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WTF is... WebRTC?

Voice and video communications game changer

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Again, WebRTC isn’t the only technology that makes this kind of service possible, but it’s the first to make it relatively inexpensive and easy to implement. And that, many market watchers suggest, will drive its adoption.

Don’t assume that this is a technology that will only be applied to browsers - including mobile ones, which we’ll come back to. Today’s mobile and desktop operating systems’ APIs allow application developers to embed web services and views into their programs. Once WebRTC becomes a W3C recommendation, it will work its way into OS’ web support APIs, allowing coders to add video and voice communications - don’t just think of conversations, consider applications like Apple’s Siri; voice-controlled database searching, anyone? - to apps themselves. It’s already in the open source Tizen OS. Mozilla’s Firefox OS test days have featured WebRTC, so it’s hard to imagine the technology not being part of that platform too.

Ultimately, when WebRTC is in mobile and desktop OSes as well as browsers, says Dean Bubley, owner of Disruptive Analysis, a market watcher, “there will be more browsers, and voice-embedded websites and apps than mobile and fixed phones”.

At this stage, it’s impossible to say how this will affect existing voice and video communications services. It’s tempting, for instance, to forecast WebRTC will give mobile phone network operators and VoIP players like Skype a hiding, by allowing people to communicate easily over channels they don’t control - or, crucially, don’t obtain revenue from.

Tilting the balance of power

However, for people to reach other people, they need to explicitly identify them, and it’s this identity - be it a phone number or a Skype handle - that the incumbents currently control. Most punters will not have the technical savvy to initiate WebRTC links without the mediation of an ID management operation.

Of course, there are other forms of ID - email addresses, for instance. Apple uses these, along with iPhone numbers, to identify individual users of its iMessage system. iMessage already routes text messages through Apple’s servers where sender and recipient are both iMessage users rather than send all messages, as other phones do, by SMS. It does the same thing with video calls - how long before it does the same with regular voice calls too?

For now, Apple - or any other major smartphone platform builder - may be loth to challenge the networks this way, especially when those networks have the power to make rival products more attractive through bigger up-front price subsidies. But the wide adoption of WebRTC will make it easier for Apple to decide the time has come when its users have more loyalty to their iPhones than to their carriers.

At which point, carriers need to consider whether it’s time to become mobile ISPs rather than the providers of communications services they currently are: shift from marketing voice, SMS and data to marketing simply data, in other words.

Carrier harrier

Apple has yet to voice its take on WebRTC, but what it’s doing with iMessage and FaceTime suggest it’s going its own way. That said, Apple is likely to add WebRTC to its Safari browser at the very least once the specification is finalised as a formal W3C Recommendation.

Google clearly favours WebRTC. Since Android Jelly Bean favours Chrome over earlier browsers, WebRTC will be supported on Android devices sooner rather than later, if it’s not already. It’s hard to see Google not integrating WebRTC into Android’s own web services functionality.

Microsoft had said it’s broadly in favour of WebRTC. Unsurprisingly, it reckons it can do a better job and is working on what it calls “Customisable, Ubiquitous Real Time Communication over the Web” (CU-RTC-Web), which is its take on what WebRTC should be and which it is submitting to the W3C WebRTC working group for consideration. It maintains it wants to make WebRTC more flexible - shorthand for including as few mandated methods and codecs as possible. That makes the technology more readily adaptable to a given developer’s needs, but it also limits interoperability.

In any case, Microsoft - and Skype, now it owns the VoIP company - are unlikely to support WebRTC before it becomes a standard under the HTML 5 banner.

Even if it ultimately refuses to bring WebRTC to Internet Explorer - or Apple to bring it to Safari - third-party efforts to create WebRTC plug-ins are already underway, though this to some extent contradicts the notions of simplicity and ubiquity on which WebRTC is predicated. ®

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