Scoop: Microsoft bets on WebRTC for Skype’s browser future

webrtc

Skype is taking first steps towards a browser-based future, and it is doing so by embracing a key technology open sourced by Google last year: New job postings on Microsoft’s website suggest that WebRTC will be at the core of Skype’s next generation messaging architecture. This is a big step for Skype. Not only would it allow to facilitate voice and video calls in the browser without the need for any plugins, it could also lead to Skype finally opening up its walled garden and becoming interoperable with the next generation of Google Talk and other voice and video chat services.

Microsoft has been working on bringing Skype to the browser for some time. First job offers searching for relevant talent popped up earlier this year, but a number of new postings published in June reveal that WebRTC will play a key role in these efforts. Take the recent offering for a Senior Software Development Engineer, WebRTC, for example. It reads, in part:

“As a member of the Media Signaling and Gateway Technologies Team, you will impact (hundreds of) millions, and help us reach billions. You will do this by being part of a talented group of engineers defining Skype’s next generation calling architecture. You will help create an architecture that allows WebRTC enabled endpoints to directly interoperate with other endpoints on the Skype network, without the need of gateways.”

Here’s what this means in plain English: Skype wants to build a browser-based app that will be able to connect to legacy Skype clients. It wants to transition to a new architecture, but not invest heavily into gateways to keep all those hundreds of millions of users of Skype’s legacy software connected. And it wants to do so using WebRTC.

What is WebRTC?

WebRTC is a media signaling framework that was open sourced by Google in May of 2011. To put it in a nutshell, WebRTC enables real-time communication, including voice and video chat, in the browser without the need to download any plugin. It’s based on technology Google acquired when it bought VoIP technology provider Global IP Solutions two years ago, and makes use of the VP8 video codec open sourced by Google around the same time.

Google wants to use WebRTC to power the next generation of Google Talk and Google+ Hangouts, which until now require users to download a plugin. The company has been adding WebRTC tech to Chrome, where it can be tried out through the Dev Channel build, which is essentially a kind of beta version of Google’s browser. A release of a stable version of Chrome with WebRTC on board seems to be imminent.

But Google doesn’t want to do this alone, and there are active efforts to advance WebRTC as a web standard under way both at the IETF as well as the W3C. These efforts are being supported by Mozilla and Opera, both of which have been adding WebRTC to their own browsers. WebRTC has also gotten some support from Microsoft, and the company’s principal architect Matthew Kaufman has been attending the IETF’s WebRTC meetings. It’s unclear however when Internet Explorer will gain WebRTC capabilities.

What does all of this mean for Skype?

Asked about its efforts to adopt WebRTC, Skype didn’t offer up any details for this story. Instead, the company’s head of global communications Brian O’Shaughnessy sent me the following statement via email:

“Skype is an active member of a number of standards groups focusing on real time communications and we continually experiment with both standards based and proprietary technologies that may improve the reach, quality or functionality that we can offer to our users. We keep these technologies under close review, but don’t comment on future product or technology plans as these are subject to constant change and evolution.”

That’s typical corporate non-denial, but the job ads itself are quite specific, and offer us some ideas on where the company is going with this. Microsoft is currently looking for four people working on WebRTC integration out of Skype’s London and Palo Alto offices, and all of them include the following phrase: “You will impact (hundreds of) millions, and help us reach billions.”

Obviously, Skype has always been striving to reach billions. It offers traditional phone calls, after all. But the language also suggests another possibility: As Skype moves towards open standards, it opens itself up to interoperability with other real-time communication networks.

Skype’s technology has been highly proprietary, until now. It has been using P2P tech based on work its founders Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom did for their file sharing outlet KaZaA, which has made it hard to take the leap towards a web- and cloud-centric future. Case in point: Facebook’s video chats, which are powered by Skype, required a lot of heavy lifting from the company’s engineers – and still leave users with a 3 megabyte runtime download necessary to chat away.

At the same time, Skype has been taking steps towards open source in standards-based solutions over the years. For example, its group video chats are now based on VP8, the open source codec at the core of Google’s WebM video format. And now it seems like it’s getting ready to take the next big step towards an open, standards-based platform.

Image courtesy of Flickr user  Tsahi Levent-Levi.

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