Although they will not know it as RCS, for them it will be just messaging.

 

Meet Mavenir to discuss RCS implementation at 5G North America 2018, May 14-16, in Austin, Texas.

Key announcements from Facebook’s developer conference

This year’s edition of Facebook’s developer conference was always going to be an interesting one, with executives scuttling away from the Cambridge Analytica fallout.

As with every year, it would be fair to expect some blockbuster announcements, but considering the nefarious maze the firm is currently negotiating, fire-fighting privacy concerns should also be on the agenda. So what did we gather from Day One?

Advertising business concedes a little bit of leverage

Personalised and targeted advertising has been a big topic over the last couple of weeks. CEO Mark Zuckerberg got a grilling from US legislators on the topic, while CTO Mike Schroepfer received the same condemnation from a Select Committee of MPs in London. At the annual extravaganza, there was always going to be a nod to privacy enhancements.

The new feature, which will be known as Clear History, will allow users to opt-out of the practice of collecting and monetization of web browsing history through social media plug-ins on third-party websites. This has always been a contentious issue for the social media giant, which denied the practice until 2014, but now it has at least conceded some ground to critics. Others might argue it should be opt-in, but this is at least progress.

This is not to say Facebook will stop collecting information on where else you go on the internet, but if you opt-out, you won’t be included in any advertiser’s targeting through the platform. Facebook will still collect and store the information, but it will be anonymised and only used for analytical purposes. If you choose to request to have your personal information deleted, it won’t happen immediately. Facebook has stated it will be deleted within 90 days, which doesn’t sound promising, but there are no time limits as it stands.

Cashing in on the online dating craze

Broadcasting whether you’re in a relationship or single has been one of the long-standing features of Facebook, pretty much since its inception, but now it is actually going to do something with that information.

Alongside data privacy plans, Zuckerberg also used the stage at F8 to announce a new dating platform for Facebook. This seems like a logical step for the social media giant, it is after all used to authenticate users on third-party dating apps such as Tinder or Bumble. The data collected from any dating application will sit separately from the rest of the platform, and the team has not detailed how it will monetize such a venture. It would be fair to assume it would be through advertising, as the pay-to-play model isn’t really in the Facebook DNA.

The platform will not necessarily attempt to partner you with people you already know, but work on various different other factors similar to apps which are on the market now, and does present the opportunity to normalize the idea further. While the stigma of online dating has largely been removed, there will still be those who do not trust the idea. Facebook could add credibility.

Facebook is going through a period of scrutiny and criticism at the moment, but it doesn’t seem to have had a massive impact just yet. People are still using Facebook and the #DeleteFacebook hashtag never had any material impact. People like to be enraged to give off the impression they are good people, but who realistically changed their lifestyle.

The online dating industry is worth in the region of $3 billion as it stands, though Facebook could accelerate this figure. And it does appear investors believe so as well. Following the announcement, share price in future competitor Match Group, which owns OkCupid, PlentyOfFish and Tinder, plunged 23% before recovering slightly in overnight trading.

Match Group Share price

VR actually becomes affordable for mass market?

Virtual reality is an area which has been closely watched by Facebook for some time now, though it might have just released a product which can take the segment to the next level.

Oculus Go is now available in 23 countries, starting at $199 for 32 GB of storage and rising to $249 for the 64 GB model. While this would still be deemed expensive, it is getting to the levels which most would consider affordable. This has been the problem for VR to date; it is simply inaccessible to the mass market, finding home for niche gaming communities and commercial applications. Could this be a game-changer?

Two questions remain. Firstly, can the same, premium experience be delivered for this price? And secondly, will there be the ecosystem to support the hardware.

Looking at the specs, a 538ppi 2560 x 1440 WQHD, fast-switch LCD display sounds promising, while the team has also been working with partners like Xiaomi and Qualcomm to optimize performance. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 chip will be paired with Facebook’s automatic Dynamic Throttling feature to improve energy efficiency for smoother frame rates, while a built-in lithium ion battery will power about two hours for games and up to 2.5 hours for streaming media and video. The specs are promising.

On the content side, Facebook has said it has more than 1,000 titles to choose including Jurassic World: Blue, MasterWorks: Journey Through History and Space Explorers. The key here will be providing enough content to lure users away from traditional screens, but also to manage the quality of the content. Facebook needs to make the Quality Controller role its own here if VR is going to be a new avenue of profit.

New tools for businesses

In terms of diversification success stories, Facebook has done well to engage the commercial world. While it might not look like much from the surface, creating a platform where all businesses, not just those in the FMCG world, can meaningfully engage consumers was a successful move. Part of this was creating a successful platform for customer services, which has most recently manifested itself in the form of bots.

