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In one of the biggest shake-ups for the browser business in ages, Mozilla and the Spanish carrier group Telefónica have revealed a partnership that will see voice and video-chat capabilities built right into the Firefox browser – or at least the desktop beta version, for now.
The open-source Firefox Hello feature, which will roll out over the next couple weeks for users of the first beta of Firefox 34, makes [company]Mozilla[/company]’s browser something of a rival to [company]Microsoft[/company]’s Skype and [company]Google[/company]’s Hangouts, only more convenient to use if already you’re a Firefox fan – it’s not an add-on, nor does it require a plugin. What’s more, it supports anonymous video-chat sessions. More on that later, but first, a bit of the history behind this move.
A new experience
A couple years back, [company]Telefónica[/company] (a big promoter of Firefox OS, by the way) bought a San Francisco-based startup called TokBox, and made CEO Ian Small Telefónica’s new head of communication services. TokBox’s specialty is WebRTC, the HTML5-based technology that makes it possible to have in-browser voice and video chats, and even file transfers, without the need for plugins.
Although Firefox Hello won’t carry any TokBox or Telefónica branding (certainly at launch), that’s where the feature and the underlying infrastructure come from. As Small told me on Thursday:
We each have an important part of the puzzle — Mozilla obviously has a browser that’s used by more than 300 million people around the world, we have a state-of-the-art WebRTC infrastructure which has been built by TokBox, and together we believe there’s an opportunity to start to shift the nature of the web and what people think about what a browser is, by combining those two pieces.
Small was very keen to stress that we’re only talking about a beta right now. Firefox Hello has a lot of evolution ahead of it – a process that will be aided by the rapid cadence of browser releases. “It will evolve every six weeks with every release of Firefox,” he said. “That’s a pace of evolution you don’t see much out here in the world, except for in the browser business.”
It’s not quite clear where the feature will go, not even to Small, who said it will give Telefónica a way to “explore a new part of the communication industry and maybe create a new style of communications in the process.” That’s because Firefox Hello is in many ways a new use case for WebRTC, and perhaps for the wider field of online video chat.
Firefox, Chrome and Opera all support WebRTC, so a communications-centric service can build an infrastructure around the tech. (It would have to be OK with ignoring Internet Explorer and Safari users for now, but don’t forget WebRTC can also be used in mobile apps.) A non-communications-centric web service can bring in a company like TokBox to provide the infrastructure for a WebRTC-based communications feature. But having a video-chat application that’s built into the browser itself, that won’t be closed down when the user changes the webpage, is a different matter.
“It creates a continuity of experience that only becomes possible at the level of the browser,” Small said. “It’s not possible in a webpage per se.”
Mozilla’s code is open source under the MPL license, and I’m told that “the two libraries Firefox Hello uses from ToxBox are also open source under the MIT terms.”
The identity game
One of the nice things about WebRTC is that it can only create encrypted communications channels – as for how that security holds up over time, we’ll just have to wait and see.
However, Firefox Hello will have the added bonus of providing anonymous chat sessions, where the participants use some other service such as email or instant messaging to exchange a URL that enables the conversation (this URL can be used by Chrome and Opera users, incidentally, so conversations aren’t limited to Firefox alone.) There’s no need for the participants to reveal their identities beyond that. According to a Mozilla blog post, users can also import contacts from their Google accounts, and use Firefox accounts to be findable.
Small was loath to talk about how the system’s identity mechanisms will evolve, but he said anonymous chat would “be a cornerstone of the experience for some time,” because it chimes with the privacy and security ethos of the companies that are involved.
Which brings us to the question of what’s in it for Telefónica. As Small put it, this is about being at the bleeding edge of communications technology, “evolving from being a traditional operator to being a digital telco”, leading rather than following, and so on. All true, but I have a funny feeling Telefónica also sees an identity management role for itself in all this.
I say this because of Tu Go, the Telefónica app that effectively extends the functionality of the handset onto the desktop, with identity based on the user’s Telefónica-managed phone number. Small, who presides over that effort as well, said Tu Go is “alive and well in the U.K. and Argentina, with more countries to come soon.” (Jibe Mobile, which Telefónica is using to provide RCS/Joyn messaging services on the mobile side, is also working on a WebRTC-based, browser-based desktop client to marry the desktop and handset.)
Also note that Telefónica is, along with many of the other big global carriers, involved in the GSMA’s Mobile Connect program, through which the operators want to set themselves up as the authentication providers for online services. As I say, it’s just a feeling, but I think the wide reach of Firefox may give Telefónica something extra to play with in this domain.
As for Mozilla, I think the browser vendor is in a unique position here. Google has Hangouts, which works with WebRTC, and it has Chrome, so it could bundle the two – but I suspect antitrust regulators, already on Google’s back over so many issues, would have a fit. Microsoft has integrated Skype with Outlook.com, but this requires a plugin. Like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, [company]Apple[/company]’s Safari doesn’t support WebRTC yet. The only other browser vendor who could play this game would be [company]Opera[/company], which is relatively small fry.
I’m utterly fascinated to see what becomes of Firefox Hello, and I’ve a feeling that Telefónica and Mozilla are in the same position. For now, it’s a desktop-only feature, but a Telefónica spokesman told me “there will be lots of updates to come, particularly around the Firefox 34 general launch in November.”
This article was updated several times within the day after publication to add new information as I received it (I originally didn’t note Firefox Hello’s open-source status, the existence of voice-only functionality or contact management features, nor the fact that the rollout isn’t happening all at once.)