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Thursday, July 18, 2013

WebRTC: we're starting to see the "big guns" emerge into the real world. First up, Zendesk, Vonage & Siemens

While the internal WebRTC world has seen a lot of famous company names attending conferences, participating in standards bodies, issuing press releases, or selling tools, SDKs or enablers to each other, relatively few have actually put out "powered by WebRTC" products into the real world for users.

Obviously, Google and Mozilla have both launched browsers, but that doesn't really count as that's still an "enabler" rather than an end-user product or service. There's also a ton of plucky startups like Bistri, Solaborate, Uberconference, Twelephone and others that have entered niches like conferencing and social networks, but none have yet hit maturity or been seen as major disruptions to the status quo in their sectors.

Buy the Disruptive Analysis WebRTC strategy report & market forecasts - now including the Q2 June 2013 update

To my mind, there are now three "traditional" big players that have walked the walk, and put WebRTC into their mainstream products:

  • Zendesk is a major player in SaaS-based customer support, enabling helplines or mail/IM interaction for big web companies and others. It has 30,000 customer companies and has facilitated support for over 200 million "customers' customers". It started to defaulting to WebRTC for voice calls a couple of months ago, on relevant browsers, while others still use Flash or other options. (It's worth noting that other startups such as Zingaya also have WebRTC-based B2C click-to-call buttons deployed for some large companies for support & CRM)
  • Vonage created quite a stir at the WebRTC Expo in Atlanta last month. As one of the best-known VoIP players spanning home phonelines to mobile apps, it is the first of the big consumer communications brands to adopt the technology openly. It is also the first massmarket company to commercialise a non-browser, app-integrated variant of WebRTC, optimised for working on mobile devices. (Good interview with the CTO here). It's also pitching to provide white-label/partnered plaftorms for telcos. Outside the main scope of this blog post, but Vonage is apparently using the WebRTC Native Stack - the code mostly intended for browser suppliers - to build WebRTC into a non-browser app instead. It also claims several million users already, on both iOS and Android.
  • Siemens Enterprise Communications is the first major enterprise UC player to throw its hat into the WebRTC ring with a (beta, pre-commercial) offering, called Project Ansible . At first sight, Ansible looks remarkably well-thought through, with social integration, fixed and mobile implementations, Hypervoice-type features ("Thought Trails") and, importantly, as much emphasis placed on design (courtesy of specialists frog) as engineering. The website discusses things like "joy of use" and "freemium models" - unusual for business comms tools from major vendors. Siemens has stolen a march on its big UC peers (albeit it with a beta) - despite Cisco being involved in WebRTC since Day 1, and an Avaya employee quite literally "writing the book". As yet, they haven't announced actual WebRTC products, though. Others like Microsoft are pursuing other strategies for now (Skype/Lync integration etc).
So what can we learn from this?

First, the "big guns" are now coming out of hiding (or at least, out of their labs). One is an outlier, two is a coincidence, but three is a trend. I'd expect many of the others in each of these categories' peer groups to start using WebRTC over the next 6-9 months.

Second, there are no telcos in this list. The closest we've seen to market-ready WebRTC offers from SPs are AT&T's API work, and Telefonica's OpenTok and Mantis tools/platforms for developers. However, we haven't yet seen an end-user telco WebRTC proposition, although Telefonica is "eating its own dogfood" with its use of the TokBox-powered Oscar videoconferencing application internally.

Third, a lot of real-world WebRTC use is going to be hidden. There may well be a bunch of companies - banks, healthcare providers and so forth - using WebRTC "under the hood" in their websites, perhaps using call-me buttons, or gateways from Thrupoint or Oracle or Genband or others, without trumpeting it to the wider market.

Fourth, although enterprise deployments are still in the vanguard for WebRTC, the emergence of Vonage's solution raises the possibility that consumer mobile apps will rapidly deliver millions of active users. It's not just Chrome and Firefox browsers that update easily or automatically - most mobile apps do as well. It only takes one major social network to adopt WebRTC - not even for "calling" but maybe something data-related or other video use-cases - and I'm going to be reworking my forecast model again. To my mind, Vonage has been the big light-switch for a lot of people - mobile WebRTC isn't necessarily going to be browser based, but embedded into apps.

Fifth, startups are going to have to either act fast or differentiate solidly. Incumbents in most WebRTC-centric applications aren't going to be taking years to procrastinate and respond to disruptors. This puts a premium on marketing, distribution and sales, especially where newcomers are pitching directly against established players - videoconferencing, I'm looking at you! (I'll reserve judgement on some of the telecom use-cases' ability to accelerate though: let's see what happens).