Facebook has said there are now 300,000 bots on the platform, sending 8 million messages a day. Adoption of the technology should be considered successful, now the Messenger platform is due for another makeover, this time with AR on the mind.

Though it is still in private beta mode, the Camera Effects Platform can now be integrated into Messenger, allowing companies to prompt users into using various filters on their devices. For the shopping experience, this is a great move forward, potentially removing a buyers nervousness at not being able to visualise products. AR is still in the early days, but this is one of the more common usecases discussed over the years.

Amazon censors Signal’s censorship tackling strategy

Amazon has written to Signal threatening to kick the secure messaging app off its CloudFront web service unless it stops anti-censorship practice known as domain-fronting.

The technique has been used by the secure messaging app for the last couple of years as a means to combat censorship and government assaults on free of speech in countries such as Egypt, Oman, Qatar, and UAE. Known as domain-fronting, developers disguise web traffic to look like it’s coming from a different source, which provides a useful work-around for censorship.

Following Google’s lead, which claimed domain-fronting was simply a quirk in the software stack not an official feature or service, Amazon has also decided to pan the technique. In an email to Moxie Marlinspike, founder of Signal developer Open Whisper Systems, Amazon stated the app had two choices; drop domain-fronting, or get kicked off the service. As it stands, Marlinspike and Signal users will have to accept the censored fate for the foreseeable future.

“We are considering ideas for a more robust system, but these ecosystem changes have happened very suddenly,” said Marlinspike. “Our team is only a few people, and developing new techniques will take time. Moreover, if recent changes by large cloud providers indicate a commitment to providing network-level visibility into the final destination of encrypted traffic flows, then the range of potential solutions becomes severely limited.

“In the meantime, the censors in these countries will have (at least temporarily) achieved their goals. Sadly, they didn’t have to do anything but wait.”

In terms of how domain-fronting works, it’s all about hiding where the connection from an app comes from. Below we have copied Marlinspike’s explanation:

Domain Fronting

The theory here is that while a government might look to ban Signal it wouldn’t consider blocking the tech giants. In the beginning, Signal was using domain-fronting through the Google Apps Engine, meaning should a government want to ban Signal, it would have to ban all traffic coming from ‘Google.com’. Signal does not use Google services anymore, owing to Google’s interpretations of  US trade sanctions, but Amazon has a similar work around.

One of the issues here is Marlinspike’s claim that domain-fronting does not violate the terms of service set forward by Amazon, therefore Signal is acting completely compliantly. Marlinspike has pointed to two reasons:

  • The CloudFront distribution isn’t using the SSL certificate of any domain but Signal’s
  • The company isn’t falsifying the origin of traffic when clients connect to CloudFront

Marlinspike might be correct, but these are loopholes. The service was not intended to be used in this manner, therefore Marlinspike is simply taking advantage of an oversight. As in the Google case, Amazon is simply making alterations to remove an unintended use of its assets.

There has been little reaction from the ecosystem thus far, though following Google’s decision to remove domain-fronting there was certainly backlash.

“As a repository and organizer of the world’s information, Google sees the power of access to knowledge. Likewise, the company understands the many ingenious ways that people evade censors by piggybacking on its networks and services,” said Peter Micek, General Counsel at Access Now. “There’s no ignorance excuse here: Google knows this block will levy immediate, adverse effects on human rights defenders, journalists, and others struggling to reach the open internet.

“To issue this decision with a shrug of the shoulders, disclaiming responsibility, damages the company’s reputation and further fragments trust online broadly, for the foreseeable future.”

As with many of the tech firms, there is a balance to be made at Amazon. Ideals and principles need to be weighed up against the commercial nature of the digital economy, with features such as domain-fronting having a direct or indirect impacts on different cogs in the profit-making machine. It looks like cash won this time around.

Google admits ‘Allo is rubbish and looks to revamp Messages

After years of trying (and failing) to create its own messaging platform to compete with the OTTs, Google has herded together Android device manufacturers to create a new carrier-based service: Chat.

The idea here is simple. According to The Verge, Google will attempt to create a new messaging platform by evolving the already existing Android Messages, incorporating now common features such as read receipts, typing indicators, full-resolution images and video, and groups, based on a standard called the ‘Universal Profile for Rich Communication Services’. Google tried to compete with the likes of WhatsApp and Telegram with an OTT service, but now it has given up. And to be honest, improving the current messaging default on Android devices is a pretty sound idea.

