For the past two years the WebRTC revolution has been imminent. WebRTC, or web real-time communication, is defined as an API that supports browser-based applications for voice, video, chat/IM and file sharing without the need for plugins or separate software clients.
While WebRTC is a method of programmatic interaction that allows new types of compelling application development, it has been really hard to understand what value it has added to the communications market and what is to come. As a non-developer I am limited in my vision for what is technically possible; though, as a telecom business operations professional, I have been really curious how to react to the (potential) leap forward this innovation represents.
There are many facets to understanding the challenges of WebRTC, my purpose in this brief article is to share my expectations for how WebRTC will impact the hosted PBX (News - Alert) market – service providers and the technology they consume.
There are a number of different business models to consider with regard to the impact of WebRTC. Stephane Tuffin from Orange (News - Alert) Labs does an excellent job presenting these options in a short format blog. I am focused on the impact of WebRTC on existing telecommunications service providers (telcos). Stephane’s blog considers the impact of WebRTC on the ability of web companies to compete with telcos – an interesting and important angle to consider. My goal below is to provide some markers for business decision-makers to follow to decide how important they should view the new standards.
The most useful feature of WebRTC is actually based on the hype itself. If WebRTC can become a standard used across multiple browsers and across leading technology manufacturers (which has started to some degree) then a long-standing hurdle to get software developers to build applications that speak the same language will have been overcome. There are still skirmishes – like which video codec or codecs WebRTC should support (the answer seems to be both of the leading codecs – H.264 and VP8), but if there is consensus on standards this means software developers and service providers can invest in standards-based applications with more confidence and capital.
In any standardization project there are many obstacles. First, not all browsers that support WebRTC speak the same exact version – inconsistencies are rife between Chrome and Firefox, for example. Second, technology manufacturers, especially market leaders, have to want to allow their proprietary protocols to be democratized into a common language. This business decision is fraught with problems on both sides because, on one hand, it opens them up to competition from other manufacturers and open source – all which want access to their ecosystem of technology affiliates and customers. But, on the other hand, it can create an artificial boundary around users that impedes the utility of the technology. Finally, developers and manufacturers have to believe – on a large scale – that the winning standard has emerged so they can focus their efforts where they will be rewarded.
Signs are promising on paper so far, as many manufacturers are lining up behind the standard by offering compatibility modules to bridge to WebRTC – hosted PBX service providers featuring prominently. Hopefully, 2015 will show us some production applications bridging Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei, BroadSoft, Oracle (News - Alert) Communications, GENBAND, Metaswitch, Sonus, or other telecommunications technology to the browser and to the proprietary technology each company operates.
Every time I hear about a cool application using elements of WebRTC, I try to understand what it is, specifically, about this technology that makes the software better than the same application without WebRTC. Often, it is not much beyond removing the requirement to download a plugin or an app. However, no downloaded client means you give up deeper controls and integration to the device on which you are operating in exchange for easier compatibility. For example, mobile device notifications such as badges and banners are increasingly important but require an operating system-specific app to trigger.
In short, WebRTC allows cool software to be built – no question – but not necessarily cooler than what came before, so far.
Problem of P2P
One of the most substantial problems with WebRTC for hosted PBX service providers is its inherent incompatibility with how business phone systems are sold and operated. Enterprises, no matter what communications technology they are using, expect uptime and customer support ahead of other factors. In VoIP Logic’s (News - Alert) annual market research survey of the VoIP service provider market, we find that these variables are the most important – ahead of price savings and cutting-edge features (both advantages of WebRTC).
Peer-to-peer technology like WebRTC that does not require centralized monitoring and management relegates performance guarantees and customer support both to best effort status, which is generally not good enough for business users. Coupled with the fact that decentralized communication paths mean billing and monetization are also tricky for hosted PBX service providers, WebRTC in what developers would say is its truest form is a hard sell to the industry establishment as anything beyond cool fringe applications.
Many of WebRTC bridge modules from existing telecommunications equipment manufacturers are focused on solving this very problem by removing the peer-to-peer structure of WebRTC (particularly for signaling but often also for media paths). Using session border controllers and other core devices to interface with existing infrastructure can allow easier monetization for service providers but at the expense of low latency and easy compatibility.
In theory, if the vast marketing effort behind WebRTC is successful in pushing browsers and technology manufacturers to sit down and agree on interoperability standards (like it has done recently with video codecs), then a common roster of protocols governing voice, video, chat, and file sharing can emerge that allow ease of communication that is platform, technology, smartphone, softphone, etc. independent.
In my opinion this would be a very important step forward in the communications industry and represent a remaking of how core telecommunications infrastructure works with edge user devices – possibly invisible to end users but remaking ease of ubiquitous communication.
Edited by Maurice Nagle