SMS is getting a facelift at Mobile World Congress. IP services developer Mavenir Systems (see disclosure) is launching a new cloud messaging platform next week that could turn carriers’ staid old text messaging into a much more vibrant communications platform on par with services like Apple’s iMessage(s aapl). But most importantly the technology preserves SMS’s most valuable asset: its ubiquity.
Let’s face it: SMS is a dinosaur. Except for the addition of basic multimedia through MMS, it’s hardly evolved in a decade. A rash of new mobile IP services have emerged to profit from SMS’s shortcomings: iMessage, BlackBerry(s rimm) Messenger, Google Chat(s goog) and countless other IM and social networking apps. Not only do they offer more features and functions than SMS, they have the ultimate benefit of being free. Ovum estimated that, globally, operators missed out on $22.6 billion in SMS revenues in 2010 and 2011 as IP social messaging apps took over their traditional texting traffic.
The ironic thing is that operators could have lost much, much more. SMS traffic is still increasing despite the move to smartphones, and the reason is SMS has one ace in the hole: it works. I can send a text message to almost any mobile phone number in the world, and I’m virtually assured my intended recipient will receive it. Platforms like iMessage and Messenger require you to have an iOS or BlackBerry device. IM and social messaging services require you and your friends to have an account and their apps installed on your phones.
SMS has the added benefit of using the signaling channel of an operator’s network to transmit its payload, ensuring the message will go through no matter what network and what network conditions it traverses. IP services depend on having a decent data connection, which is hardly a given, no matter how far we’ve come with 3G and 4G.
Bridging the IP and SMS worlds
What Mavenir proposes is to combine the universality of SMS with the IP messaging features that SMS technology can’t support: live chat, group messaging, multimedia sharing, and network storage for shared files. But rather than tie the service to a particular device ecosystem like Apple or a particular account like Google, Mavenir’s Mobile Cloud Messenging (MCM) is tied to a phone number, just like SMS.
Mavenir’s platform isn’t standards based, which would normally be a big problem. It depends on operators running Mavenir’s network equipment and pre-installing Mavenir’s client on all devices. If your operator isn’t a Mavenir customer, then those richer features won’t work for you. At first glance, it seems Mavenir is asking us to substitute Apple’s proprietary solution for its own. But the beauty of Mavenir’s implementation is that it simply defaults to SMS and MMS if it doesn’t find its client or server at the other end of the message.
“We have enabled this whole interoperability with MMS and SMS on the backend,” VP of marketing Shubh Agarwal said. “You’re not restricted to talking to other customers on the carrier’s networks or phones with the MCM client. … It will simply use the SMS channel rather than the IP channel.”
Of course, all of those extra features go away if the message is forced onto the SMS channel, but the point is that MCM acts as a bridge between today’s new richer IP services and old reliable text messaging. Except for SMS forwarding and other gimmicky approaches to the technology, the two camps have always been isolated. MCM probably won’t stop the flood of users to free IM platforms, but by offering more features, operators could at least try to justify the SMS rates they’re charging.
Ideally, a platform like MCM becomes part of a standard, not a proprietary and closed system, and Shubh claimed that Mavenir has the exact same aim. The problem is the standards process is slow and unwieldy. The GSMA and many of the operators have backed a technology called Rich Communications Suite, which promises all of the features of MCM plus video chat and instant file sharing. RCS, however, requires a lot of network ingredients that will take operators years to find: LTE, moving voice and SMS over to LTE (or VoLTE), an overhaul of their core service delivery architectures (know as IMS), and the replacement of billions of phones’ SMS clients with RCS clients.
Shubh said Mavenir plans to integrate MCM with RCS standards as they emerge, and is already working heavily within the VoLTE standards space. But operators need to start moving SMS forward while waiting for those standard to become commercially viable, Shubh said. Otherwise, they’ll watch all of their SMS traffic disappear into the IP ether.
Disclosure: Mavenir Systems is backed by Alloy Ventures, which also backs GigaOmni Media, the parent company of GigaOM. Alloy’s Ammar Hanafi is on the board of both companies.