What is worth noting is that this will not be a Google service, though the internet giant will take credit for harmonising the ecosystem. Strategically this is a very important development for the firm, it was one of the more vocal contributors to the new standard, as it looks to retain the strangle hold on the communications world. The key world here is harmonization, as this is the very reason OTT messaging platforms took off.

RCS was supposed to be the successor to SMS, though due to the inability of carriers or handset manufacturers to create compatible services based on the ‘standard’ it was a disaster. SMS was terrible, and the industry couldn’t come together to create an agreed path forward. The door was opened for the OTTs to offer a service which was designed with everyone in mind. With Chat, Google is seemingly hoping to correct mistakes of the past by creating a messaging platform which actually works for every Android user.

This is a modernization of the messaging service which is already on many Android devices as the default. Not only will it look like a modern messaging service, but messages will also be sent with your data plan. It puts the service in-line with the more popular platforms on the market, though end-to-end encryption will not be a feature. This might be a bit of an own-goal by Google, as recent events have shown the world is sensitive to privacy and security.

Whether Google is able to wrestle users away from the popular WhatsApp platform remains to be seen, though this is an announcement which is long overdue. Android Messages looks like a service which was designed for feature phones and no-one at Google could be bothered to update it. It’s boring, slow, clunky, uncreative and limited. When you look at how messaging platforms have evolved over the last couple of years, Android Messages reminds you of the sports superstar from school, who peaked at 16 and is attempting to live off past glories. It’s a bit sad more than anything else.

Alongside the introduction of now-common messaging features, Google will also introduce its virtual assistant to the platform and also GIF searches, explaining the acquisition of Tenor last month. GIFs are becoming an increasingly popular way to communicate, as younger generations continue to find new ways to avoid talking to each other. The company said it has more than 12 billion searches every month, which is likely to increase.

Despite the popularity of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, you have to remember Android Messages is a default service on the vast majority of Android devices in the market. It is a constant for Android users and presents a very useful opportunity for Google to regain control of the messaging world. The opportunity to be relevant has always been there, so we are quite surprised it has taken the internet giant this long to do anything about it. Why did it spend so much time trying to create something new, when it could evolve?

Another interesting area to consider is that while the OTTs apps are incredibly popular, there are still users out there who use SMS. Anil Sabharwal, who will be heading up the area, estimates 8 trillion SMS messages are sent every day. This is still a massive user base to care for, but we wonder whether the majority of these are based in developing markets. Reconverting the digitally-evolved markets much be a tricky task. Google will also have to think of a way to convert iLifers onto the platform, otherwise it is unlikely to be more than a footnote on the continued dominance of WhatsApp.

Right now Android users have nothing to think about. There is no need to download new apps, the service will be turned on inside the current Messages app dependent on each carrier, which Google hopes will be by the end of the year.

French messaging efforts show how selfish governments actually are

France is reportedly considering building its own encrypted messaging platform to protect itself from espionage, completing the full U-turn from last year’s efforts to limit the encryption powers of messaging services.

According to Reuters, a spokesperson from the Digital Ministry confirmed 20 civil servants are testing a new, encrypted messaging app which has been designed by a state-owned developer. The aim will be for every government employee to use the platform by the summer.

This is certainly a change in opinion compared to last year. During August, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and German Federal Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière met to discuss how data protection laws could be altered to allow intelligence agencies greater insight into the lives of citizens. The idea would have been to build a back-door in the encryption software, which would allow spooks access and permanently weaken the security feature of the platforms.

It would appear that spying on its own citizens is perfectly acceptable, but the threat of President Emmanuel Macron’s lunch order leaking to the Daily Mail is one step too far. We understand and accept certain aspects of government need to be kept under the strictest of confidence, but privacy is a right to European citizens, even from elected officials.

The ‘do what I say, not what I do’ attitude of governments around the world is starting to taste very bitter.

The French government version of an encrypted platform is based on opensource code found on the web, and could eventually be available for French citizens to use as well. What has not been confirmed is whether the encryption software has had a backdoor built into it, an objective for governments all around the work to improve snooping capabilities. If this was the case, it would surprise very few people, however it would also make the offering fundamentally flawed from the outset. A backdoor is a weakness in the security perimeter, which will eventually be found by hackers; nothing is 100% secure.

To date, French government employees have reportedly been using instant messaging applications from defence group and IT supplier Thales. Citadel instant messaging smartphone app is one offering listed on the website, though President Macron is supposedly a fan of the currently under-fire Telegram platform, which is facing a ban in Russia for refusing to hand over encryption keys to security services.

