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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Quick thoughts from WebRTC Expo last week

I've already written about the telco aspects of the big WebRTC conference & exhibition last week.

This is just a quick summary of some of the other things that have stuck in my mind. It doesn't cover all the companies or trends I saw - a more holistic analysis will be included in forthcoming updates of my paid WebRTC research. Also, there were sections of the event (in multiple streams) that I couldn't attend personally - hopefully there will be other articles on healthcare apps, for example.

Top of mind themes emerging are:

  • Customer service & call centre use-cases are everywhere, and definitely the most "commercial" part of WebRTC at present. The show featured a lot more integrated solutions, plugging WebRTC into existing platforms & industry structure - and adding in the power of the web in mashups for both agents & end-users. Various vendors had ways to analyse WebRTC speech, annote the agent's information via a browser etc. It all has an aura of "realness" around it, especially for finance and retail sectors.
  • There's a whole range of other actually-deployed services, especially around distance-learning/training, video chat and conferencing. That said, a lot of UC and collaboration use-cases are more "now WebRTC-enabled!" rather than "designed from the ground-up for WebRTC".
  • There's still a bit of a gap for innovative "pure WebRTC" use-cases that don't lean on traditional forms of communications, or just move beyond legacy telephony APIs. There's some fun music-jamming things, or a handful of games, but I haven't seen a (desktop) WebRTC-based equivalent of Chatroulette or anything clearly "viral". I'm also a bit perturbed that the adult industry seemingly hasn't bothered to turn up to the WebRTC party - usually it's first in line for any new web technology, and its absence is a bit of a puzzler.
  • Where WebRTC innovation does turn up, it may well be in specific industry verticals. We know about finance and healthcare and real-estate demos and deployments - but I'm starting to wonder about government, media, utilities and so on. That said, an interesting chat at a separate event yesterday opened my eyes some possibilities around public safety.
  • Many of the other use-cases are going to be heavily mobile-centric. This implies a need for 3rd party APIs/SDKs/platforms, as few consumer mobile apps use the browser, even on Android devices where WebRTC can be properly supported. On iOS, a 3rd-party approach is almost mandatory to embed voice/video into native apps. Purists complain that it "isn't proper WebRTC", but that's an irrelevant technical religious debate and doesn't detract from the opportunity. One company (Imagination) was even suggesting to rip out the Google/GIPS media engine from WebRTC and use theirs instead, as it's apparently mobile-optimised and can deal with the acoustic and silicon idiosyncrasies of smartphones better.
  • Actually, the WebRTC purists (especially the "web" bit) were wincing a lot last week. Plug-ins are back with a vengeance, with at least 3 companies offering products. Temasys and Priologic had a bit of a barney about closed-but-free vs. open-source. I'm not a security specialist, but I can appreciate why tighter controls over what accesses the camera/mic are desirable. In my view, the purists have a lot more wincing ahead, as even if Apple & Microsoft adopt WebRTC (see below), both have millions of legacy version users who don't update.
  • In a nutshell, RTCWeb (the IETF standard for nuts-and-bolts protocols) is looking ever-more important than WebRTC (the W3C API exposing all that stuff to web developers). Frankly, making the technology of nasty, complex bits of realtime communications infrastructure all work nicely, is rather more important than the precise way it's presented to developers. The "ends" of democratising voice, video & data into apps and websites and devices easily justify occasionally fudging the "means".
  • For companies or developers that don't have longstanding communications expertise, the route to adoption of WebRTC is likely to be via one a platform / WebRTCaaS provider of some sort. There's a lot to choose from - some voice-centric, some video-oriented, some integrated with existing call centres or messaging, some more interested in QoS / scalability, some more around pre-built apps, some more mobile-oriented and so forth. Each developer will have to navigate a long list to see which are the best fits with their specific needs.
  • Part of the problem is that some people read "MS & Apple don't support it" headlines and don't look beyond that. Most people I speak to don't realise what it is that all the WebRTCaaS API/SDK providers like Tokbox & Temasys & Requestec etc are actually doing. I think there needs to be a neater "category" and some serious evangelism - at the moment, I get the impression that the standards guys are a bit irked by their relevance and growing importance, just as they are with the SBC/gateway proliferation rather than P2P use-cases.
  • The big discussion about silos vs. integration with legacy systems, via gateways, is largely confined to voice-primary uses, given that's what legacy telephony, UC and contact centres do almost exclusively. Video communications today is basically enterprise conferencing, plus Skype/FaceTime/Hangouts/consumer mobile apps. That's not to say that video-gatewaying won't be more important in future - and will likely need a lot of heavy-lifting infrastructure - but today, interop is about plain-old phone calls.
  • Microsoft gave a presentation which (in a nutshell) said that (a) it's deeply engaged in this area, but (b) don't expect IE to support WebRTC 1.0 any time soon, except GetUserMedia APIs. There's a long list of other HTML5 bits & pieces waiting to be implemented by the IE team, so WebRTC has to battle for engineering resources against all of those, as well as undoubted pressure from Skype & Lync teams. However it appears ever-more enthusiastic about ORTC, which is showing so many signs of forming the basis of WebRTC 2.0, that various of the 1.0 advocates are getting a little irked at its jumping the gun.
  • Various people were pessimistic/optimistic about Apple. "They won't bother", "But they joined the working group", "They'll wait for the standard" etc. In essence - nobody knows, everyone's got a theory. And we'll probably all be wrong. Happy to give you my own guesses if you want....
  • Datachannel was around more as a "supporting actor" than as a headline act. Various use-cases had messaging or co-browsing or screen-sharing incorporated, but there seemed to be relatively few "pure" datachannel use-cases. I didn't see much M2M or IOT stuff around. A bit disappointing
  • I think some people are getting impatient and expecting things overnight. It is only literally 3 years since WebRTC was even spoken about publicly - I remember it from the eComm in San Francisco in June 2011, the day before my & Martin Geddes' first Future of Voice workshop in Santa Clara. It's worth noting that with Snapchat/AddLive & the probable imminent arrival of WebRTC Hangouts, as well as various customer service functions, we're probably not far off 100m active users. Much as I hate  "Fastest growing web/comms thing EVER!!!!" articles, I could probably imagine writing one in a few months' time. Let's just put it this way - I expect there are already more active WebRTC users than RCS or VoLTE users, and it's certain to stay that way.
Overall, I'd say the Expo was more "grown up", with real use-cases, but perhaps a dearth of truly surprising "Web whiz-bangs". And I still haven't seen a WebRTC-enabled drone, despite the cavernous hangar-like venue used for the event being perfect for one.


Doug Pelton said...

I like the reference to the "barney" between Priologic and Temasys. It was really a one way thing though we'd have used their stuff if we could review the code. I'm betting open source wins out.

Temasys' IE plugin is more mature than EasyRTC for IE plugin, but it is far from perfect. If history has it right the open source team wins.

Anonymous said...

Dear doug,

Your plugin code does not compile as-is, does not implement webRTC API, does not support basic security documented by IETF, and renders video 4 times slower than chrome. Open source does not replace or justify any of the above. Fix it first, then you can try to bring the discussion to closed/open source. If history has it right, the product that works win.

While temasys has provided priologic on the first day of the show a list of improvement points (to eric), we are still to hear from you. Your source code did not have any commit/improvement/modification for 17 days, bringing people to wonder if you are really serious about working on it and maintaining it. Your statement that our plugin is far from perfect is simply not substantiated. Some might call it FUD.

Bistri, quobis, genband, jistri, and many others including your customers (vetted rooms) are now using our plugin in production, publicly. This is how good it is.