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Summary:

What this proposed new standard could do for or to the mobile industry is nothing short of monumental, says Erik Lagerway, cofounder of Hookflash. In the wake of WebRTC, the usual suspects will struggle to find a lifeboat while some faster-movers will rise to the occasion. 


WebRTC_Tsahi Levent-Levi

A new technology, WebRTC, also known as RTCWEB (Real Time Communication on the Web), is poised to send a virtual tsunami through the mobile communications industry, likely changing the landscape for a good long time. The idea is to put some of the voice and video services technology right inside the browser or device itself. That way, when a developer wants to enable voice or video calling, they can use the code that is already there. The only way to do that on a mobile device today is with a stand alone app, which is not easy.

And I should know. As a serial Voice-over-IP entrepreneur and the cofounder of Hookflash, I’ve worked with teams that have built plenty of voice and video apps from scratch. WebRTC could take a great deal of heavy lifting out of the equation for developers and end up becoming the common denominator in the new mobile network.

In the wake of this proposed standard, many traditional VoIP  service providers will wither and die. Mobile operators who continue to behave the way they have been will experience a grand exodus as users flee to new innovative providers. Traditional landline sales (phone lines) and traditional mobile voice usage will slow to a halt, and the phone network you know today will be gone for good.

Imagine a world where no matter what we use or where we are we could all communicate via video, hassle-free, for free — native video from Apple devices to Samsung devices, from business phones to the TV in your living room, from your car to your home to a beach in Hawaii. That is what WebRTC can do for us.

When it comes to mobile, Google and Apple own it. If these two giants got on the same page with WebRTC and convinced the mobile operators to play along, consumers everywhere would rejoice.

Google could see some big payoffs via WebRTC. Managing end-user software deployments, such as Google Hangouts, which range in the millions of users equates to real complexity. By reducing or eliminating the need for end-user software, WebRTC will help in a very material and measurable way.

Device manufacturers will also be in a better position. Since Google is a major stakeholder in the WebRTC movement and Google owns Android, we can surmise that Android-powered devices could start shipping with data plans and service offerings with free voice and video. Those services should be interoperable with other services that spring up using the WebRTC open standard. This would surely help Google’s handset and tablet sales.

Apple has been relatively quiet on the WebRTC front, which is somewhat disconcerting. Without Apple’s buy-in, approximately half of the mobile market is inaccessible. Which means that if developers were relying on WebRTC to deliver a voice or video service, they could only deliver service to half of the users that they could if they were to build a native application for both Android and iOS. This would be a major blow to the WebRTC community. On the other hand, Apple could easily take the openly available technology (as could anyone else) and drop it into a new version of iOS at any time, surprising everyone. Everything considered, I would say that  Apple will play along, albeit quite a bit later than everyone else.

In terms of user adoption, Skype is the standard on the Internet. So why won’t Skype dominate on mobile? Skype is an app on a device. It will never win the mobile battle if it’s just a third party application. Even if Microsoft embeds Skype deep in the fabric of its own mobile devices, that only represents a small portion of the market. And I don’t see Apple and Google embedding Skype as the native form of communication anytime soon.

As it turns out, Microsoft and Skype have recently joined the discussion in earnest, creating a bit of a kerfuffle due to their late arrival, which could cost us a six-month delay or more in getting this new proposal approved in the respective standard bodies. At any rate, it’s good to see them getting involved. I just wish it had happened ten months earlier.

The WebRTC open standards project has been in progress for more than a year now, and there are plenty of early demos of WebRTC already. I think we will likely see some production deployments of WebRTC in the next six to nine months, when Firefox and Chrome for Android support it in a production version of their browsers. And Google seems primed to deploy it to their large user base on Hangouts.

As for the rest of us, we will all keep close watch while building our own technology. With some luck and careful coordination, we will all arrive at the same time. It’s a guess, but I expect things will get really interesting near the end of 2013.

Erik Lagerway is a cofounder at Hookflash, creators of Open Peer, a new peer-to-peer network specification, built to enable global P2P communications and services. Open Peer powers the Hookflash mobile apps, enabling free voice and video chat on LinkedIn. You can follow him on twitter at @elagerway and @hookflash.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Tsahi Levent-Levi.

  1. I totally agree on MS’s late arrival, good to have them on board, and we like their API proposal but it was just too late. The biggest issue is the non-agreement on both the audi and video codecs between Google, Mozilla and Microsoft.

