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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

WebRTC Asia-Pacific Forums: conference report

Last week I attended the first two public WebRTC conferences in Asia, co-organised by TRPC and Inspira Events, in Hong Kong and Singapore. While other Asian events have had presentations and sessions on WebRTC (I’ve spoken myself at Communicasia, ITUWorld & TADS in the last year), these were the first dedicated shows I'm aware of. 

I was heavily involved with both, book-ending the events with two presentations on “What is WebRTC & Why is it Important”, and “What’s next in Asia for WebRTC?”. I also moderated a panel on telecoms/OTT issues around WebRTC, and sat as a panellist on the enterprise session.

Overall, the two events went well, especially given the very short notice with which they were arranged and marketed (there was no website until mid-December!). I think there were about 70-80 people at each, with sponsorship from Temasys (itself from Singapore), Oracle and Cisco.

The two days had a very different “feel” to them. Partly this may have been logistics – I generally find square-ish rooms with “cabaret” seating at round tables to have a better atmosphere than long/thin rooms with rows of chairs. But I’d say that the Singapore audience seemed more knowledgeable and engaged than the HK one, especially in terms of questions and participation/discussion in the breaks.

HK seemed to have quite a lot of enterprise and system-integrator/VAR folk who had heard about the “next big thing” and were there to see if it could be packaged up and sold as a product in the short term, like a videoconferencing or UC solution. There were also some of the local telcos in the room, who seemed more on a fact-finding mission than with existing strategies. 

However, there were no (obvious) local startups or developers or disruptors - something which a couple of other people have concurred with subsequently. Some of the telcos are quite advanced on areas like connectivity (pervasive telco-administered venue WiFi, for example), but I was disappointed not to encounter Digital Services / Telco-OTT folk more.

Singapore, on the other hand, seemed to be more solidly web and telco-centric, as well as some people from UC/conferencing backgrounds, plus a few investors, consultants and industry luminaries. It is also the home of Temasys (disclosure: I am an advisor) which has obviously built some local awareness, and brought in some of its clients/partners.

There were also some vocal and knowledgeable SP participants both from Singapore itself and other places such as Malaysia. There were also a few "big vendor" participants and a few web players.

The three sponsors presented in both cities:

  • Oracle gave a counterpoint to my own upbeat introduction, by examining the problems & issues faced by WebRTC in real-world deployments, obviously with a focus on areas assisted by its own gateway/SBC platforms. It covered aspects such as security (eg protecting against WebRTC DDoS attacks), scalability of key infrastructure domains (eg media handling in large-scale NAT traversal use-cases), ID management and application management across multiple network transitions ("rehydration"). While I agree with some of my more scornful peers that some of these issues might well be dealt with in alternative fashion (including using open-source elements), it seems likely that many SPs, large enterprises and platform players will look for packaged and integrated vendor offers.
  • Temasys focused on the emergence of "embedded communications". (Slideshare presentation here), with both background and client examples. This broadly aligns with my own view that embedded / platform-based voice and video will become ever-more important, and that WebRTC is the catalyst to take it to massmarket. Using an analogy with a "slice of pizza" it pointed out that WebRTC will manifest in various ways, such as mobile SDKs, It also covered an element I'm seeing more & more - plug-ins for IE & Safari to enable WebRTC before official support. A couple of interesting customer prospects/projects were highlighted - including embedding video into a social/dating app.
  • Cisco talked mainly from the perspective of collaboration - essentially talking about the evolution of the environment for its products such as WebEx and Jabber. It indicated upcoming support for WebRTC - not just for conferencing access, but also features such as "co-browsing" for areas such as B2C support, and "social collaboration". I've already seen a demo of a "guest access" version of the Jabber client, albeit one using a dedicated plug-in for creating SIP in the browser, rather than "proper" WebRTC. Apparently there's been a Jabber SDK for years, but few app developers have exploited it - there is a hope that WebRTC should solve that in future with a friendlier SDK. The speaker also referenced ongoing work on QoS mechanisms for WebRTC, both in SP and enterprise networks. He predicted 2014 as a year of early releases and a lot of work on UIs and related elements, with proper take-off next year.
A rival analyst from Ovum in HK presented his view that, while enterprise WebRTC might happen sooner, in the broader telecom services space it would be "confined to low end services" and probably had a 3-5 year time horizon, because of delays in standardisation & interoperability. He also tried (rather bizarrely in my view) to estimate WebRTC market size as a fraction of Ovum's figure of "amount lost by operators to OTT VoIP", ie how much can be "blamed" on this technology. I'm not 100% convinced that it's been properly factored into many general "voice and messaging" forecasts at all yet.

Overall, my perception was that he was seeing telco WebRTC through the lens of conventional services (SS7/IMS integration) which I agree will take a lot of time to emerge, but missing the various other operator involvements through enterprise units, developer platforms, digital services and so forth. This is why I advise telcos to focus no more than 20-30% of their total WebRTC effort & investment on areas like core/IMS integration.

Perhaps the most disappointing speakers for me were from Google, who resolutely pitched the company's enterprise cloud suite, with virtually no mention of WebRTC, even when prodded during the Q&A. It's possible that the developer/WebRTC/HTML5 team just weren't available to speak, but it was deeply disappointing that there was no evangelism, given what I've seen from them before. That said, the presentations themselves were pretty interesting on a standalone basis - just not especially relevant to the main theme of the events.

In my view, it is this lack of HTML5/WebRTC evangelism (and, perhaps, developer appetite for it) that may hold back Asia-Pacific development of WebRTC, outside discrete arenas such as service providers in Japan (eg NTT's Skyway platform) and big projects led by the likes of the events' sponsors. I'm not seeing an awful lot of grass-roots web and app development and tinkering with voice and video, in the same way we're seeing WebRTC innovation in the US, Europe and a couple of other pockets. It might be that the catalyst will be one of the big regional Internet players - Tencent, Alibaba, LINE and so on - adopting it first. (It's worth noting that the events were inexpensive to attend - $100 level or so - so that should not have been a major barrier to startups).

I'd like to see Google, Mozilla and others get more involved in WebRTC developer engagement in the region, trying to run the types of halfday tutorials or hackathons I've seen well-attended at events elsewhere. It would be nice to the other Western platform players such as Tokbox, Plivo and Twilio paying attention as well, as they tend to have good outreach to their existing communities.

Overall, I found both events interesting, and illuminating both about the general state of WebRTC and specifically where (some parts of) Asia is in its evolution. The co-organisers need credit for bringing the forums together so rapidly - both over Xmas and with Chinese New Year looming this week. Ideally, I'll get a chance to take the temperature in other parts of the region soon - especially Japan, South Korea and China, all of which seem to be putting a lot of attention on the technology in terms of research and standards participation, but with only limited visible output so far. On other general aside: in my view the companies based in Asia which are most vocal about WebRTC (thus far) are NTT, Temasys and Huawei. It will be interesting to observe which players come next.

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