Overall, it's good to see well-known players like Zendesk, Vonage & Siemens adopting WebRTC. It gives gravitas to the market and gives something for a couple of naysayers to chew on. 

Let's see who's next: my money would be on the other UC vendors looking to spike Siemens' guns with brought-forward announcements, although we could conceivably see a VoIP/IM brand like Viber or Whatsapp surprise us as well.

If you're reading this and want more details about Disruptive Analysis' predictions for WebRTC, you should definitely buy the report - now available including the Q2 June 2013 update.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Broadband, Internet, Voice, Telephony, Messaging etc: Words & semantic matter

I had two conversations about fax machines and security-alarms yesterday.

Very 1980s, you might think. Yet both cropped up in conversations about FTTH, IP networks and the future of communications. My two discussions were with colleagues and peers Benoit Felten and Martin Geddes.

The conversations highlighted the importance of a few words that we use in the telecoms industry without really thinking what they mean properly. "Phone lines", for example, are not just used to make phone calls. Obviously they are used for DSL too (more on broadband below), but also fax machines, alarm systems, point-of-sale terminals, elevator emergency phones and all sorts of other things.

Historically yes, phone calls have been the main use of narrowband phone lines. But as telephony revenues fall ever lower, and we start to look at IP replacements via fibre or perhaps wireless, a bunch of other issues start to become disproportionately important.

"Oh, we can run fax over IP if it's really needed". Yes, true - but what about fire alarms & the elevators? Even if those systems can be reworked over IP, what is the cost of switchover? How much does a "truck roll" for the safety certification guy from Otis cost?

So it's worth being careful about talking about switching off the "phone" network, as it's not just about phones.

Similarly, I've often drawn a distinction between "voice" and "telephony". Apart from a little bit of push-to-talk, and maybe conferencing, telcos only do the latter. They don't have "voice" revenues, they have "telephony" revenues. There's a broad and growing set of voice communications models and applications that are nothing to do with phone calls. However, few executives - or regulators or investors - have quite woken up to this yet. Given the likely downward trajectory of telephone revenues (including mobile calls) over the next few years, this is going to become suddenly important.

The ways we manage, record, bill, present, regulate, intercept non-telephony voice is currently off of most peoples' radar screens. Do we need 911 and lawful-interception for baby monitors, business "hoot'n'holler" intercoms, networked karaoke or in-game chat? Do we count baby gurgles and songs in minutes and report the stats? Will PRISM have to listen to the snores of someone under remote-diagnosis for sleep apnea?

Broadband vs Internet is another critical semantic distinction. Internet access is just a very specific - albeit special - application of broadband access networks. For consumers, broadband today often also has carrier VoIP and IPTV delivered alongside Internet access, and in future we may get various digital lifestyle services, remote metering and so forth delivered, which do not transit the public Internet. This has implications for both how we quantify economic costs and benefits, but also how rules such as Network Neutrality get applied. Sloppy use of the wrong terminology can lead to poor investment and regulatory decisions.

The Internet/Web distinction is well known but also widely overlooked.

"Messaging" is a fairly nebulous concept too, as I've discussed before.

Lastly, we have "mobile" which can refer to mobile networks (3G/4G cellular vs. WiFi), mobile devices (smartphones yes... but are tablets "mobile"?) or mobile users (moving about vs. nomadic vs. stationary). Whenever you see stats claiming "X% of web use / data traffic / Internet users is mobile", you can guarantee that there's no clear definition. Frequently, people will pick whichever definition gives them the largest number to try to make their point stronger. The argument that a WiFi-only tablet that never leaves the sofa - never mind leaving the house - contributes to "mobile web advertising" is somehow "mobile" is ridiculous.

Mobile vs. Wireless is another troublesome one, especially as the telecom industry has historically designed complex and expensive networks specifically to meet the needs of people "moving about", but then happily sold most of their services - and gained most of their revenues - from people who are wirelessly-connected but stationary. That was fine in the past, but is starting to be a questionable assumption as perfectly-good wireless networks start to become available for free as an "amenity" rather than a "service".

We've also got "application" which can means 100 different things depending on who you're speaking to. User vs. subscriber is good one too.

Overall, I think it is incumbent on all of us to become much less sloppy with our telecom semantics. In the past, the world was simpler and we could get away with saying "voice" when we meant "telephony". Lobbyists could conflate Internet and Broadband, twisting words to hide flawed arguments against Neutrality.

But now, the industry is facing laser-like challenges, as well as narrow and well-defined opportunities. Picking the wrong words, making flawed generalisations and comparisons, confusing subsets and supersets - all these will lead to poor decision-making and flawed analysis.

Think twice before you open your mouth....and correct other peoples' sloppiness and push them for definitions of what they mean.