    You can read more about it in a blog post we recently posted: http://blog.cloudeo.tv/2012/08/open-letter-to-webrtc-committees.html

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  2. Tsahi Levent-Levi Sunday, September 23, 2012

    Erik,

    I think that WebRTC is a bigger threat to OTT players than it is to the Telcos. Telcos already have problems with OTT players, and at the end of the day – we will all need them to access the data part of the network for an OTT to work.

    WebRTC reduces the need for a user ID, which in turn allows new forms of communications that don’t fit with current OTT business models. I have written about it extensively on Amdocs Voices (http://bit.ly/OfX4rU) and also on my own blog (http://bloggeek.me/resources/webrtc-series/).

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  3. Great point Kavan, the codec debate is ever-present and it needs to be put to bed. There is a new effort coming together suggested by Timothy Terriberry of Mozilla to standardize a video codec, which is a great idea! Albeit late for WecRTC. The proposed BoF can be found on the RTCWEB mailing list: http://www.ietf.org/mail-archive/web/rtcweb/current/msg05329.html

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    1. Thanks, Erik. Unfortunately the H.264 vs VP8 debate is a very political one and I hope I am wrong but I can’t see Google and MS agreeing on this in the near future. They still haven’t for standard HTML5 web video. Looking at the audio codec, Opus is half SILK (Skype/MS) so again there may be a political standoff.

      The problem with all this is that us, the application developers, will be the ones that lose out as our users won’t be able to communicate cross browser without some sort of download or server side transcoding (which of course just won’t scale).

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      1. As in the development of all Open Standards, I would be surprised if it were not political, that is part of what makes it a co-operative effort. OPUS is a great example, several groups came together to create it and then open it up, and now it has been selected as the mandatory wide-band audio codec for WebRTC.

        The same thing will happen with the video codec selection and the issuing of the appropriate IPR licensing from each party.

        If you feel you have a valid concern you should take it to the RTCWEB list, as you have in the past. If anyone feels strongly one way or the other they will chime in.

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  4. @Tsahi, thanks for the feedback. We are certainly entitled to our own opinions :) From where I am sitting WebRTC will not only empower OTT but it has the disruptive moxy to force a bit of a paradigm shift, pushing the telcos towards a real “open” offering – which means smaller shops would flourish. But considering we don’t have a crystal ball, we will just to see how things play out.

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  5. Erik, thanks for the article.

    A) Please do not forget one fact – even google hangout does not use WebRTC yet…

    B) There is no reason for Apple to support WebRTC at all as iOS app is the future rather than desktop-era browser. This reminds us of the reason why Facebook made the smart decision to switch back to native iOS app instead of counting on HTML5.

    C) Microsoft Windows 8 will promote app as well as Apple did. So browser is becoming less and less important in the future. More people are developing all kinds of apps in mobile world – Do you want to control the entire experience of your app or you want to count on a browser?

    D) Last but not least, Apple is not only right but also very generous – Developers are making huge amount of money by building iOS apps. Who made money by developing something running inside a browser? The browser vendor… Not hard-working developers! Isn’t it?

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    1. Ah, despite the webRTC name, MS and Google look likely to release webRTC functionality as a ‘native’ API so apps can play along, the gap is simply a matter of time.

      What Apple will do is (as ever) a mystery.

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  6. > Google and Apple own it. If these two giants got on the same page with WebRTC I would say that Apple will play along, albeit quite a bit later than everyone else <
    Why? What's really in it for them?

    Sounds like a lot of wishing and hoping.

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    1. I thought Apple supported web standards. Or are they going to just try and set the web back like Microsoft did in the early 2000′s, because of their app store?

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  7. Erik, thanks for the article.

    A) Please do not forget one fact – even google hangout does not use WebRTC yet…

    B) There is no reason for Apple to support WebRTC at all as iOS app is the future rather than desktop-era browser. This reminds us of the reason why Facebook made the smart decision to switch back to native iOS app instead of counting on HTML5.

    C) Microsoft Windows 8 will promote app as well as Apple did. So browser is becoming less and less important in the future. More people are developing all kinds of apps in mobile world – Do you want to control the entire experience of your app or you want to count on a browser?

    D) Last but not least, Apple is not only right but also very generous – Developers are making huge amount of money by building iOS apps. Who made money by developing something running inside a browser? The browser vendor… Not hard-working developers! Isn’t it?

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  8. Chrome browser for Apple And android Will have webrtc support.

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  9. WebRTC will be a threat to both Telecom operators and OSPs. You might also want to take a look at my slides here – http://www.ngportal.com/micadeyeye/index.php/2012/09/09/webrtc-another-nightmare-for-telecom-providers/

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