Getting On the Right Side of Text

22 Feb 2019

In my time watching the enterprise networking business, text has gone from pariah to panacea. I still recall when “Text” meant AOL’s Instant Messenger (AIM) and most large companies actually had a policy banning its use in offices. Apparently the OFICs (i.e. “Old Farts in Charge”) saw their kids playing around with AIM instead of doing their homework, and the boss didn’t want any of those shenanigans on company time.

Fast forward to today, and it’s hard to imagine how we got along without the ability to text. However, text is not just another way-more-convenient, non-intrusive, virtually real time (actually, as “Real time” as you want to make it) form of communications. With the move to omnichannel contact centers, it is becoming the second most important channel after voice, and promises to open a whole new method for customer engagement.

Even more important than that, text is being integrated into countless online services like Uber, delivering a whole new level of flexibility and convenience. Many of us are now spending more of our mobile time on text than we are on talking.

Defining the Text Options

Mobile text options can be divided into two categories: the ubiquitous and the good. For ubiquitous, we have the carriers’ short message service (SMS). While limited to simple text characters, SMS provides access to any mobile device using its mobile telephone number for addressing.

The variety of methods for reaching SMS destinations has grown, opening SMS availability to new classes of devices. If you’ve got an Apple Mac and an iPhone, you can connect them so that you can send and receive both Apple Messages and SMS texts from your iPhone or your Mac desktop or laptop. There are also services with SMS gateways that allow you to connect virtually any texting solution to SMS.

If all else fails, you can simply address an email message to “mobile [email protected]” (or whatever your mobile carrier’s texting address is) and send an SMS that way. 

The gotcha is that the ubiquitous service is limited to simple text exchanges. The carriers are touting a new texting standard called Rich Communications Service (RCS), which will add group text, enhanced graphics, typing indication, and other features typically found in Apple Messages and similar premium services, however, that functionality comes at the expense of SMS’ biggest differentiating feature, “ubiquity.”

The problem with RCS is that it requires handsets to support it, and only Android devices have signed on – Google is a big RCS supporter. Apple has not signed on, and by all indications, is not going to. Yes, I have heard numerous predictions regarding the inevitability of Apple bowing to the RCS gods, but you can look at those predictions as “wishful thinking.”

Here’s how this works: Apple does what’s good for Apple. Apple is already providing integrated, multi-device access to/from SMS in the same applications that delivers its premium Apple Messages service. Best of all, this configuration highlights the advantage of Apple Messages over the minimalist SMS serviced – the perfect solution for Apple. With no support from Apple, RCS is stranded as an “Android Thing,” and SMS remains the only ubiquitous mobile texting service. Life is cruel, but Apple is crueler.

Good Texting Within the Walls

Usage of traditional SMS texting peaked in 2010 as the vast majority of users have now migrated to premium over-the-top (OTT) solutions like Apple Messages, WhatsApp, and the like. Of course, these services operate as closely-guarded “walled gardens.” Interestingly, traditional SMS is experiencing something of a resurgence with app-driven texting like the Uber model noted above; there are several others we will look at in a moment.

These OTT texting solutions offer great integration on the mobile device, all of the bells & whistles, but the lack of ubiquitous access makes them less than ideal for reaching heterogeneous communities.

If you want a complete picture of the texting universe, you can include web chat, the chat capabilities in UC&C and team collaboration solutions along with more specialized texting options for more narrowly focused application.

Delineating the Applications

For the general public, text is text, and while the majority of mobile users engage with it every day, typically using one preferred texting option, they don’t really give it much thought beyond that. However, those of us who are involved in the selection of networking solutions for more serious purposes, we need to look at the options in a far more granular fashion.

I have been parsing the texting scene for some years, and thus far, I have identified four major classes of texting applications.

  • General Texting – Consumer and Enterprise: For everyday texting, whether in a business or personal context, the public OTT platforms dominate. If we look specifically at U.S.-based enterprise users, who are predominantly iPhone users, that means Apple Messages.