This is one example of a government which doesn’t like an idea until it benefits the bureaucratic machine. A government owned application will be designed with its own parameters and objectives in mind; this might be another way for intelligence agencies to poke their noses into places they are not wanted.

These agencies and governments have already proved incapable of cracking the encryption software of the likes of WhatsApp and Telegram, therefore a work-around would be required. Considering the scandal Facebook, owner of WhatsApp, is facing, this might prove to be a very good time to pry loyal users onto a platform with zero commercial interests and the promise of never being on your own.

Plantronics gets rolling on $2 billion Polycom acquisition

Plantronics has announced it will acquire unified communications specialist Polycom in a cash and stock transaction worth $2 billion, expected to close by the end of the third quarter.

The pair claim the deal will create the broadest portfolio of communications and collaboration endpoints for the $39.9 billion UCC industry, adding voice and video collaboration expertise to the Plantronics strategy of ‘delivering new communications and collaboration experiences’. Bringing the two companies together will enable Plantronics to target new opportunities in the data analytics and insight services segments, the company said.

“Polycom has returned to growth by focusing on building strong ecosystem partnerships and delivering innovative, smart solutions for our customers and partners,” said Mary T. McDowell, CEO of Polycom. “Bringing Plantronics and Polycom together will broaden the breadth of solutions available to customers and partners and create a consistent end-user experience across many collaboration applications and devices. As one company, Plantronics and Polycom will make it even easier for all customers to solve big-business problems through human-to-human connections.”

“With the addition of Polycom’s solutions across video, audio and collaboration we will be able to deliver a comprehensive portfolio of communications and collaboration touch points and services to our customers and channel partners,” said Joe Burton, CEO of Plantronics. “This will put Plantronics in an ideal position to solve for today’s enterprise collaboration requirements while capitalizing on market opportunities associated with the evolving, intelligent enterprise.”

In terms of the specifics, the $2 billion will consist of an estimated $690 million in net debt and an estimated $948 million in cash and 6.352 million Plantronics shares, valued at $362 million based on the 20 trading day average. Polycom shareholders will own approximately 16% of the combined company. Siris’ Capital’s (an investor in Polycom) Frank Baker, Managing Partner, and Daniel Moloney, Executive Partner, will join Plantronics Board of Directors.

This is not the first time Polycom has been in the news regarding an acquisition. Back in 2016, Polycom was the centre of consolidation talk with Mitel, though the pair parted ways after Polycom received a superior offer from Siris Capital.

Blackberry sues Facebook – has it just given up on tech?

Blackberry is taking Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram to court for patent infringement relating to messaging apps. We wonder if Blackberry has just given up on tech in favour of a litigious business model.

Of course there are still areas of the Blackberry business where it is developing technology, but the brand on the whole is becoming less and less relevant to today’s society. Such is its relevance, the company is hitting the headlines far more often in cases where it is taking another business to court than for its technology breakthroughs.

Over the last few years, Blackberry has sued Nokia for transmitters and software IP infringement, won $815 million off Qualcomm in a royalties dispute and taken Avaya to court for infringement of eight patents for product lines such as unified communications, network switches and routers, communications servers and client software. Blackberry reportedly has more than 38,000 patents to its name, so there is plenty of opportunity to make the software licensing business model work.

In the Facebook case, Blackberry is claiming Facebook has been using its patents relating to messaging without its permission. The apps mentioned in the filing are Facebook Messenger, Facebook Messenger Lite, Facebook Pages Manager, Facebook.com and Facebook Workplace Chat, WhatsApp and the direct messaging feature in the Instagram app. For those who wish to have a look through the filing, you can do so here, though we warn you its 117 pages long.

In short, Blackberry is suing for the following:

  • Security improvements: incorporating cryptographic techniques into a messaging app
  • Interface improvements: streamlining of notification symbols, previews of messages and display of timestamps on messages
  • Tagging contacts in photographs
  • Linking messaging and gaming
  • Read receipts on sent messages

Blackberry claims all of these features are now ‘table stakes’ for messaging apps and social media, and it came up with them all. As you can see below, Blackberry has said it is the very reason Facebook has succeeded in the messaging game. Facebook used Blackberry’s IP against it to gain the upper hand.

Lawsuit

While we are not legal experts, some of the claims are pretty superficial. Saying that anyone using encryption techniques on messaging would have to pay Blackberry royalties is a pretty big ask. As is showing an unread message indicator on top of an icon. Blackberry also says it should be paid by anyone who doesn’t show a timestamp next to every message. But perhaps this is an intentional overreach.

