Japan's messaging Battle Royale pits telco RCS against Line

The recent misfortunes of Japan's answer to WhatsApp could be an opportunity for Japan's telecom operators.

Iain Morris, International Editor

March 30, 2021

7 Min Read
Japan's messaging Battle Royale pits telco RCS against Line

Share price charts for Internet companies usually have the trajectory of a climber's ascent up Everest. Not for Japan's Z Holdings, whose trips and dips since October have wiped about 27% off the stock.

Line, the WhatsApp equivalent it owns, gave up on providing forecasts last October, blaming "a level of uncertainty within the mobile applications market for smartphones and other mobile devices." Last week it became embroiled in a data privacy dispute after technicians at a Chinese affiliate were revealed to have inappropriately accessed customer data. Japan's government this week suspended its use of the app, according to a Reuters report.

Figure 1: Share price for Z Holdings in last year (Japanese yen) Source: Google Finance. Source: Google Finance.

That all sounds like a boon for Plus Message, a Japanese telco effort to fight Internet messaging on its own turf. Launched as a cross-carrier service in 2018, the Plus Message app boasts the sort of features and functionality that any Line or WhatsApp customer would take for granted. It relies on RCS, a platform backed by the GSM Association, the telco lobby group, and previously dismissed by various analysts as another ill-fated, undignified attempt by operators to claw back territory lost to Internet firms. Synchronoss, a US provider of telco software, is helping NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and SoftBank with the plumbing.

Outside Japan, RCS, it would not be unfair to say, has been something of a dud. It first surfaced in 2012, when the GSMA was marketing it under the Joyn brand. The hope was that operators like Vodafone, an enthusiast in 2012, would use RCS to create all sorts of interoperable multimedia features à la WhatsApp. Fast forward nine years and Vodafone's share price has lost a quarter of its value, while Facebook, WhatsApp's owner, is worth nine times as much.

But circumstances in Japan may be fortuitous. For starters, it is one of the few countries where there has been a concerted RCS push by all the major operators. Even before the current backlash, Line was distributing a much higher volume of spam than WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, says Anthony Socci, the president of Synchronoss International, who worked on the Plus Message rollout. At the same time, Japan's operators have already established a solid reputation as trustworthy service providers, perhaps a better one than telcos have in most other countries.

Ups and downs

Still, it is hard to view Plus Message as an unqualified success so far. At 20 million, according to Socci, its base of users sounds impressively large. To put that in a Japanese context, DoCoMo currently serves around 80 million mobile subscribers. There is, however, not much evidence that Plus Message has had any positive impact on telco revenues.

Nor does it appear to have slowed down Line, whose ultimate parents, interestingly enough, include SoftBank (always one for betting on multiple horses). Since the end of its 2017 fiscal year, the Internet firm has picked up another 13 million Japanese customers, giving it 86 million in total. Revenues, including its interests in Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand, rose more than 12% year-on-year in the recent third quarter, to 62.9 billion Japanese yen ($570 million). The black mark is a net loss that widened by 12.5%, to JPY11.3 billion ($100 million), ignoring one-offs that made the loss even bigger.

As Socci sees it, the real Plus Message opportunity lies in so-called application-to-person (or A2P) messaging, whereby companies send promotions and offers directly to consumers using the RCS facility (or, as the operators call it, RBM, for RCS business messaging). A2P seems responsible for revenue growth at Line as well as most of that unwelcome spam. If operators judge the balance correctly, they could profit.

Some of the indicators are encouraging. "Consumers open about 85% of those RCS messages and click-through rates are about 60% more than on email or SMS, which is something a business is very interested in," says Socci. Click-through rates for direct mail are as low as 3% and for mobile banner ads they are now down at 0.001%, he reckons.

But unless operators can generate new revenues in this A2P market, their RCS deployments may seem like mere system upgrades rather than anything to wow investors. "There's quite a lot of 'RCS-in-name-only,' especially where there's been a technical SMS server replacement with an IP/IMS version," said Dean Bubley, an analyst with Disruptive Analysis, in a messaging exchange with Light Reading that did not involve RCS or Line. IP/IMS refers to the Internet Protocol and Internet Protocol Multimedia Subsystem technologies that underpin RCS.

Figures shared by Socci back up that downbeat assessment. Citing GSMA numbers, he says there are today more than 353 million monthly active users of RCS worldwide. "The service you are using for text messaging might have RCS in the background," says Socci. Despite those usage numbers, no operator has been able to toast RCS for reviving its fortunes, and few have sounded very excited about it for several years.

"A significant amount of uncertainty persists regarding RCS," said Analysys Mason, a consulting and analyst firm, in a research note issued about a year ago. "It is not supported by many operators (there are only four countries in which all major operators have switched on RCS as of 4Q 2019) and it is unclear how long it will take for RCS to be present in a sufficient share of handsets for them to rival OTT alternatives."

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

Apple's perennial lack of interest in supporting the technology is undoubtedly a problem. In fact, Bubley thinks it may have been the death of a cross-carrier RCS initiative in the US market. "The US operators seem to have pretty much given up on their interoperability platform, I think, not least because Apple is still missing," he told Light Reading.

The unstoppable growth of the Internet platforms is a further sign of weak RCS appeal. Back in April 2013, when Joyn was about a year old, WhatsApp had around 200 million subscribers. Less than a year later, with 465 million, it was acquired by Facebook in a $16 billion deal. Today, there are something like 2 billion users worldwide. "Facebook is the biggest communications provider today in the consumer space and Microsoft and Zoom are in the corporate space," said John Strand, the CEO of the Strand Consult advisory group, on a WhatsApp call.

Figure 2: Share price of Synchronoss in last five years Source: Google Finance. Source: Google Finance.

A role in Japan's messaging market has previously been good business for Synchronoss, but it has struggled to maintain messaging revenues. When sales fell 6% last year, to less than $292 million, an $18.8 million drop on the messaging side was largely to blame. Lower spending helped Synchronoss narrow its operating loss to $48 million in 2020, from about $108 million the year before. But breaking even will be tough without growth in sales. Its own share price has witnessed a collapse in recent years, having lost 92% of its value since late 2016.

Line's recent difficulties notwithstanding, few would bet at this stage on a telco messaging victory in Japan. "The day the operators succeed with a solution that kills Line is the day the Japanese stop eating sushi," said Strand.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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