    WhatsApp does play a role, particularly if there’s a significant number of Androids in the mix, though I find that more so in Europe. In the U.S., users more typically stick with Apple Messages and many wonder why some of their outgoing texts show up in green rather than blue.
     
  • Employee-to-Employee (E2E) Texting: While the UC&C solution providers have been touting their texting capabilities for longer than I can remember, the public OTT solutions still dominate in E2E texting as well. The death blow to UC&C texting is that it requires a separate app on the phone and frankly, people see no value in it. For the last 10 years I’ve been pointing out the impossible obstacle that the “separate app” approach entails for either voice or texting solutions, but vendors seem to go back to it time and time again. They probably sing along with Man of LaMancha, too.

    There are some exceptions and special cases, however. There are a number of specialized texting solutions for highly regulated industries that require features like archiving. Compliance officers typically mandate these texting solutions for any business communications, but if their users are making lunch plans, they’re probably using Apple Messages.

    Lest we forget, we also have the team collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams, Cisco Spark, or any of the other myriad choices that all include text capability. In fact, persistent text is one of the key building blocks for these solutions. The question here is not whether the users employ the text capability, but rather, whether they use the team collaboration solution at all.

    One key factor we have found with team collaboration, is that if any of the team members start “going off the reservation” in their project-related communications, the utility of the solution plummets.

    For years, I held out the hope that team collaboration (or “Workstream Collaboration”- the older name) would finally be the capability that gave the vendors a tool with enough user value that they would overcome the curse of “separate app.” I have seen little uptake of these solutions among my clients, and users appear to be chafing at the “It all has to be done here” nature of these endeavors which still seems to stand as one of the major obstacles to their success. For now it remains, “No team collaboration and no team collaboration text.”
     
  • App-Driven Texting: The most exciting development on the text front is the new wave of services that integrate text into an overall process. Pioneered by Twilio, the ability to add text capability to mobile services has driven not just Uber, but any number of other mobile-oriented services. The success of Twilio and the service revolution it has spawned has given rise to any number of other communications platform as a service (CPaaS) who are now trying to capitalize on this idea.

    Users have become accustomed to getting text notifications for doctors’ appointments and a whole class of services meeting the need for emergency notifications, particularly in education. And text-based two-factor authentication is popping up in any number of security sensitive areas.

    These new text applications have been key in the resurgence of traditional SMS service, and demonstrate that there is an upside to being “the ubiquitous least common denominator of text.”
     
  • Text in B2C Communications: The potential impact of integrating text in the contact center is something I have written about before, though I’m still waiting to see it come to fruition. Text has become the most important medium as contact centers move from voice to omnichannel. Hoping to emulate the model that was pioneered by Tencent’s WeChat in China, marketers see persistent chat as a key tool to increase engagement and build customer loyalty.

    To expand the range of applications into the B2C space the premium text services are opening up to a degree, but always on their own terms. Apple led the way in this with the Apple Business Chat (ABC) capability introduced in 2017, with added a whole slew of features that could be integrated into contact centers to make Apple’s Messages a more functional “channel” in the omnichannel world. WhatsApp Business and some of the others have made similar moves, and the Android proponents are looking to drive the same strategy through RCS.

    Thus far, I have encountered little deployment of these capabilities from the businesses I deal with, but the opportunities are tantalizing. However, the absence of a B2C-enhanced solution with the ability to access both the Apple iOS and Android populations (along with the marketing challenge of determining what users need, want, and will put up with) seems to have tied the industry in knots with regard to delivering on this promise.

Conclusion

So the simple idea of sending a text messages on AIM has evolved into the modern texting business, and the majority of use has moved from desktops to mobiles. What we have is yet another example of that consumerization of IT, and users are clearly preferring their consumer tools over what the enterprise UC&C and team collaboration suppliers are offering.

In the meantime, those enterprise suppliers keep harping on “User Experiences.” Maybe they should start focusing on how they are falling short in “User Adoption.”

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