BARCELONA -- Mobile World Congress -- If I were an Orange employee this week, I'd have a hard time restraining myself from going around to other operator booths yelling, "Look, it can be done! You can build a successful OTT app without waiting for standards!"
I'd probably get trampled by one of those giant Android creatures, but hopefully they'd hear my message.
Point being, Salt SA 's Libon app is a refreshing example of how an operator can support an industry standard, Rich Communications Service (RCS), without being stalled waiting for everyone else to get on board as well. (See Orange Launches Libon Open Chat .)
The carrier's innovation arm, Orange Vallée, launched the voicemail-oriented app back in November 2012 as a response to OTT players such as Skype Ltd. , as well as fellow operators like Telefónica SA (NYSE: TEF), which had a similar over-the-top app Tu Me that was ultimately shut down last August, citing lack of use. (See Orange Finds Its Web Services Voice and Telefónica: Tu Me Has Got To Go.)
Lack of use isn't a problem Orange has had with Libon, according to its creator, Giles Corbett. The ratio of active users to registrants is more than 50% and of daily to monthly users greater than 30%, he said. He wouldn't reveal how many users are on the app, as he admitted it would look puny compared to WhatsApp's 450 million, but it's enough to prove an operator app can be a real contender. (See Innovation Makes Life Better for Orange and Facebook to Acquire WhatsApp for $16B.)
Helping to grow that number is its latest update which adds messaging to Libon's voice service and lets users connect with others on any operator, regardless of what service they are on. Dubbed OpenChat, the app lets a Libon user IM a contact on SMS, WhatsApp, or another service provided they have an HTML5 browser on their device. If the recipient isn't on Libon, the chat will include a link to a webpage where the chat can continue free and over-the-top of the network. From the link, non-users will be encouraged to join, but it's not required, and the chat stays active indefinitely.
This is just the next step in Libon's evolution, and Corbett said group messaging and video chat are still to come. But, more importantly, and back to why I'd be the MWC crier -- Libon is a technically an RCS app, but this version is not. It's a stop gap, and a pretty elegant one at that, until RCS is widespread. (See DT Backs Jibe's Cross-Carrier RCS.)
"From an operator's perspective, if RCS were everywhere, the world would be a better place," Corbett quipped at the show. "But the only way that will happen is if we build out services then use RCS when it becomes available, rather than wait. Orange's approach is to bring everything to the end user however we can then link into the network when it's available."
So the hope is that Libon will one day be fully RCS, but its future doesn't hinge on the tech, which has been a long time in the making. To speed things up internally, Orange is re-positioning all its RCS, or Joyn, services across its operator base to Libon. It's also running RCS trials in Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, and Slovenia with more to come this year. Corbett said Orange hopes to license Libon to other operators and is having discussions with several here at the show.
It's not revolutionary, but Libon is a breath of fresh in an area that's grown stale for operators and overpopulated with OTT alternatives. Libon may still have a hard time keeping up with the giants a la WhatsApp, but it's certainly much preferable to the do nothing approach of many of Orange's peers. The market won't wait for RCS, and neither should operators -- at least not without something else to show in the meantime.
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading