WebRTC a Game Changer? Not So Fast.

Filed in Uncategorized by on April 30, 2013 1 Comment

There have been lots of WebRTC (real-time communications via Web browsers) services launches lately. Will they be disruptive to real-time communications providers? Perhaps eventually.

During Mobile World Congress in February, Mozilla, alongside partners AT&T and Ericsson, demoed a proof of concept for a new breed of real-time communications – browser-based telephony – as reported in TechCrunch: “WebPhone . . . demonstrates how users can receive calls and texts on their desktops. The system was built on top of WebRTC, the developing standard that allows for in-browser file transfers and real-time video, audio and text chats without plugins. . . The demo shows how users can start a call from their Firefox browser. Using the operators’ APIs, the web application in the browser gets access to the user’s contacts on the phone and could eventually allow them to, for example, start calls on their mobile device and then transfer them to their desktop once they get home and receive calls right through their browser.”

There also have been many other WebRTC-related announcements recently, including Plivo’s WebRTC SIP SDK and TenHand’s adoption of WebRTC for Chrome users.

As these reports explain, the vision for WebRTC is that any two or more browser-equipped devices could communicate peer to peer with audio, video or text. According to Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis, there will be 3 billion WebRTC-capable devices and 1 billion users by the end of 2016. (Note: These numbers reflect use by devices and users that use both fixed and mobile networks.)

Use cases threaten all types of established real-time communications, from traditional mobile service provider services like voice and messaging to VoIP, and video calling and teleconferencing services, such as Vonage, Skype and WebEx. In browser-to-browser communications, there is very little role for any type of communications service provider, whether they are an MNO or OTT player, since the browser does all the work, and there is no server or gateway involved.

However, WebRTC faces several significant barriers that will be difficult to overcome, and I am therefore skeptical that market penetration will reach the levels that Bubley predicts for 2016. Here is why:

    • Fractured adoption by browser players. Google Chrome, Opera and Mozilla are the current champions of WebRTC. But key browser players that represent the vast majority of global browser market share have not committed to WebRTC, including Apple (Safari) and Microsoft (Internet Explorer). Microsoft has gone as far as to offer up a rival standard to WebRTC called CU-RTC-Web. The longer the browser industry stays fractured on adopting the WebRTC standard, the longer market adoption will delay since Web developers will base business cases on reach.

 

    • Complexity for mobile devices. WebRTC capabilities present user interface (UI) and power-consumption risks to smartphones and tablets. UI is an issue due to the variations that device OEMs place on resident browsers, which come with the Android OS. This fragmentation can cause glitches for browser functionality. Power is perhaps a bigger issue as WebRTC functionality will tax mobile device batteries.

 

    • No standard for PSTN or SIP interoperability. The WebRTC standards being developed by the W3C and IETF do not specify a signaling protocol, which means if Web developers would like to enable communications beyond browser-to-browser communications, they will require the services of a specialist, or their market for real-time communications will be limited. The lack of a specification has spawned players that aim to enable browser to PSTN or SIP signaling, but their services will not be free, and the cost of this interoperability will need to be considered for WebRTC business cases.

 

  • Market unlikely to accept best effort. Many potential use cases for WebRTC to overtake current service providers are potentially hurt by the nature of best-effort Internet. It will be difficult for potential WebRTC players to guarantee lowest latency as well as the maximum security and privacy of their services. While this may not be an issue for many potential WebRTC end users, it certainly will be for some, particularly high-value enterprise users.

However, these challenges are not insurmountable, and WebRTC will certainly disrupt the real-time communications market over time. Savvy service providers should be thinking now not about defensive strategies, but adaptive ones.

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Mark Beccue is a former Senior Market Analyst at Syniverse.

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