There was once a time when browsing the web meant looking at text and pictures. Today the web is about a full multimedia experience. Your browser can easily act as a television, radio, or gaming device.

Curiously though, the web does not extend all that easily to something as mundane as a phone call. A new set of web standards known as web real-time communications (WebRTC) aims to rapidly change that.

What is WebRTC?

Although phone calls have been around for more than century and voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology is more than two decades old, using VoIP in the browser has required cumbersome plug-ins that were not developer friendly.

Google suddenly changed the status quo of VoIP on the web by open sourcing more than $68 million worth of VoIP technology two years ago (via their acquisition of Global IP Sound). Not long after, Google initiated work on using these technologies in a standard web-based communications framework - WebRTC. Most of the major browser vendors (Google, Mozilla, Microsoft, and Opera) are active in the project. Google’s Chrome browser, Mozilla’s Firefox, and Opera all support at least some aspects of the work-in-progress standards already.

WebRTC is significant in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, much of the difficult guts of sending a two-way media stream from point A to point B is now available for free and is easily accessible by millions of developers. If current adoption trends continue, in less than a few years the majority of web browsers will also be able to double as communications devices without the user having to do anything.

Will WebRTC kill traditional telco voice services?

Traditional telco voice services have been in a difficult position for some time.

People are increasingly using asynchronous text-based forms of communication - i.e. Facebook’s wall - rather than making calls. Simultaneously, over the top (OTT) communications services like Skype have been eating into the most lucrative parts of voice calling. Many telcos have started fighting back with their own OTT services with some success. WebRTC is an accelerant to both OTT competitors and Telco-OTT initiatives. The technology will certainly power more competition, but it also presents a new opportunity.

To some extent, smartphone developments have disintermediated service providers from their users - Google, Apple, Samsung, and leading apps often have more power in the consumer relationship than the carriers. WebRTC creates an opportunity for service providers to directly source client technology to their users (the pieces their users interact with the most) without compromise or the mobile OS and app middlemen. Efforts like Mozilla’s HTML5-based Firefox OS are examples of this.

WebRTC also provides a relatively easy way to extend their existing services to new subscribers and use their assets to create new offerings. WebRTC is likely to stem the bleeding for telcos that figure out how to embrace it, and most likely at the expense of the
other telcos. It will also hasten the demise for those who continue to ignore these trends.

Will WebRTC kill Skype?

Is WebRTC the end for OTT communications services like Skype, Viber, and Apple Facetime? This is really a question about basic communications systems disrupting more complex ones. Did intercoms kill the PSTN? Did walkie-talkies slow down the expansion of the cellular network? Of course not.

The leading OTT communications providers have spent years honing their services. They certainly have technologies related to over-the-wire VoIP, but they also have significant investments in their signaling, addressing, authentication, policy, and directory.  WebRTC reduces the lead on the over-the-wire part, but it does nothing for the other pieces. While there are certainly many basic point-to-point communications use cases that could potentially displace usage in non-traditional OTT providers, it is unlikely to kill them off all together. WebRTC could actually help these companies expand by making it easier for users to access their services. In addition, these companies are also in a good position to use their assets for new use cases, even if they are somewhat cannibalistic.

The real threat is more likely to come from companies with large user bases and sophisticated authentication, policy, and directory systems in place already, but limited real-time communications support today. Companies like Facebook, which is already actively adding real-time communications capabilities to its mobile apps, or LinkedIn, which is used as a professional directory system, currently have big networks in place. WebRTC can significantly lower the bar on what is needed for these companies to extend their networks for real-time voice and video communications services.

New use cases

In the longer term, WebRTC’s impact may be from use cases that are adjacent to today’s large volume consumer voice services. There are many opportunities for enterprises and contact centres in this area. 

Enterprises already have large internal communications systems that help them minimise PSTN-related costs. WebRTC could be used to help them bypass the PSTN all together and make them OTT providers for their employees and customers. Conversely, this is also an opportunity for service providers to help enterprises do this, many of which already have large businesses devoted to contact centre design and operations.

We typically think of “real-time communications” and “calling” in terms of person-to-person communications, but there are also a growing number of applications that involve machines too.  For example, there are many machine/computer vision and video processing applications that could benefit from a way to easily get a remote video stream and respond in real-time - some web-based games already do this with WebRTC’s precursors. Any application that requires real-time streaming of complex media could potentially take advantage of WebRTC - perhaps even future machine-to-machine (M2M) applications.

Start experimenting now

The WebRTC hype machine often skims over the fact WebRTC is in its early stages and is not yet even an industry standard. Despite this, there are many indicators that point towards rapid adoption, perhaps even independent of formal standardisation.

Given WebRTC’s many use cases, the massive amount of technology that Google has given away for free, plus the enormous industry enthusiasm for the technology, WebRTC will undoubtedly have a meaningful impact; albeit in unimaginable ways. The winners will be the ones who discover these new killer applications first. That will not happen by sitting on the sidelines.

Chad Hart is Director of Product Marketing at Oracle Acme Packet.