When negotiating, it is common practise to overextend your hand. Ask for too much and the counteroffer will come back. The back and forth could result in a net-gain, assuming of course Facebook does have any intention of settling. The social media giant has indicated it will fight the claims, which will be a relief to anyone else in the social media game. Should Blackberry win this legal battle, precedent would be set and it could sue basically anyone involved with social media or messaging. Twitter, Slack, Apple, Microsoft and Google (just to name a few) might have one, wary eye on this saga.

Blackberry did beat Facebook to the messaging space and to be fair to the Canadians, it was a pretty notable breakthrough at the time. This could be viewed as one of the first appearances of a ‘zero-rating’ offering as messages across BBM would not be charged to the user. This made it particularly useful to users who were in roaming territories. Don’t forget, this is more than a decade ago when using your device abroad was a very costly exercise.

Ultimately Facebook and the other OTTs won out here because of scale of adoption, default installations on multiple devices and interoperability with other features. Blackberry might have come up with a great idea, but limiting the feature to a doomed device was never going to spell a success story. In the latter years it did try to release a BBM app to move into the wider smartphone world, but this was too little too late. Like a Dad trying to relate to a teenagers taste in music, no-one took Blackberry seriously.

This does seem like a very speculative move from Blackberry. It seems like it knows it is dead to the technology world, irrelevant and largely forgotten, but it might as well make as much money as possible. It has 38,000 patents so might as well have a bit of a look around and figure out what it can sue for. We can just imagine some ‘no win, no fee’ lawyer approached the beaten and bored Blackberry executives with the idea, and they thought why not, haven’t got anything else to do at the moment.

WhatsApp takes a step into the world of business

WhatsApp has launched a business version of the popular messaging app, just to make sure businesses don’t actually have to talk to those pesky customers face-to-face.

The move should not come as a surprise as the man on the street either doesn’t have the time to talk to businesses on the phone, or quite frankly doesn’t want to. The resentment of conversation goes both ways.

“People all around the world use WhatsApp to connect with small businesses they care about — from online clothing companies in India to auto parts stores in Brazil,” the company said on its blog.

“But WhatsApp was built for people and we want to improve the business experience. For example, by making it easier for businesses to respond to customers, separating customer and personal messages, and creating an official presence.”

On the app companies will be able to create their own profiles, create quick replies to frequently asked questions, automated messages, split personal and business messages, and even spam potential customers to ‘introduce’ them to the business. The idea does seem to be a continuation of Facebook’s wider strategy to monetize small businesses.

WhatsApp owner Facebook has been increasing the emphasis on smaller and medium size businesses to continue the extraordinary growth it has seen over the last decade. Whether this is helping local plumbers to engage with the local community or a start-up to reach the next continent, the strategy has been a success. Taking WhatsApp down the same route would be a sensible plan.

The pilot scheme was introduced in September last year, with the intention of being free for smaller organizations, while WhatsApp will monetize through relationships with the larger enterprise customers. In short, the more message you are likely to send, the more you’ll pay. There is potential for sponsored messages here, as there were updates to the T&Cs last year which opened the door for greater flexibility in advertising solutions.

The new business version of the app is now available in Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, the UK and the US, and will be introduced in new counties before too long.

WhatsApp mulls business revenue streams

Facebook-owned IM service WhatsApp reckons it might finally be able to make some money by charging businesses for clever access to their punters.

Apparently quite a lot of people already use WhatsApp around the world to interact with shopkeepers and other relatively simple business transactions such as placing orders, but the company reckons that experience can be improved. So it’s going to be spending the next few months WhatsApp is going to focus on special features for this sort of thing and is even launching a special business app, which is free for now.

“We’re building and testing new tools via a free WhatsApp Business app for small companies and an enterprise solution for bigger companies operating at a large scale with a global base of customers, like airlines, e-commerce sites, and banks,” explained a WhatsApp blog. “These businesses will be able to use our solutions to provide customers with useful notifications like flight times, delivery confirmations, and other updates.”

In an interview with the WSJ WhatsApp COO Matt Idema revealed that the ultimate aim is to develop features businesses might be willing to pay for. “We want to put a basic foundation in place to allow people to message businesses and for them to get the responses that they want,” he said. “We do intend on charging businesses in the future.”

There isn’t much detail right now but WhatsApp would have to come up with some pretty compelling features to persuade businesses to pay for something that is not only free now but has countless equally free competitors. Maybe it will follow in its parent’s footsteps and find ways of exploiting its users’ data for profit.